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6 ways to develop an effective relationship with someone with a traumatic past

Updated: May 16, 2021

The results of the Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) study revealed the explicit connection between childhood trauma and later adverse health effects (Felitti, 1989). Sadly, supportive research shows that psychological and physical trauma can have profound effects on development and well-being throughout the life-course. "Because traumatic events in childhood occur at key psychosocial and biological stages of development, their impact can continue into adult life" (Greenberg & et al., 2018). However, there is hope! Although people who experience childhood trauma are at risk for various adverse health outcomes, there are opportunities for personal growth, which can counteract ACE's effects. One such counteraction is developing harmonious and healthy relationships with others. There are many ways they can grow healthy and meaningful relationships. If you are struggling to connect with someone dealing with a traumatic childhood past, here are six practical ways to develop a better relationship with them.

1- Don't judge. To get to know someone, you must spend time with them. Simply knowing a

person's past does not mean you know who they are. Relationships are build based on time and interest. Ask them questions to identify common interests. Find ways to build a relationship on shared ideas, curiosity, passion, and services.

2- Pray for them. Recent studies identify the importance and benefits of prayer. In a review

of literature published in Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, the authors list five significant categories for the reasons and topics of prayer (Jors & et al., 2015).

(1) Disease-Centered Prayer. Disease-centered prayers were directly related to patients' illness and were the most commonly mentioned prayers in the research literature. (2) Assurance-Centered Prayer. The second most widely noted prayers were assurance-centered prayers, which provide people with the confidence and comfort that their God does and will continue to take care of them even in the face of disease or wrongdoings. This prayer type includes prayers for protection, strength/hope, trust, gratitude, forgiveness, and guilt.

(3) God-Centered Prayer. God-centered prayers are those which are specifically focused on the relationship between God and the person. In these prayers, the needs of the person are secondary to God's greatness. (4) Others-Centered Prayer. These studies examined people praying for others. These prayers included prayers not only for family and friends but also for others like their physicians, neighbors, etc. (5) Lamentations. This prayer type is the least commonly reported topic of prayer. This category included prayers of fear and complaint and doubt. Prayers of fear and complaint addressed in part the question of theodicy, that is, why their good and almighty God allows bad things to happen (Jors & et al., 2015). Research shows different types of prayers are negatively correlated with depressive symptoms. More specifically, praying for others and their well-being produces happier emotions. (Perez & et al., 2011).

3- Demonstrate ways for them to know you care. Public Library of Science (PLOS) Journal published research that demonstrates the severity of the trauma correlated positively with various components of empathy. These findings suggest that childhood trauma experience increases a person's ability to take another's perspective and understand their mental and emotional states and that this impact is long-standing (Greenberg, 2018). Furthermore, empathy can be taught. As you're developing in a relationship, increase your empathy and compassion level. Like anyone else, individuals who experienced trauma enjoy being around people who show they care with empathic words and compassionate actions.

Empathy and compassion are vital components to inquire. Patel & et al., 2019 identified the following key behaviors to demonstrate empathy:

  1. Sitting (versus standing) during conversations

  2. Detecting non-verbal cues of emotion

  3. Recognizing and responding to opportunities for compassion

  4. Non-verbal communication of caring (e.g., eye contact)

  5. Using verbal statements of acknowledgment, validation, and support

These behaviors were found to improve patient perception of physician empathy and compassion and can be utilized by anyone to enhance empathy and compassion.

4- Don't give up on people. It takes time to develop a healthy relationship. When necessary, give people the time, space, and respect they need to choose to build their relationship with you. Never force, deceive, or push them into developing the relationship. Always respect their decision.

5- Provide them with useful resources. If they share with you that they are having a hard time, provide them with resources to help. The proper use of Scripture quotes is an excellent tool to share. When appropriate, provide them with reading materials, contact information, and support groups that they can go to.

6- Express gratitude and thankfulness. Find opportunities to remind them how grateful you are that they are part of your life. Make sure your words are honest, genuine, and compassionate.

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Felitti, V. J., Anda, R. F., Nordenberg, D., Williamson, D. F., Spitz, A. M., Edwards, V., . . . Marks, J. S. (1998). Relationship of Childhood Abuse and Household Dysfunction to Many of the Leading Causes of Death in Adults. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 14(4), 245-258. doi:10.1016/s0749-3797(98)00017-8

Greenberg, D. M., Baron-Cohen, S., Rosenberg, N., Fonagy, P., & Rentfrow, P. J. (2018). Elevated empathy in adults following childhood trauma. Plos One, 13(10). doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0203886

Jors, K., Büssing, A., Hvidt, N. C., & Baumann, K. (2015). Personal Prayer in Patients Dealing with Chronic Illness: A Review of the Research Literature. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 2015, 1-12. doi:10.1155/2015/927973

Patel, S., Pelletier-Bui, A., Smith, S., Roberts, M. B., Kilgannon, H., Trzeciak, S., & Roberts, B. W. (2019). Curricula for empathy and compassion training in medical education: A systematic review. Plos One, 14(8). doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0221412

Pérez, J. E., Smith, A. R., Norris, R. L., Canenguez, K. M., Tracey, E. F., & Decristofaro, S. B. (2011). Types of prayer and depressive symptoms among cancer patients: The mediating role of rumination and social support. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 34(6), 519-530. doi:10.1007/s10865-011-9333-9

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