When we enter any relationship, we assume the person will think, feel, and behave in ways that replicate our life experiences. This includes all kinds of assumptions and expectations about how the other person will act and how the relationship will unfold. Sigmund Freud named it transference. When Freud initially encountered transference in his therapy with patients, he thought he was encountering patient resistance, but came to learn that he was witnessing the unconscious redirection (projection) of feelings from a primary relationship during childhood. And analysis of the transference was actually the work that needed to be done. Today, therapists prefer to call it emotional baggage.

If this wasn’t complicated enough, when trauma survivors enter a new relationship, they bring an even more complex issue to the relationship: traumatic transference.

What is traumatic transference?

Author of Finding Your Ruby Slippers (2017), Lisa Ferentz, tells us traumatic transference occurs when a child assumes that the abusive dynamics he experienced in the family of origin will be reenacted with and by a parent/caregiver. There is a vulnerability that we may demean, belittle, humiliate or ridicule him; use or exploit him; disapprove of him; manipulate, intimidate and punch him; betray him; reject or abandon him. Entering a relationship with those kinds of fears and concerns certainly explains why building the relationship can be slow going.

Adoptive and foster parents/caregivers should understand the ambivalence, trepidation, and testing that our children resort to is because they are waiting for the inevitable (rejection or abandonment) to happen. Ferentz says: “I think when you are waiting for stuff to happen, there is a part of you that unconsciously tries to set it in motion so that you have some control over it.”

You may find that your child thinks of the worst possible scenario and believes “this will prep me for it.” Because they are holding this fear of what might happen, there are times they are going to be provocative, setting in motion their worst fears, thinking this is a way they can have some semblance of control.

Therefore, the child may approach interactions with…

  • Feelings of anxiety
  • A fear of rejection / abandonment
  • Suspicion / inability to trust
  • Defensiveness
  • A history of betrayal
  • Anger
  • Bravado
  • Hyper-vigilance.

It manifests in the attachment dance as…

  • Acting regressively / being invisible
  • Acquiescence / trying to please
  • Acting provocatively or seductively
  • Being manipulative
  • Being defensive
  • Accusing the caregiver of “not caring”
  • Distorting the caregiver’s intentions or words
  • Baiting to provoke anger.

The latter is revealed as “stay a step ahead, look for vulnerability in the other person, then hit them with it.” Many adoptive or foster parents/caregivers will identify with this behaviour as “pushing your buttons.”

Other ways traumatic transference may be played out relationally, include:

  • Fear of abandonment: waiting for the shoe to drop, acting out to create revulsion, projecting self-hatred (often called the negative feedback loop, whereby he seeks out evidence to confirm his beliefs), rejecting the parent/caregiver before he/she can reject him.
  • Sabotaging the relationship: unable to accept compliments (minimizes or downplays it because it is interpreted as grooming or just doesn’t resonate), affection can create dissonance or confusion, there is a need to maintain power and control, creating an environment that feels like the parent/caregiver is on an emotional roller coaster.
  • Faux dependency: expects parent/caregiver to read his mind, suspicious of intent (assumes there are emotional strings attached), self-sufficient and isolated (can be misread as “difficult” and “uncooperative”), asking for help is a sign of weakness or failure.
  • Ambivalence: desperately wants connection but fearful of abandonment, desires support but fearful of dependence (hence the faux dependence), need for intimacy but afraid of being unsafe, wish to talk but fearful of threats (or how information may be used against him).

So, how as parent/caregivers can you tackle transference?

First up, establish safety. Understand that the way in which your child behaves within the relational field is not a reflection of you. Rather than going on the defensive or personalizing mistaken beliefs about relationships, simply notice these thoughts and emotions as information about prior relationships in the child’s life that were dysfunctional, abusive, or exploitive. In addition, it may be helpful to:

  • Identify and normalize transference (“this is the way you learned to do relationships”). Testing, especially, needs to be reframed as a necessary and inevitable part of relationship building.
  • Work on earning/building trust.
  • Then vs. now reminders (“I know that was real then, but now you are safe”).
  • Empower child to use his voice when triggered.

But wait, a parent/caregiver’s emotional baggage impacts the relationship, too!

It is now widely recognized that people working with or raising trauma victims may unconsciously influence the therapeutic relationship through countertransference reactions. The origin of countertransference, according to Wilson & Lindy (1994), lies in unresolved issues in the parent/caregiver’s own childhood development. Freud named it impediment theory: that is, it can get in the way (or halt) your child’s progress.

There are four possible reactive modes:

  • Empathetic disequilibrium: feelings of uncertainty and vulnerability, unable to modulate emotion (that is, be the wise mind), self-doubt and questioning (“what am I doing?), loss of self-compassion, somatic discomfort (over-arousal of nervous system), switches into role-reversal (whereby the child takes the lead role). Note: Disequilibrium may culminate in ‘vicarious trauma’ or ‘secondary trauma’ (more recently referred to as ‘compassion fatigue’).
  • Empathetic withdrawal: parent/caregiver gets triggered and checks out (exudes a “blank screen” façade), keeps a degree of distance, reloads rather than listens (interrupts), intellectualizes issues.
  • Empathetic enmeshment: needs to ‘rescue’ the traumatized child, becomes over-involved and over-identified, discards appropriate boundaries.
  • Empathetic repression: rationalizes, minimizes or denies feelings related to or caused by the trauma, refuses to delve into emotionally charged issues (preferring to “sweep it under the carpet”).

So, it is important that adoptive and foster parent/caregivers do their own trauma work. By being aware of countertransference means you can differentiate between what is ‘your own stuff’ versus what is coming up in the relationship field that is a cue for what your child is feeling. With self-awareness as your guide, you can help your child navigate traumatic transference and offer the reparative experience of a relationship that can be genuinely safe and supportive. From this secure base, your child can begin to open up to the possibility that other people in the world can be trustworthy, too.

© Felicia Stewart, 2019

Recommended reading:

  • Ferentz, L. (2017) Finding your Ruby Slippers: Transformative Life Lessons from the Therapist’s Couch.
  • Hedges (2000) Terrifying Transferences: Aftershocks of Childhood Trauma.
  • Wilson, J. & Lindy, J. (1994) Countertransference in the Treatment of PTSD.