Children who experience trauma and dysfunction in their household often struggle to learn the same boundaries and behaviors that so many others seem to take for granted.
As a child is growing and developing, they look to their caregivers as examples of how to interact with the world around them. If those caregivers behave in dysfunctional or unhealthy ways, chances are high that children will learn to mimic these same unhealthy behaviors, even if unintended. “For many, the effects of abuse manifest in dysfunctional interpersonal relationships as the result of attachment disruptions at pivotal points of childhood development.” In this article, we shall discuss how childhood trauma may affect adult relationships.
If you’ve experienced trauma during the first years of your life, you might look at and experience adult relationships in a certain way.
Perhaps you don’t feel safe all the time, or maybe you face conflict with hesitation or avoidance. These are all-natural and valid possibilities.
If you’re feeling this way or experiencing relationship challenges, know that you are not alone.
In the United States, more than two-thirds of children have experienced some form of trauma, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).
Across the globe, 1 in 8 adults have reported childhood sexual abuse, and 1 in 4 have reported physical abuse, reports a 2017 studyTrusted Source.
Indeed, childhood trauma isn’t as uncommon as you’d think.
Even though it may feel challenging at times, healing is within reach and, along with it, better relationships and a higher quality of life.
Table of Contents
What is childhood trauma?
Childhood trauma is an umbrella term. It refers to any significantly distressing experiences you may have been exposed to as a child.
- physical violence
- sexual abuse
- natural disasters
- loss of a loved one
- foster care
- any other event where you felt scared, helpless, horrified, or overwhelmed
Because we all experience life in different ways, what may be traumatic for you may not be for someone else. What really matters is how you perceived the situation and how you feel.
“If children have enough nurturing and support, they are much less likely to experience trauma-related symptoms,” says Christie Pearl, a licensed mental health counselor, and certified EMDR therapist.
“On the other hand, if the parents or caregivers do not provide enough support, or if they were the source of the trauma, the child is more likely to experience negative effects from that experience,” she says.
Complex trauma, which is repeated exposure to distressing events or experiences over a period of time, can be particularly pervasive.
Childhood trauma can impact relationships because we learn about emotional bonds early in life. So, when people we depend on for survival hurt us or aren’t present, it can impact how we view human connection.
Age can play a role, too. Our brains develop rapidly from newborn to toddlerhood. So, in general, the older you are when trauma occurs, the less it may impact Trusted Source your future relationships. For example, if you were 14 instead of 4.
But this isn’t always the case. Many other factors are at play, like the intensity of the trauma, how long you were exposed to it, and how often it occurred.
Another consideration is whether you had other satisfactory relationships around you at the time, like family members, caring teachers, faith leaders, or other adults who felt safe with you.
Impact of childhood trauma on adult relationships
There are myriad ways that childhood trauma could impact the way you experience adult relationships. This isn’t the case for everyone, but it may be the case for some people.
Your early experiences help shape what you believe about the world: It’s a secure place versus it’s a scary place, or perhaps somewhere in between.
This is where attachment theory may come into play: the way you relate to others to establish or avoid intimacy.
According to this theory, our adult bonds tend to mirror those we first established with primary caregivers.
Based on this, there are four main attachment styles:
Someone with this attachment style is open to establishing trusting and close relationships with other people. They’re not hesitant about loving and being loved. They don’t avoid intimacy and tend not to depend entirely on someone else.
Anxious or anxious-preoccupied
Those who establish this attachment style may experience significant fear of being abandoned and a need to be validated constantly. In addition, they may feel their partner rarely cares enough for them.
Someone with this attachment style may experience a fear of emotional intimacy. This might lead them to avoid getting too close to others or to distrust their significant others. As a result, they’re often emotionally unavailable.
People with this attachment style may crave attention and love from their significant others but at the same time avoid emotional intimacy on their part. They may need to feel loved and attended to, but they usually avoid developing close romantic relationships.
The last three attachment styles are considered “insecure attachments.” These may pose unique challenges in adult relationships.
If you feel like you identified with any of these last three styles, it’s important to be patient with yourself as you begin to heal. Attachment styles aren’t something you choose to do every day. They stem from early experiences that were out of your control.
“These are not conscious choices,” Pearl says. “These responses are our brain’s capacity to adapt and survive a non-nurturing environment.”
And they can be worked on and overcome.
It’s not uncommon to struggle with trusting others if you’ve had certain early experiences in life.
You may find it hard to trust that your partner is going to be there for you when you need them, or trust them when they say they’re going to respect your needs and boundaries.
You might also doubt you’re loved, even if your partner is expressive about it.
Childhood trauma may also affect the way you communicate with others as an adult.
Your communication style may reflect what was modeled for you as a child.
For example, if you grew up in a home with frequent yelling matches, you may reenact these exchanges with your partner. You may believe this is how you address conflict in a relationship.
You may also find it challenging to verbally express your emotions, or even talk about what’s important to you.
Some communication styles that may be related to how others communicated with you or others early in your life include:
- Passive: indirect, self-denying, or apologetic
- Passive-aggressive: emotionally dishonest and self-enhancing at the expense of others
- Aggressive: inappropriate for some situations, blaming, controlling, direct, and attacking
Communication styles are something you learn and develop over time. In the same way, you can unlearn them and learn how to communicate in different ways.
In some cases, you may enter some relationships that mimic or reinforce what you learned as a child. This is called trauma reenactment.
You may find yourself repeating cycles from your early life and placing yourself in situations where you may be hurt again emotionally or physically.
This isn’t a personal choice. It may be a defense mechanism that leads you to seek something that feels familiar. It may also be an unconscious attempt to heal through facing the same challenges.
“If that trauma remains unresolved, [people] unconsciously seek the comfort of the known, even if it is painful,” says Dr. Nancy Irwin, a clinical psychologist in Los Angeles.
Emotional intelligence (EQ) refers to the ability to perceive and manage your own emotions and those of other people in different situations.
In other words, it relates to awareness and emotional regulation.
People who have experienced childhood trauma may have a harder time developing these aspects.
Think of it this way: Childhood trauma may have challenged the development of all the tools you need for your emotional toolkit.
Some examples of how EQ may manifest in relationships include:
- collaboration and cooperation
- emotional self-awareness
- ability to express how you feel
- ability to identify what the other person may be feeling
- tendency to evaluate your reactions
- ability to pause before reacting
- ability to link your thoughts and emotions with your behaviors
- ability to link your behaviors with other people’s emotional reactions
Someone who has experienced childhood trauma may have difficulty developing one or more of these EQ skills.
But EQ is a skill set that can be learned and developed at any age. It can be added to your toolkit as you begin to heal.
Mental health conditions
Research shows there may be a link between childhood trauma and the development of certain mental health conditions, like anxiety and depression.
All of these may affect your interpersonal relationships, on some level.
Only a trained mental health professional can diagnose these conditions or how some of these symptoms affect your relationships.
Working on trauma resolution
Healing from childhood trauma is possible. There are many ways you can start your path to feeling better and establishing more satisfactory relationships.
Psychotherapy, also called talk therapy, can be a great way to process your past and examine how they may be impacting the present.
Having the support of someone who specializes in trauma makes a difference. They’ll be able to listen to you without judgment and guide you step by step to better relationships and increase self-awareness.
Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR)Trusted Source is considered the first-line treatment of trauma.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), particularly imagery rescripting, can also help address traumatic reactivity and trauma-related thoughts and memories. In fact, researchTrusted Source shows that this type of CBT may be beneficial for treating childhood trauma as well.
You can locate a therapist who specializes in trauma through the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies Find a Clinician tool.
Awareness can also be a personal path to healing. Here are some books that look at trauma from different perspectives or explore important aspects of relationships:
- “The Body Keeps The Score” by Dr. Bessel van der Kolk
- “Attached” by Dr. Amir Levine and Rachel S.F. Heller
- “Keeping the Love You Find” by Dr. Harville Hendrix
- “How to Be an Adult in Relationships” by David Richo
- “If You’re in My Office, It’s Already Too Late” by James J. Sexton, ESQ
- “Extraordinary Relationships” by Dr. Roberta M. Gilbert
You might want to share the specifics of your traumatic experience or you may not. Both options are valid and entirely up to you.
If you feel ready to share, you may explain to those around you that you’re aware that your childhood trauma may be impacting your relationship dynamic, and you’re actively working on yourself.
If you feel ready and safe, you may also consider sharing bits and pieces of your story with your partner or friends to provide some context. You don’t need to disclose everything at once. You may try it one step at a time and see how it feels.
Consider Brené Brown’s advice here: “You share with people who’ve earned the right to hear your story.”
But remember, you don’t have to share your story at all to heal.
If you and your loved ones are open to it, relationship therapy may be a great resource to consider, too.
It’s important to fill up your own cup as you work on healing your relationships.
While working with a licensed trauma-informed therapist can help you a great deal, you might also want to additionally engage in some self-loving activities that complement your healing process.
There are some science-backed lifestyle choices you can consider to improve your overall quality of life.
Some of these include:
- Diet. A balanced diet with whole, nutrient-dense foods may help you feel better in general.
- Exercise. At least 30 minutes of moderate exercise, five times per week, can boost your health.
- Mindfulness. Some practices like yoga or meditation can provide relaxation time.
- Sleep. Getting 7 to 9 hours of sleep every night can help decrease brain fog and chronic pain.
- Reflection. Setting aside a few minutes every day to journal or process your day could help you work on self-awareness and emotional regulation.
In summary, childhood trauma can affect your adult relationships, but it can also be overcome. It’s important to realize that many of your current relationship challenges are not a personal choice. You do deserve love and peace.
Some of the coping strategies you learned from childhood may have been appropriate in the past. After all, they helped you survive. But it may be time to leave them behind.
“It becomes a problem only later in life when the behavior no longer fits the circumstances. It’s like using old technology from the ’90s to engage with the internet today… it doesn’t work well,” says Colleen Hilton, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Seattle.
“It’s important to remember that the behaviors served a very important purpose at the time. They are just no longer relevant today, so we need to learn new strategies and ways of behaving in relationships in the present circumstances,” she says.
I hope you find this article helpful.