Theory & Trauma


Relationship-Based Practices represent an evidence-supported approach to helping traumatized children and youth overcome the negative impact of trauma on development and emotional well-being. Children who have been hurt in the context of the caretaking relationship—through abuse or neglect—can only begin to heal in the context of a supportive relationship.

The far-reaching consequences of trauma are not easily overcome. To a large extent this is because children who have been hurt by someone they trusted are understandably reluctant to trust again. So they often withdraw from or lash out at new people who want to help them. Relationships now seem dangerous.

Adults who want to help—who want to offer traumatized children and youth a new kind of relationship—often find themselves confused about what  to do and how to help. Some worry that if they try too hard or move too quickly to get close, that children may feel that they, just like the adults who hurt them, can’t be trusted to understand that sometimes people just want to be left alone. On the other hand, adults often worry that if they keep a distance and don’t try to help, that the children will never have a chance to learn that relationships can be warm, loving, supportive, and fun.

Fostering Relationships is designed to give adults who want to help some tools to make their work a little easier and to increase their chances for success.


Trauma refers to an event that overwhelms the child’s capacity for integration. This means that children can’t comprehend traumatic events—they don’t understand what has happened to them. We often talk about traumatized children being “flooded” with feelings—it’s not just that their emotions feel too big to manage, but that they seem to come from nowhere and without warning.

Complex trauma refers to chronic exposure to traumatic events, often in the context of caregiving relationships. The impact of being hurt or neglected by the person who is supposed to care for and protect you can have a profound and lasting impact on all aspects of development. Even when children can describe a traumatic event: “she pushed me down the stairs” or “he touched my private parts,” it doesn’t mean that the child understands the event, precisely because abuse and neglect do not make sense.

Repeated traumas have a cumulative effect. The first trauma weakens the child’s system and slows development, leaving the child more vulnerable to the next trauma, which further diminishes the child’s capacity to manage the assault. In this way, even a small emotional injury can cause significant harm, if it comes after others. This helps us to understand why the successful handling of complex trauma is, in and of itself, a complex undertaking that requires patience and demands an appreciation for the impact trauma has on typical developmental patterns.

Suggestions for ways of helping children and youth regain their developmental footing make little sense unless they are grounded in a developmental context.