The child who receives relatively consistent, sensitive responses from caregivers develops a basic sense of safety in the world, an understanding of others as responsive and trustworthy, and an understanding of the self as worthy of care.
— Treating Traumatic Stress in Children & Adolescents, Blaustein and Kinniburg

relational safetY- infancy

As helpless babies we are entirely dependent on well attuned and attentive adults. These relationships save our physical lives. At a very deep neurophysiological level, relating and connecting is safety.

Just as important as basic survival is what our early years teach us. When life goes well we establish an authentic self, a profound sense of safety in that self and in others.

  • When I cry there is a response - I know I exist
  • My body needs food, I feel this as hunger, I do not want this feeling, I cry to be fed, I am fed - my internal experience has been mirrored and verified; I am reassured that I know what I feel and thus who I am
  • When I cry out in hunger I can cause you to feed me; when I cry out in pain I can cause you to stop hurting me - I have agency in my world
  • When I cry to be fed, I am usually fed - The world can tolerate me and my needs, and generally considers me worthy of care; it is generally safe
  • When I cry to be fed, I am usually fed - The external world is predictable
In her ... connection with other people, the [child learns] the basic operations of trust, autonomy, initiative, competence, identity, and intimacy.
— Judith Herman, Trauma and Recovery

Relational Safety - maturity

With maturity comes an increased capacity to self-sooth, to mentalize or 'think about', to remember and predict & to meet one's own needs. These capacities allow us to delay gratification, increase independence and narrow the power difference between us and our carers.

Explorations of our burgeoning independence, age appropriate informed consent and power sharing characterise relationships at this developmental phase - often called the 'terrible twos' by stressed parents!

As we mature into adulthood we continue to fine tune our relationship skills. We learn who to trust, and who not to trust, when and how to reach out for help and when not to. 

Paradoxically, the healthy personality when viewed in this light proves by no means as independent as cultural stereotypes suppose. Essential ingredients are a capacity to rely trustingly on others when occasion demands and to know on whom it is appropriate to rely.
— John Bowlby, The Making and Breaking of Affectional Bonds

complex trauma

Complex Trauma describes a relational dynamic which is the opposite of relational safety.

Complex Trauma describes an experience in which power is hoarded, vulnerabilities exploited and the capacity to consent, eroded and erased.

Shown below are examples of complex trauma and what it teaches.

  • When I cry there is either no response or no appropriate response - I doubt if I exist; am I real?
  • My body needs food, I feel this as hunger, it is something I do not want, I cry out in hunger, I am not fed - my internal experience has not been mirrored & verified; I doubt what I feel & therefore who I am.

I must now choose which world to believe - my internal or my external world. Because I am dependent on my external world I must either deny my own reality or manage two mutually exclusive realities.

  • When I cry out in hunger I can't cause people to feed me; when I cry out in pain I cannot cause you to stop hurting me - I have no agency in my world
  • When I cry to be fed, I am sometimes fed, sometimes ignored and sometimes deliberately hurt - The world can't be relied upon to tolerate me or my needs, and may consider me unworthy of care; it is potentially unsafe
  • When I cry to be fed, I am sometimes fed, sometimes ignored and sometimes deliberately hurt - The external world is unpredictable and potentially unsafe; all change is now infused with danger
The child trapped in an abusive environment is faced with formidable tasks of adaptation.

She must find a way to preserve a sense of trust in people who are untrustworthy, safety in a situation that is unsafe, control in a situation that is terrifyingly unpredictable, power in a situation of helplessness.
— Judith Lewis Herman, Trauma and Recovery


To play, to learn, to create.... to an act of faith. A leap into the unknown. It is our relational safety nets - our trust in ourselves and others - which make this possible.

Without our safety nets fear and unconscious survival systems dominate.

One's existence may narrow to a project of risk assessments and risk avoidance; a project not of thriving but of surviving.

These survival skills are transferable and can be put to excellent use in a variety of situations. They are the same skill set taught in the military and to emergency service personnel.

However, our survival systems and the skills they facilitate, have evolved to cope with short term danger. To make chronic use of them will almost always result in life limiting and sometimes life ending, damage.

This damage is the subject of Trauma Adaptations.