Entropy Rules

Interpersonal Issue:

How Childhood Trauma Impacts Relationships

    Emotionally and physically traumatic experiences early in life can have enormous impacts on behavior, presumably via effects on the developing brain and the emotional and cognitive capacities that are affected (Filey et al., 2001). Frequent, prolonged unregulated stress associated with maltreatment of young children can devastate the psychophysiological regulatory capacities that make it possible to form healthy, trusting attachments. The absence of good social support exacerbates long-lasting emotion and stress dysregulation, and can lead to a tendency towards hostility in interpersonal relationships (Gaensbauer & Siegel, 1995; Lyons-Ruth & Jacobvitz, 1999). Indeed, maltreatment has been associated with compromised and potentially harmful peer relationships, and difficulties in maintaining romantic relationships (Cicchetti & Valentino, 2006; DeBellis, 2001/2005; Teicher, 2002).
    Insecurely attached children tend to be more socially withdrawn, display less sensitivity and willingness to interact with peers and friendly adults, and are liked less by classmates (Simpson & Belsky, 2008). Compromised marital quality has been shown to be related, directly and indirectly, to attachment status of offspring (Belsky & Pasco Fearon, 2008). Yet, quality of adult attachment in the marital relationship likely depends on key social-cognitive skills that may have been compromised by early interactions with caregivers. With less adaptive socio-emotional functioning, it is likely the maltreated person will communicate in a notably less well-regulated style in stressful contexts (e.g., during a relationship conflict) compared to non-maltreated peers, which may lead to further difficulties forming healthy relationships. This is unfortunate, since healthy relationships could ostensibly provide the scaffolding for reparative development of social-emotional regulation and social communication, as well as support; however, it can be hard for a maltreated person to cultivate such relationships with a dysregulated emotional behavioral style that is prone to aggression, often resulting in rejection by healthy peers (MacDonald et al., 2008).
    Emotionally responsive parents help children reflect on and understand their emotional experiences and the emotional experiences of others, but abusive and neglectful parents rarely interact with their children in these ways; this emotional neglect stunts developing theory of mind capacities that would enable the child to be socially successful in the future (Colvert et al., 2008; Pears & Fisher, 2005; Cicchetti, Rogosch, Maughan, Toth & Bruce, 2003). Greater social support and more resources facilitate warmer and more sensitive parenting while economic hardship, occupational stress, marital discord, and psychological distress are precursors of hostile/detached parenting, leading to greater risk of further child maltreatment (Simpson & Belsky, 2008).
    In short, toxic maltreatment-related stress engenders fundamental differences neurophysiology, negative biases in attention and memory, and difficulties in emotion regulation. This sets the stage for a cascade of risk factors leading to greater engagement in risky behavior starting in adolescence, greater risk of developing psychopathology, including difficult to treat types of pathology such as personality disorders. Ultimately, relationship functioning is compromised, possibly leading to unhealthy relationships and impoverished social support systems.

⇲ About The Author

Robin Hertz, MA is currently in the process of completing a PhD in Clinical Psychology at the University of Oregon.