Developmental Trauma – 3 Ways to Build Secure Healing Relationships

Trauma has become a household word used in everyday vocabulary.  The real deal is anything but an everyday experience, however.  The word trauma usually evokes images of threatening or devastating events such as near-death accidents, assaults, wars, or natural disasters. More common, and sometimes overlooked, are the experiences that involve persistent doses of fear and helplessness within the daily relationships or environments of a person’s life.  Especially when these experiences occur early on in life (childhood or adolescence), there can be unique ways a growing young person is impacted.   Two factors that become interwoven are:

  • The direct hit of an experience of helplessness and terror due to a real or perceived threat to one’s well-being. This may be a single event or an ongoing accumulation of many experiences.
  • The inherent vulnerability of the still-developing physical, intellectual, emotional, and social capacities of a young person. These capacities predict a person’s ability to cope and are continually shaped by their environment, so they are partially formed by the trauma.

This is often called developmental trauma.

Because the young person’s life is still woven around relationships they are dependent on to meet needs, the very concept of any relationship often becomes a scary and threatening experience.  This can be carried into adulthood if there is not adequate support to heal and support the capacity to enter, keep and grow healthy relationships.

The capacity to heal and change is always a possibility throughout life. If you are a helper or someone supporting a loved one who carries such impact, there are several ways you can really focus your efforts to become a secure relationship foundation.

1. Make sure you say what you’re doing, and do what you’re saying

  • Building the ability to trust means taking risks. If you want to invite someone to take risks on trusting you, make sure your words and body language match.  Think about what message you want to send, and consider how you can convey that.  For example respecting needs for personal space yet staying open with your body language, inviting with eye contact (not too much!) and gentle with your tone of voice all send a message of “You can talk to me or be near me and I’ll respect you.”  In contrast, a harsh tone of voice, folded up arms and legs or avoiding or over-doing eye contact can send a message of “I’m watching you, or I don’t know if I want you near me”. No matter what your actual words are, non-verbal communication always speaks louder!
  • Be clear that there aren’t conditions attached to connecting with you and that they aren’t responsible for taking care of you. Often a person who has survived developmental trauma has learned that they need to take care of other people to ensure their own survival.  Encouraging a person to contribute to the relationship without it feeling like an obligation often takes practice.  They also may need practice at trusting they can accept support and care from you without any cost.

2. Honesty and authenticity are essential

  • Be clear and honest about your availability. It is important you say only what you can do and not make promises you can’t keep. Having firm and clear limits that you can explain is actually relieving to someone especially when you follow through on upholding your boundaries.
  • Set and keep boundaries. Be willing to acknowledge and work to repair any relationship ruptures. For example, having to cancel an outing because you get sick may trigger a reaction of abandonment from the other person.  Be clear about what you need to do to tend to your own needs while showing empathy for the fear and vulnerability this may stir up for the other person.
  • Think about what you truly and sincerely appreciate about this person. Communicate this honestly.  A person who has been hurt in relationships before will often have a super-sensitive radar for dishonesty.  Be gentle and frank.

3. Bring all of yourself to the relationship and see all of them

  • It can be easy to see only the struggle or the damage in someone who has been hurt repeatedly. Remember they have also survived!  There is so much more to a person than their scars. Get curious about all the hidden or subtle strengths that ensured they are here today.
  • Share your joys. One of the saddest legacies of any traumatic impact is that it can shrink a person’s capacity to enter into and experience joy.  Sharing opportunities to laugh, be creative and encourage playfulness and levity is one of the most healing ways a secure relationship can build health.
  • Notice the small and subtle changes in the person you are supporting. As a person experiences a more full relationship, they are able to know themselves more and grow from the traumatic experiences they survived.  Having someone reflect these changes back helps deepen this knowing and self-compassion.

The healing journey from developmental trauma is often long and winding. A person can untangle the impact from the rest of who they are, especially if surrounded by secure, caring, and solid relationships.

For more FREE RESOURCES on this topic and others, visit our free resources page.


Vicki Enns

MMFT, RMFT – Trainer, Crisis & Trauma Resource Institute

Vicki is a co-author of CTRI’s book, Counselling Insights – Practical Strategies for Helping Others with Anxiety, Trauma, Grief, and More. This book is available on our website.

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