Parenting is hard, and most of us go into the job wanting to be the best parent we can be to our kids.
However, parenting when you have experienced childhood trauma is a special challenge that requires managing your expectations, being aware of your limitations, and paying attention to your empathy.
I’m still learning how to parent through my trauma, and lately, I have noticed how my trauma affects my children. If you are struggling to parent through your own trauma, you are not alone.
There are three things I have noticed about the ways my trauma-based parenting affects my children.
First, my need to be “good enough” creates a set of unrealistic expectations, which can harm my children’s ability to develop self-confidence.
Second, when I feel like I should be a better parent and I am failing, I get irritable and cranky and my children feel I am upset with them.
Lastly, I haven’t always handled the problems my children face with the empathy I should have, leaving them without the comfort I should have given them.
Your child is watching you while they build their sense of self
My daughter and I had what I would consider a wonderful relationship. We were close, I always came to her dance routines, and made sure she took part in whatever activities interested her. I cooked dinners most nights, kept a relatively clean house, and gave her a balance of chores and freedoms.
She did well in school, and is absolutely gorgeous, both outside and inside. It never occurred to me that she would struggle with self-esteem issues. Then she hit her teenage years and started saying things like she wasn’t smart enough or pretty enough. It dumbfounded me.
We ended up in therapy, and I told the therapist that I didn’t know why she felt this way. My grandmother used to take my homework and throw it away if I erased too much and made me redo it. I never did that to her. She asked me how I treated myself. It is not surprising to anyone who knows me I am a perfectionist.
I told the therapist how I threw a gingerbread house in the trash one year because it didn’t look like the picture and we never did another one. When I do home improvement projects, I am also careful to make everything as perfect as possible. She said, “She has watched you be critical of yourself her whole life, and picked up the same behavior.”
It never occurred to me that even though I was consciously attempting to not be critical of her, that being critical of myself was just as bad.
The impact of childhood trauma on grown adults
According to Lisa Firestone, Ph.D., “when parents feel negatively toward themselves, it is equally easy for them to extend these feelings to their children. The negative thoughts parents harbor toward themselves can lead to parental rejection, neglect, or hostility.
Not only are parents more likely to be critical of their offspring in ways that are similar to the ways they are disapproving of themselves, but their negative self-esteem also serves as an example for their children.”
This moment was quite the gut punch because I thought I had been parenting purposefully so that she would feel none of these things. I had to learn how to love myself for being who I was, and not as a perfect mother.
There is no such thing, just as there are no perfect children. My poor child had spent years watching me struggle with unrealistic expectations and had adopted these for herself.
“Most of us have unhealthy thoughts and emotions that have either developed as a result of trauma or hardships in their childhood, or the way they were raised.” — Steven Seagal
Your children get the brunt of your unresolved feelings
We had been fighting like crazy during the months before we ended up in therapy. I was constantly annoyed and lashing out every time she said something that hurt my feelings.
I ended up sobbing one day because she wanted to ride to a dance function with her friends, instead of with me, when she knew I had taken the day off to drive them all there. On one hand, I knew it was perfectly normal for her to want to spend time with her friends, but it hurt.
It brought up all my feelings of abandonment and poked at the carefully patched holes of my self-worth. I was trying to be rational, but my anger would bubble to the surface and manifest itself in hostility.
This only made the both of us feel worse. I knew we couldn’t go on like this. My therapist diagnosed me with PTSD. Admitting that enabled me to look at how those symptoms were affecting my parenting.
I was detaching myself from my oldest child because she kept talking about moving away. Subconsciously, I knew how much this would hurt, and my body was trying to spare itself the pain.
Avoiding reminders is another PTSD coping system I tried to use, and every time we would fight, I recalled the fights I had with my grandmother. I couldn’t just avoid being a parent, and it was making me angry. I was having trouble sleeping, which was contributing to my grim mood. This mood was creating adverse feelings in our home, and I was yelling a lot.
Parents who yell
According to recent research by the National Institutes of Health, yelling makes children more aggressive, both physically and verbally. Yelling, regardless of the reason, expresses anger and can make your children feel insecure. It is hard to not yell when you are dealing with your own trauma and PTSD, but there are things you can do to yell less:
- Step away, giving yourself a “time-out”
- Talk about your feelings, while encouraging your children to do the same
- Remain calm when you are frustrated
“After a traumatic experience, the human system of self-preservation seems to go onto permanent alert, as if the danger might return at any moment.” ― Judith Lewis Herman
Your children are seeking comfort and learning empathy from you
For us, the yelling seemed to escalate from conversations where she came to me with some of her problems. These were normal teenage problems, like a fight with a friend. At first, I would try to be empathetic and give her guidance. She would inevitably start crying and saying how I didn’t understand.
While this is something I think every teenager says, the truth was she was right. All the normal high school drama was the least of my problems when I was in high school. My mother had been placed in witness protection, my grandparents formally adopted me, and I was dealing with being abandoned by my father as a child.
The drama in high school never made me cry as much as those things did. Watching my daughter become completely devastated by these things made me sad for her, but it also made me angry, because I couldn’t understand it.
Our realities and our perception were too far apart for us to understand one another. She felt like I didn’t care about her problems when in actuality I cared so much that she was hurting, that I got frustrated because I couldn’t help her. Which led to me yelling, instead of being empathetic.
Being the best parent you can be despite your past trauma
As a parent, part of our job is to teach our children to be good people who can show empathy. I was struggling and became clear when I noticed she was becoming less empathetic with her own peers. Empathy is how we help ourselves and others, and it is a necessary part of human strength.
“One day you will tell your story of how you overcame what you went through and it will be someone else’s survival guide.” — Unknown
I had always thought that I had my trauma under control and that all my decisions when it came to parenting would ensure my children grew up as unaffected by trauma as humanly possible. However, life does not work that way, and trauma is something that does not get controlled.
It is something that you have to work through in order to find acceptance. It is an insidious thing that creeps into your life in unexpected ways. I am thankful that therapy helped me recognize the areas in my life where trauma was wreaking havoc so that I could grow into a better parent.
How to be better
This kind of introspection is difficult, as growth usually is, but it is also critical for healing. We can heal from trauma, and it can benefit those around us, especially our children. If you are trying to parent through trauma, please know you are not alone.
It is ok to seek help or therapy; doing so does not mean the trauma has won or that you are a failure. It means that you love your kids and that you would suffer through the pain of trauma twice, just to ensure that they have the best start in life they can. Parenting is difficult, and we can only do the best that we can do. Lead from a place of love, and you and your children will come out the other side.