By relational trauma, we mean; when 1 parent or both parents (or caregivers) , either intentionally or not, create a prolonged state of fear so that the infant’s brain enters an enduring period of survival mode that adversely affects the growth and development of neural connections and pathways.


There could be a number of reasons for this;


  1. Parental (or caregiver) sexual abuse.
  2. Parental (or caregiver) death
  3. Parental (or caregiver) abandonment
  4. Parental (or caregiver) conflict (referring to regular conflicts between parents or caregivers in the infant’s environment)
  5. Parental (or caregiver) neglect
  6. Parental (or caregiver) aggression
  7. Or simply a lack of consistent parental (or caregiver) emotional availability


While the father is important, the mother, usually, is the primary source of comfort and security for the developing infant. So if the mother is the source of any of the above, then the effect is nearly always far more pronounced.


There’s also the matter of timing of any enduring period of survival mode. The developing brain goes through a sequence of making certain connections or “windows of neural connectivity”. Should it miss an important sequence or “window” then that connection may never have an opportunity to occur again. So timing, severity and importance of the relationship all play a part in how early relational trauma will affect the way our brains organise themselves.


Biological effect


In the face of an immediate problem of survival, the body has to react to its immediate environment and threat. It doesn’t want to be wasting energy on developing for a possible tomorrow because tomorrow may never come, unless the immediate danger is first responded to. Biological development is put on hold and all other unnecessary physiological processes may, also, be limited and energy is diverted to deal with the immediate problem. Importantly, this includes neural development and the neurons of our brain making their connections as part of a normal healthy development. Many areas of the brain can be affected by this developmental interruption, in fact, studies have show, in Romanian orphans suffering long term neglect, that overall brain volume is greatly diminished.

The key factor in this discussion is the development of and connectivity of key structures in the brain that are central to regulating and overruling the fear response. The effectiveness of these structures and their communication pathways is greatly diminished and their connectivity to primitive structures that would enable them to regulate, manage and tune down the primitive impulses instigated by primitive areas of the brain is impaired. In effect, the ability for the brain to turn off its fear response is damaged


Effect on emotional memory


It could be said that “LOVE” is programmed in to us through 100s of 1000s of years of our evolution. We are born to love. In fact making that first emotional bond, to the primitive structures of our brain (that are in fact the only structures that are indeed working at birth), is perceived as of primary importance to our survival. It is our first act of survival. In ancient times when our brains were still relatively animal in nature, the implications of making this emotional connection meant, literally, the difference between life and death. Our modern world now has support structures in place, both physical and emotional, for the event of our emotional bond with our primary caregiver being broken or dysfunctional. But the infant mind remains primitive, so the minds response is still primitive despite the improvements in our social support.

The key factor here is that our emotional, or intrinsic, memory is already functioning at birth. The intrinsic memory registers any failing in that maternal bond forming as a threat to survival brought on by a situation that threatened our destruction. It then applies defensive strategies when confronted by a reminder of this fragile and vulnerable state. These defensive strategies are habitual and autonomous and unavailable to our conscious awareness and/or explicit memory. They are unmodifiable and unregulatable by higher brain functions while they remain unconscious and autonomous.


Effect on cognitive narrative


Narrative is how our minds make sense of our world. We build a story of our lives where everything is explained in some way; our past, our present, and to some extent, our future is all wrapped up in our personal narrative. One thing this narrative does is maintain the illusion that we consciously and exclusively determine our lives. It claims ownership for, justifies and protects our behaviour and actions that helps maintain a self identity that provides a foundation for the core beliefs that we hold about ourselves. As such, everything that happens in our “story of self” has to fit in with a certain narrative that maintains our illusion of exclusive self-authorship.

The process of cognitive defence works on exactly the same principal as that of our immune system. Defensive strategies are initiated by autonomous processes in much the same way that our immune system might respond to a common cold; we neither consciously initiate our immune system, nor are we consciously aware of it as it mobilises defences to annihilate the virus that causes the common cold. The actions and behaviour of these cognitive defences are in direct contradiction with the illusion that we exclusively and consciously determine our behaviour and actions and this is a vital threat to the illusion of our narrative of self so our minds need to find a way to adopt this behaviour in to a consistent narrative of self. The belief that we control our actions and behaviour is central to our sense of identity and our personal narratives help support this sense of identity. This requires that, when we are acting and behaving in ways contrary to our will, our narrative finds a way to adopt these behaviours and fit them in with our experience of ourselves, often altering memory and changing our memory of experiences so that they better maintain our illusion that we are controlling our actions and behaviour.

Our cognitive narrative has to deal with all our experiences and find ways in which to explain those experiences, that maintains a sense of self. In the face of deeply traumatic experiences this can often involve adopting some highly distorted views of the self that may indeed threaten the self unless these “core beliefs” are repressed from total awareness. They would still play a part in our narrative, our way of understanding ourselves in the world, but their influence would be almost entirely unconscious. In cases of 7 categories above, core beliefs about ourselves might involve ways in which we, or something within us, was responsible for what happened to us; that we, in some way, brought about the experience upon ourselves. For instance, an infant abandoned by his or her mother might adopt a later narrative that manifests in adult relationships in which “If my mother didn’t love me enough to stay around, then how can I expect, or even hope, that anyone else would love me enough to stay around”, or, indeed, hold a core belief that “I am unlovable” or “There is (must be) something in me that makes me unlovable”.


When you combine the biological effect, with the emotional memory effect and the curse of a negative self narrative and realise that each feed off each other in a cycle of destructive self beliefs, behaviours and processes, you can better understand how a person that has experienced early relational trauma might become trapped in a pattern of behaviour that they cannot escape from. At least, until they recognise this pattern of behaviour in themselves and choose to do something about it.