Relational competence refers to a child’s ability to engage in beneficial caregiver and peer relationships, and navigate other social interactions. Trauma-affected and vulnerable children frequently have difficulty forming and sustaining relationships. This may be due to the absence of an early nurturing relationship with their primary caregiver. Nurturing relationships provide the context within which a child learns about reciprocal relationships. Also, in early adolescence, the neurological development of the brain areas most crucial to successfully forming interpersonal relationships may be hindered by traumatic stressors.
If, however, children in the child welfare system are able to form and sustain supportive relationships with peers and adults, and other protective and coping factors are strengthened, their ability to cope with trauma can be greatly enhanced. Child welfare agencies should strive, through effective trauma-based screenings and assessments and trauma-informed systems, to strengthen the child’s capacity to successfully build meaningful relationships with others, including the child’s caregivers, by emphasizing the development and employment of critical interpersonal skills like cooperation, seeing another’s perspective, boundaries, and empathy.
While this skill-building is taking place, agencies, caregivers, and others must continually strive to enhance the child’s protective and coping factors by surrounding the child with caring, supportive adults; listening to the child; keeping the child’s world as predictable as possible; and ensuring that the child has a secure attachment relationship. The goal is not only to enhance the child’s self-esteem, but to make the child feel as psychologically and physically safe as possible.