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What Is Relational Trauma?: An Overview

Our brains continually form maps of the word – maps of what is safe and what is dangerous.” – Dr. Bessel van der Kolk

Definition of Relational Trauma: (Quote from, the website of Ron Doctor, P hD): Complex or Relational Trauma can arise from prolonged periods of aversive stress usually involving entrapment (psychological or physical), repeated violations of boundaries, betrayal, rejection and confusion marked by a lack of control and helplessness.  Common situations include being bullied, harassment, physical, sexual and emotional/verbal abuse, domestic violence and substance abuse, stalking, threats, separation and loss, unresolved grief and neglect (Doctor, R., 2017).  

Furthermore, relational trauma (or as some may define as Complex-PTSD), encompasses relationships where there exists a profound “violation of human connection” (Herman, 2015) in which healthy attachment is impaired and in some cases either severed or at minimum, injured significantly. Relational trauma is found in circumstances of child maltreatment, sexual abuse, sexual harassment, rape, psychological and emotional abuse, bullying, domestic violence, narcissistic abuse, abandonment, rejection, complex grief, traumatic loss and other forms of attachment betrayal or disruption (Heller, 2015).

Symptoms of Relational Trauma are often manifested during adult years, long after exposure to chronic, sustained  maltreatment as a child. Other forms of long term trauma exposure can include kidnapping, slavery, child exploitation rings, being taken hostage, prisoner of war, and exposure to political or neighborhood violence and also highlighted by an uneven power dynamic by the perpetrator(s). Trauma expert Peter Walker (2013) discusses the treatment of relational trauma in his seminal book Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving. He describes symptoms of Complex-PTSD/Relational Trauma as including hypervigilance, alterations in affect and difficulty regulating emotions, a chronic and pervasive sense of hopelessness, trauma bonding, dissociation, a sense of avoidance or alienation from safe relationships, and alterations in self-perceptions (Walker, P., 2013).  A child exposed to long term relational trauma and presenting for therapy could be defined as having experienced a Developmental Trauma Disorder, according to trauma expert Judith Herman (1992), as yet to be specifically defined in the DSM-5 (2015).

In my private practice, I work with survivors of trauma at many life stages. Many (but certainly not all) are new parents, entering a new life stage whereby they are learning how to nurture a new generation, albeit confronting prior traumas that may have occurred during their own childhoods. Having a new baby often is the trigger for the new parent of an awakening of prior hurts sustained during childhood (for example, prior child abuse or traumatic losses). It is often the time when trauma work in psychotherapy can be very beneficial, while new parents simultaneously work on transitioning to profoundly novel roles.

Trauma is a fact of life. It does not, however, have to be a life sentence.” Peter A. Levine, PhD

Help for Those Impacted by Relational Trauma:  The good news for those exposed to trauma, whether single-incident or long-term and chronic manifestation, trauma-informed and compassionate psychotherapy is available. Now more than ever, psychotherapists are trained in understanding the complex underpinnings of resilience and post-traumatic growth, even in the aftermath of unspeakable horror (Malchiodi, 2016). Fortunately, we know so much more now than ever about neuropsychology and how the brain heals.  Psychotherapists are learning how EMDR (Shapiro, 2001) in additional to expressive arts, mindfulness based cognitive therapies, somatic therapies, and other interventions are comprehensive and evidence-based in their merit towards long term trauma recovery (van der Kolk, 2015). With compassionate and qualified psychotherapy and motivation by the client, the survivor has all the hope in the world to heal.



** please note: this blog article was adapted from the author’s original blog post : Schneider, A. (2017). Retrieved January 15, 2018, from

Beware of the Hook: Narcissists Tend to “Hoover” During the Holidays… (2017, November 24). Retrieved December 03, 2017, from

Herman, Judith (2015). Trauma and recovery: the aftermath of violence from domestic abuse to political terror.Basic Books.

Levine, Peter (1997). Waking the tiger: healing trauma. North Atlantic Books.

Loneliness rooted in relational trauma. (2016, May 30). Retrieved December 03, 2017, from

Malchiodi, C. (2016, September 27). Expressive Arts Therapies and Posttraumatic Growth. Retrieved December 03, 2017, from

R. (2011, October 26). RonDoctor. Retrieved December 03, 2017, from

Schneider, A. (2017). Retrieved January 15, 2018, from

Shapiro, F. (2001). Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR): basic principles, protocls and procedures. New York: Guilford Press.

van der Kolk, B. (2015). The body keeps the score: brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. NY, NY: Penguin Books.

Walker, P. (2013). Complex PTSD: from surviving to thriving: a guide and map for recovering from childhood trauma. Lafayette, CA: Azure Coyote.

What Is Relational Trauma?: An Overview

Andrea Schneider, MSW, LCSW

Andrea Schneider, MSW, LCSW is a licensed clinical social worker in private practice in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is currently the Lead Counselor at Cal State Maritime Academy, where she counsels college students and leads Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) at the integrated Student Health Center. In her private practice, Andrea provides psychotherapy for individuals experiencing trauma and loss. She is also a writer, educator, and podcaster. Website:

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APA Reference
Schneider, A. (2018). What Is Relational Trauma?: An Overview. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 20, 2020, from


Last updated: 22 Jan 2018
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