How Does Childhood Trauma Affect Relationships?

How we understand, feel, and behave interpersonally in adulthood stems from our experiences in our earliest relationships. As children, caregivers help us make sense of our experiences. They translate a physical reaction, such as crying, into a conscious feeling, thought, or desire. They do so by mirroring the child’s emotion, marking it with exaggerated facial, vocal, or gestural displays, and responding to it sensitively. They also put into words their own reactions, modeling ways to make sense of a child’s behaviours, and allowing the child to understand that people experience situations differently. These interactions foster what is called “mentalization”, which is the capacity to understand oneself and others in terms of possible thoughts, feelings, wishes, and desires. 

And what about children who did not benefit from such interactions with caregivers? In cases of child abuse and neglect, the child’s physical experiences are often ignored or met with anger, resentment, and irritation. These responses leave a child with the impossible task of processing his experience alone, therefore compromising the development of mentalization. It is not surprising that many adults having suffered maltreatment in childhood often encounter difficulties in their adulthood relationships. They may often feel hurt or angry in relationships as their understanding of others’ intentions or feelings is either lacking or inaccurate, leading to conclusions drawn by their own painful experiences in childhood. Therefore, behaviours such as withdrawing from a situation may be perceived as an intentional rejection, when, in fact, it may result from other intentions or needs. 

At CFIR, we can help you develop your mentalization skills by taking a step back from situations that trigger strong reactions. By learning how to think about how you feel and feel about how you think, we can support you to create stronger bonds in your relationship with others. 

Lorenzi, N., Campbell, C. & Fonagy, P. (2018). Mentalization and its role in processing trauma. In B. Huppertz (Ed) Approaches to psychic trauma: Theory and practice (p. 403-422). Rowman & Littlefield. 

Camille Bandola, B.Sc., is a counsellor at Centre for Interpersonal Relationships working under the supervision of Dr. Dino Zuccarini, C.Psych. She is currently in the fourth year of my doctoral program in Clinical Psychology at Université du Québec en Outaouais.

CFIR OTTAWA is moving to its new home JULY 4TH, 2022. Click here for more details.