Understanding the Impact of Complex Relational Trauma on the Family: How Long-Term Residential Treatment Can Help

Complex relational trauma is repeated mistreatment that an individual suffers at the hands of someone else. It has a deep impact on how the victim develops relationships and on their emotional, psychological, behavioral, and even physical health. Families as a whole can struggle significantly when just one person experiences trauma. But the family can also play an important role in supporting and healing the victim. Long-term, residential care that involves the family is crucial in healing from relational trauma.

Relational trauma has been described as a deep “violation of human connection.” When a person abuses, betrays, rejects, bullies, neglects, or otherwise mistreats another person, it can lead to complex relational trauma in the victim. The far-reaching impacts of this violation include psychological, emotional, and behavioral impacts as well as extreme difficulty developing strong, healthy relationships.

The impact on a family unit is devastating, but there is hope. Long-term treatment focused on facing the trauma, coping with it, and learning to build good relationships can repair much of the damage.

What Is Complex Relational Trauma?

Relational trauma is any sustained period of mistreatment that causes distress and lasting psychological effects. Sometimes also called complex trauma or complex relational trauma, this can take many different forms including physical, sexual or emotional abuse, neglect, bullying, betrayal of trust, abandonment and separation, and rejection.

Trauma can arise from a single event, but complex and relational trauma is repeated and lasts for a significant period of time. Both types of trauma can be damaging, but the latter usually has a more lasting negative impact, especially on how an individual relates to others.

Most cases of relational trauma occur in childhood in the form of neglect or abuse. This is often the most damaging, because a child is in a vulnerable position of brain development. Children are learning from adults how to relate to others and develop important attachments. Complex trauma can derail these important attachments and relationship skills.

Adolescents and adults can also suffer from relational trauma. Many have already experienced childhood trauma and are more vulnerable to mistreatment as adults. Anyone can inflict this kind of trauma, but it is most often from those we are closest to, including family and intimate partners.

The Effects of Complex Relational Trauma

Complex relational trauma experienced at any stage of life can have far-reaching effects. Childhood trauma usually has the most lasting impact and often manifests in adulthood. Some of the signs of and impacts of relational trauma include:

  • Difficulty forming healthy relationships
  • Avoiding intimacy or close relationships
  • Feeling the need to be self-sufficient
  • Neediness and a strong fear of abandonment in relationships
  • A strong need to be perfect or to avoid failure
  • Putting the needs of others first
  • Being hypervigilant and reactive
  • Difficulty managing emotions
  • Dissociation as a defense mechanism
  • Poor self-regulation and impulse control

Relational trauma and its effects also ripple out to include many complications in adolescence and adulthood, especially when it is left unaddressed and untreated. These can include substance use, chronic physical illnesses, mental illnesses, self-harm, and suicide.

The Impact on the Family

To someone who has experienced relational trauma, relationships with other people do not represent safety and warmth. They are instead scary, risky, and dangerous. This has a huge impact on families when even just one person has suffered from this kind of trauma. Another child who is not being directly mistreated may even suffer trauma as an effect of a sibling being abused or mistreated, for instance.

Many of the lasting consequences, though, are seen when these children become adults and start their own families. Their unresolved issues from relational trauma seep into family lives and their relationships with spouses and children.

The child of a parent who experienced relational trauma can be impacted by seeing the trauma occur, such as in the case of domestic abuse. Or the child may suffer from seeing and experiencing the repercussions of past trauma, a parent’s emotional, behavioral and psychological symptoms. In either case, the traumatic experiences become generational, passing down the negative impacts.

Research indicates that the consequences of being raised by a trauma survivor can include anxiety, depression, aggressive behaviors, and guilt. A child who sees a parent experience trauma is also at an increased risk of developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

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Residential Treatment for Complex Relational Trauma in the Individual

The effects of relational trauma do not simply go away. An individual who has experienced it must get long-term treatment to face the trauma in a safe environment and to learn how to process and cope with it. This kind of treatment also helps a person develop better relationship skills and build healthy connections to other people.

The focus of treatment in residential care in this situation is trauma-focused therapy. Trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy, for instance, helps patients face traumatic pasts and learn practical ways to change their negative thinking, behaviors, and reactions. Another useful therapy for trauma is eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EDMR). This involves specific physical movements guided by a therapist that help the patient reframe and detach powerful negative emotions from traumatic memories.

Not only can residential treatment provide patients with individual treatment plans led by professionals with expertise in trauma, it also offers a wide range of other types of care that support therapy. These include medical treatment, alternative therapies, group support and social skill practice, holistic care, and aftercare programs to support a transition back home.

Residential Treatment Includes the Family

Relational trauma is not an issue that can be completely resolved in an individual without considering their closest relationships. Involving the family in therapy is essential to healing. Research has found that when someone struggling with this kind of trauma lacks a strong support network and positive relationships to rely on, they will have more issues and have a more difficult time healing. Children and adults suffering from relational trauma can be helped by the presence and involvement of caring family members, during and after treatment.

A good residential treatment facility will understand the importance of family in care. The experienced professionals planning treatment will also know when and how it is appropriate to involve the family. This may mean having structured family sessions for therapy and involving family members in more informal events. For relational trauma especially, family-centered therapy and treatment is essential for helping an individual heal and develop good relationships going forward.

The impacts of complex relational trauma are significant and far-reaching. They include more than just the victim, extending to everyone close to them, especially the family. There is hope, though, because treatment can help. The best option for such a complicated mental health issue is to enroll in long-term residential treatment that includes the family as part of the healing process.

If you’re concerned about a loved one and believe they may need residential care, we can help. BrightQuest offers long-term treatment for people struggling with complex mental health illnesses and co-occurring disorders. Contact us to learn more about our renowned program and how we can help you or your loved one start the journey toward recovery.