Recovery from trauma takes place within a “relational home”

Recovery from trauma takes place within a “relational home”

24 August 2016
Recovery from trauma takes place within a “relational home”

Tanya Ward argues that healthy and supportive relationships are often central to recovery from trauma.

Tanya Ward is currently a Bachelor of Social Work Honours student and has been a Lived Experience Representative for COPMI (Children of Parents with a Mental Illness) since 2011. She has also represented FaPMI (Families where a parent has a mental illness) and the Northern Area Mental Health Service as a Carer Representative. The views expressed in this article are Tanya's.

This article is part of a recent series on mental health recovery. Access the related practitioner resource and webinar recording.

Trauma, and recovery from trauma, are often perceived as psychological or physiological experiences; things that happen solely within individual minds, brains or nervous systems. While the intrapersonal elements of trauma and trauma recovery are essential, they are only a part of the story. In this short article, I draw on both research and my own experiences to argue that trauma and recovery always occur within interpersonal contexts.

Practitioners who adopt an intrapersonal, individualised approach to recovery can do much to help individuals regain a sense of power, safety and self-worth. These positive thoughts and emotions are often eroded during traumatic experiences and when re-experiencing unprocessed trauma memories, which remain encoded in the brain in the form of images and sensations (Howe 2005; Ringel & Brandell 2012). Contemporary directions in trauma recovery now also involve body-based therapies that assist clients in accessing trauma memories when verbal narration and cognitive reflection are not available to conscious awareness (Ringel & Brandell 2012, p. 8). 

My personal recovery from developmental and complex trauma was a deeply personal, psychological and physiological experience that required an individualised therapeutic approach to help me process thoughts, beliefs, emotions and bodily sensations associated with my traumatic experiences. However, I did not perceive my recovery simply as a personal experience; rather, it was a dual process, which occurred at both the personal and interpersonal levels.

The psychotherapist and author Robert Stolorow (2007, p. 10) suggests that “trauma is constituted in an intersubjective context in which severe emotional pain cannot find a relational home in which it can be held”. A “relational home” is a context in which painful emotional experiences can be shared, understood and “held” by others, and integrated into one’s experience. Unable to find a relational home as a child, I was unable to process the pain associated with the traumatic experiences I endured until adulthood. My experience of trauma was enduringly traumatic until I found a Psychologist – also a fellow trauma survivor – who was able to offer me a relational home 

Healing experiences can be found in many places: a gentle neighbour who listens without judgement; in a community support group who share your pain with empathy; or in a government initiative such as COPMI (Children of Parents with a Mental Illness), which provide a safe and respectful place to assert, challenge and voice concerns with fellow citizens, often with a shared history. In my role as a Lived Experience Representative for COPMI, I found another safe relational home that contributed to my recovery journey. 

Individuals recovering from trauma may also be brothers, sisters, parents, grandparents, aunties or uncles, whose recovery journey will impact those around them.  As a parent, my recovery journey from trauma impacted my children. At first this impact was negative, but over time my own recovery had a profoundly positive impact on my children’s lives. This was in part due to the help of a relationally-focussed psychologist and family therapist who acknowledged and considered our family’s psychological needs in addition to the impact and influence my trauma recovery had on my family and wider social systems. 

Trauma recovery is perhaps best perceived by practitioners as an individual experience that occurs within a relational context. By drawing upon bioecological, intersubjective and family systems approaches, in addition to individually-focused  practice approaches (e.g., cognitive behaviour therapy), practitioners can help to provide the relational home in which individuals can process their psychological and physiological trauma reactions. In this way, they can help provide their clients, and those surrounding them, with a holistic trauma recovery experience.

Further reading


Howe, D. (2005). Child Abuse And Neglect: Attachment, Development and Intervention, Palgrave Macmillan, New York.

Ringel, S., & Brandell, J. R. (2012). Trauma: Contemporary Directions in Theory, Practice and Research, Sage Publications, California.

Stolorow, R. (2007). Trauma and Human Existence: Autobiographical, Psychoanalytic and Philosophical Reflections, The Analytic Press, Taylor & Francis Group, New York.


The feature image is by tunnelarmr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.


When a child like myself and my sister was born to a mother who had had Trauma herself and developed mental illness at the age of 16 hrs in the 1920's where there was little treatment one does not have much hope. Born to a very depressed mother being premature double birth at 900grms in the 1940's the one thing we did not get from our jostle catatonic mother was Proto-Converstaion where this is a baby's first connection with the mother the mirroring imitation of course we never got that besides being in incubators for months. Then followed by mothers memory loss for two years from shock treatment that she had, had for years even during her pregnacy. As children we experienced sexual abuse not by our Father but Grandfather and out Fathers unresponsivenes to us or any affection. We also had the disapearence of a brother when we were 8 years of age when he was 23 years training to be a barrister in London doing his Aricals he had matriculated at the age of 14 years. Our Father lost complete interest in us altogether and our Mother got even worse. We had to care for her even more getting her to shock treatment to the local lunatic asylum in Goucester where we now lived having had 7 moves in our short lives. No one knew what we were going through no one asked. I developed an eating disorder they would not know it was back then but I felt sick when it came to eating food at school and weighed the age of a 6 year old at the age of 10yrs they thought I had TB. Despite this we looked normal out there we covered up oh yes we both learnt at a very young age to put masks on so to speak. No one knew what was going on behind the closed door. Our parents never had one friend we never had one friend come into any house we lived in. I am now 71 years it's had collateral impact on both of our lives that can never be measured and if people ever heard the rest of our collateral impact they would never ever believe how we are still alive. However we are both facing major physical health impacts from these life styles that are not addressed or even looked at the effects of growing up in theses families. I'm working with two researchers at Thelethon Kids Institute where we are working on a research project to do with COPMI Children. They asked me to work with them due to some research I sent to one of them whom I've worked with over 15 or more years. The researcher was a Profesor from Bath University in the UK I have always looked for research that has a broader social context than is framed in the outcomes of the COPMI programs. "Mental Health and Chld Poverty. Whilst I had also got research that also contained how this effected the child's growing brain and development also from the UK. This is so overlooked in all the COPMI projects and in particular to single parents who by way of becoming single parents may be because of domestic violence or other. The researches I'm working with and the one whom has worked with me befor knew I was really from my own valorised experience and that of others and having had my own COPMI NGO new that for to long we have been ignoring the very factors that contribute to the children of parents who have a mental illness who often find themselves on the DSP or Newstart or out of work due to developing mental illness and where the breadwinner is our of a job. The decline is often instant the family lose their home that's been their stability moving into rentals that have no stability kids being moved from one school to another. Yes I had this described to our organisation many times and more. My case was also DV and now elder abuse I've seen this happen in many families. But we very rarely see these stories of the grief and pain behind this hidden social epidemic that becomes integenrational transmission of trauma. I've got so many stats that prove this and I have to ask why is it that and the pointy end of the spectrum we are not really addressing these serious issues.
Ceinwen Davies
Thank you for sharing this, Ceinwen.
Ken Knight

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