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3 Tips for Curbing a Trauma-Induced Parenting Style

Danielle Dahl, Lead Contributor

If you are a survivor of childhood trauma, who now has children, it has probably occurred to you that your past plays a role in how you parent. If you are like me and read a lot, you might have chosen to read tons of information on how to be a better parent than the kind that you had. I admit, I still read an article or two (or 17 articles and five books, …but who’s counting), about parenting styles.

Parenting can seem like a scary rollercoaster of a ride when we are trying to parent through our traumatic childhoods. Still, the good news is that there is a lot of information available on how to curb our trauma-induced tendencies.

There are three types of parenting styles most commonly discussed: permissive, authoritarian, and authoritative. It can be a slippery slope for parents with anxiety (and other trauma echoes) to answer the question, “Which type of parent are you?”

Honestly, I feel like which type of parent I am depends on the situation—my mood, the mood of my children, and whether the moon is full. I consider my parenting style “trauma-induced.” Maybe, I am not ready to pick a label, whether it be permissive, authoritarian, or authoritative, because, at times, I have been all three.

What does the permissive parent look like

You know the permissive parents well because your child seems to hang out with their offspring solely. You probably hear:

 “Well, so-and-so’s mom lets her stay out past 11 even though she has her learner’s license.”

“You know whose parents let her go here or there.”

“What’s her face, doesn’t have a bedtime.”

You are not alone if you have wanted to strangle so-and-so’s, you know whose, or what’s her faces mother. Have these people heard of a rule or setting a few boundaries? It sure doesn’t sound like it from the stories that you hear! But I realize, with some introspection, that I have been this mom on occasion. She likes to rear her, carefree, “Fine! Do what you want” head when I am waging war. 

War that I am losing because my child inherited every ounce of my stubbornness and then managed to do an even better job at being stubborn than I do! It might also feel like a war zone because our arguments trigger my PTSD and leave me emotionally drained.

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My childhood trauma taught me many lies, one of those being that everyone ALWAYS has to be happy with me. Being a people pleaser is problematic when dealing with a teenager, or really, a child of any age. People-pleasing is the first trauma-induced tendency that can make parenting even more challenging.

What does the authoritarian parent look like

The authoritarian is your real identity if you could only see yourself through the eyes of your child. The fact that you require them to be home at 11 because they are driving (and are legally required by the State of Montana to be home), makes you a controlling monster who missed her calling of drill sergeant.

When your child says things like that to you, all the echoes of the verbal, physical, or emotional abuse, you experienced as a child come flooding back with a vengeance. To you, a controlling drill sergeant says things like, “You should be seen but not heard.” Most likely, your parents made almost all decisions for you (even attempting to do so when you were legally an adult). Fear was probably the weapon of choice when it came to finding ways to ensure that you were compliant and obedient. 

The second lie that childhood trauma whispers in your ear is that you are doomed to continue the same cycle. In your quest to break the cycle of abuse, you will find that your parenting style is the exact opposite. The fear that you will turn into your mother is real. (I know I swore a hundred and one times that I would never tell my children they had to do something because I said so!)

Paradoxically though, you find yourself parenting from what you know. The entire process of parenting can seem ironic and a little like a fool’s game. Breaking an abuse cycle is a complicated endeavor, but it is possible to do (even when you resort to telling your child to do something because you said so…).

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What does the authoritative parent look like

This is the Goldilocks of parenting styles. Authoritative parenting is not too hot or too cold, too big or too small, or too controlling or too enabling. It is that perfect middle ground of setting limits while letting them fly free. These parents can reason with their children and not just expect obedience for obedience’s sake.

Most parents genuinely love their kids and want what is best for them. I won’t say all, because I know firsthand that isn’t true, but most. The authoritative parent is often warm and intuned to the needs of their child.

This type of parent has no problem with boundaries, while I seem to struggle constantly. If I am too strict, it reminds me of my grandma’s physical and verbal abuse  If I am too lax, I feel like I am a horrible parent, and I am just as bad as my mom. Everything I have ever read over the course of the last 17 years has stressed consistency, and some days, I know I miss the mark. 

These are the reasons I struggle with picking a lane when it comes to parenting styles. It sounds like I am an authoritative parent (which is what I strive for), but the problem is that it is hard to be consistent when anxiety is pulling you in multiple directions. Here are a few things that will help!

Three things you can do today

Tip #1 Love Yourself

I wish I had figured it out earlier in my parenting journey. It is ok if you are not the “perfect” anything. Perfect is fake, and you will never achieve it. You are going to make mistakes, but be kind to yourself when you do. You may be their parent, but you are only human too.

The pursuit of the perfect parenting style will inevitably lead your child to believe you expect perfection from them. We tried to make gingerbread houses when my daughter was four years old. I bought two, one for us to do together, and one for decoration that I would do alone so that it was perfect.

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It looked nothing like the box, despite all my effort, and I had an anxiety attack and threw it in the trash can. We never did gingerbread houses again. It was the same with the Christmas tree and Easter eggs. I was unknowingly teaching my child that everything she did had to be perfect.

Tip #2 Go to Therapy

I would have rolled my eyes at this six months ago. I proclaimed to my therapist on my first visit that I did not need to be there because I had all the trauma that happened to me as a child “under control.” She explained that control and processing are two different things, and she was right.

Go. I came across a meme the other day that said:

Therapists aren’t people who you pay to pretend to care about you; they are people you pay to teach you how to care for yourself.

Remember tip #1…

Tip #3 Communicate with Your Child

Active listening and acknowledging their feelings is the key here. Confirming that you hear all the reasons why “seeing the movie that ends at midnight” will go a long way. Then you can offer the alternatives in a way that shows you were listening and is within the established boundaries. It might sound something like this:

I know that this is the time that your friend can go with you. Unfortunately, neither of you is legally able to drive after 11. We don’t want to lose our learner’s license by breaking the law, so you can go if her mom takes you and drops you off back at home.

Happily ever after

Goldilocks is a fairy tale, and parenting is real life. Cut yourself a little slack. If you ask yourself daily how this whole parenting thing got off track, and then invest time trying to be the best parent you can be, trust me when I say everything will be alright!

Remember, if you have got a cottage to live in, a bed to sleep in, porridge to eat, and you love your kids…chances are you are doing better than you think!

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