A child’s relationship with parent(s) is the very first and most personal relationship formed. This makes the relationship on of the strongest the child will experience in their life, whether a positive or negative relationship. And the repercussions of that relationship will affect nearly every relationship that child will experience for the rest of their life. So, what happens if the relationship is a poor one? Can you trauma bond with a parent?
Yes, children can form a trauma bond with a parent. In fact, because of the nature of the relationship, it is a common trauma bond relationship. A huge imbalance of power exists because the child is dependent on the parent for survival as a baby and dependent on the parent throughout childhood. It is the closest of relationships early in life. And because it is the first and most prevalent relationship, often it will be difficult for the child to see how unhealthy the relationship is and make the necessary adjustments for healthy relationships as they grow up and make their way in the world.
Let’s take a closer look at what the dynamics of a child’s trauma bond with a parent and how it affects them throughout their life.
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With No Boundaries, Trauma Bonded Children Have No Way to Relate in Healthy Ways
Generally speaking, children who have formed a trauma bond with abusive parents are trained to have no boundaries. There is no distinct line where their rights begin and their parents’ rights end. Everything the child does is considered an extension of the parent(s). Whatever they do is either based on what the abusive parent wants them to do, the parent living vicariously through the child, or even what the child may want but only if it is the same as what the parent wants.
If the child wants to do something that the parent is opposed to, the world will stop in its tracks. The parent will be angry, demanding, and controlling, all for the sake of getting their child to “fall back in line.” And as a general rule, the child will back down very quickly because they know that incurring the wrath of that parent will cause them more grief than if they just give up their decision.
I remember all the times I wanted to do something but at the end of the day, knew that I would not be able to do it because there would be hell to pay. At the time, it was more important for me to keep the calm in the house. But I also remember talking with my younger sister about those things. We both knew we would see our plans realized and talked about them with each other. But we knew it wouldn’t be for as long as we were in the house. Both of my sisters and I were all counting down the days until we got out of the house because we knew that that was when our lives would finally begin.
Unfortunately, we all branched out of the house with partners that were abusive. Because we had been raised in such an unhealthy home, none of us were able to see the red flags of a toxic relationship.
Trauma-bonded Children Feel Something is Wrong
I remember from my earliest memories always feeling like something was wrong, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. This is because as children in an abusive home, we don’t get to see healthy relationship up close. I did get glimpses, with teachers who knew things weren’t right and took me under their wing. Or even with neighbors on occasion, although most of the neighbors stayed aloof because they didn’t want to get caught “poking the bear.”
I also learned a little bit about healhty relationships on tv. Granted, there was a whole lot of toxicity mixed in with it because of the crap that gets produced. But just getting those little bits was enough for me (and my sisters) to dream of a healthy life in the future.
I never realized the depth of what was wrong. I knew specific things about my childhood home that were very wrong and did not carry the pattern on throughout my adulthood. But there were a lot of nuances of abuse that I never picked up on. And those continued to be a part of my life until I finally started seeing a counselor in January of 2016. It was at this point that a whole new world was opened up to me and I started to see the depth of abuse and toxic behavior that surrounded me for literally my whole life up to that point. Healing was finally beginning.
Common Symptoms of Trauma-bonded Children
The symptoms of trauma bonded children are actually similar to adult trauma bonded victims. But the big difference is that children cannot protect themselves in the same way. I know that as a teenager I tried to get some help (as did my sisters), but it always ended with the helper saying that I just needed to stay under the radar and bide my time until I could get out of the house. That is exactly what I did. My older sister did the same. My younger sister was able to get out earlier because she was emancipated at the age of 17.
The most significant symptoms of children who have a trauma bond with a parent are:
- Blaming themselves for negative interactions. “I should have…”
- They fear leaving their childhood home because they don’t have the confidence they can land on their feet. (In my case my sisters and I were eager to leave but all moved on to depend on men that continued the harmful patterns.)
- They likely have physical issues stemming from the abuse–stomach issues, headaches, panic attacks, nightmares, and the like.
- They have trouble trusting their own instincts.
- They easily accept the blame because it is easier than defending themselves, even when they know they are right.
- They are afraid to say “no.”
- They are careful not to “call out” their abuser(s) because they don’t want to “pay for it.”
- They always put their abusers’ needs above their own.
- They make their friends think that everything is fine. They keep the abuse very much to themselves.
- They feel invisible, which they later take comfort in because if they can stay invisible, they can stay under the radar.
- They try to fix everything, usually before anyone knows there’s a problem so there won’t be repercussions if things “get out of hand.”
- Their sense of reality may be out of sorts.
- They may be afraid to criticize their abuser.
- They want to have sympathy for their abuser–they often show the grace that they so desperately want for themselves.
For a list of the 25 signs of trauma bonding that adults experience, check out this article.
Trauma-bonded Children Can Heal Very Quickly With Treatment
The good news is that when children of any age (up through 18 and beyond) get treatment for the trauma bond of a parent (or any other trauma bond for that matter), healing is relatively quick once it begins.
The most important treatment is finding a counselor who the trauma bonding victim can relate to comfortably, but also make significant progress in healing. For children, this can be a tall order, but not impossible. If you need to visit a few counselors before finding the right fit, it will be so much better in the long run.
Also, allowing them to talk about it with a couple of adults they feel comfortable sharing their heart with while staying safe is icing on the cake.
If you are working with a child that has suffered a trauma bond (or any trauma for that matter), Trauma-Saurus Rex: A book about Trauma for Children by Denise Austin is an incredibly good book to share with them.
For adult children who experienced trauma bonding of a parent during their childhood years, Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents: How to Heal from Distant, Rejecting, or Self-Involved Parents is an excellent resource. It really helps adult children to put their childhood in the correct perspective and allows them to move on from the residual effects of those early years.
For more of the best resources around the topic of narcissism, codependency, and trauma, check out my list of handpicked resources here. You will also find a large selection of free printables that you can use as posters, encouragement, or reminders of the healing you are experiencing.
Note: If you feel like you are in immediate physical danger, call the National Domestic Abuse Hotline at 800-799-7233 or visit them online.
Do you think you may be involved in a trauma bond relationship? Take this quick test to get more information!
Where are you or your loved one(s) in the process of healing? What have you taken comfort in? Please feel free to share in the comments below or if you need to keep it private, you can share with me here. Blessings and hugs to you,
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