This is the first part of a two-part series about the challenges of parenting with a complex trauma history.
N.B. Where the word parent/s is used it also refers to caregiver/s.
Trauma in childhood is all too common. That means that many of us have experienced it – whether it’s physical, sexual or emotional abuse or neglect, growing up with domestic or community violence or other adverse experiences. In addition many of us have grown up with poverty, discrimination or have struggled with attachment issues. Some of us have experienced further trauma as an adult. This means that many parents or people caring for children have trauma histories. Trauma in childhood as well as repeated traumas as an adult (complex trauma) can affect us when we become parents or caregivers.
Being a parent can be both challenging and rewarding. While most trauma survivors are as determined to become good parents as others, and often more so, parenting does not always come easily. Nor does it comes easily to anyone else! However if you have trauma experiences, you may be concerned about the sort of parent you are or will be. You may be determined to do a better job than your own parents, but maybe wonder how you will you be able to love and care for your child if you weren’t nurtured yourself. Rest assured that many survivors make ‘good enough’ parents. Why do we use the words ‘good enough’? Because no parent is perfect and nor for that matter is any child.
If you are a survivor and want to do your best for your child, understanding how your trauma has affected you is a good start. As we raise our children, our childhood experiences can be alive in the present, even when we think they’re no longer affecting us. Research shows that, with the right information, strategies and support we can all make positive parenting changes. As we heal our children do better too, emotionally and socially. Being a ‘good enough’ parent means doing things in the best interests of our child.
This means providing a safe space in which our child feels nurtured and cared for – in which they can learn to trust and build connections through their interactions with us. And can learn to name and manage their feelings. The fact is that children don’t know how to regulate their feelings when they are born. Parents help them learn to manage their distress e.g. when they’re hungry, tired, lonely or hurt. They do this through by co-regulating feelings with their children, through holding, soothing and connecting with them.
When children are born their neurons (brain cells) have few connections. Connections develop over time as a result of the different experiences we have with our environment and our caregivers. The more positive, nurturing experiences we have the more robust the pathways which are formed. These help children to thrive in their environment. Children with good attachments and safe, nurturing environments are more likely to develop and meet their milestones. They are also more likely to have better health outcomes and build a sense of wellbeing and strong connections to those around them.
Many of us who were subjected to trauma growing up did not experience safe attachments, nurturing, consistent relationships or safe stable home environments. When we have our own children, some of this develops naturally but some of it also needs to be learnt. Intergenerational trauma means that families can sometimes carry trauma through to the next generation. We have an opportunity to change this process by changing our family patterns of raising children. And remember you don’t need to do this alone – there is a lot of information available and good support too.
Creating safety for you and your child
If you grew up in fear and didn’t have many of your needs met, or struggled to feel safe when you were a child, you may be easily triggered into a fight, flight or freeze response. These trauma responses are not your fault. They are to be expected if you experienced threat or danger as a child. These reactions include feeling anxious, being on guard or ‘hypervigilant’, or at other times, feeling numb and shutting down. When you become a parent you are exposed to a range of different situations, some of which can trigger you.
When this happens you may not be able to be as present and available to your child, as you want to be. Being aware of your reactions and learning to identify your triggers is a good first step to being able to manage these trauma reactions. Being a parent is intrinsically challenging and stressful, so building in some self-care time is an ongoing way of settling the stress and anxiety that is there for all parents. It can also be helpful to try different grounding and self-soothing strategies to learn what works for you when you are feeling triggered and dysregulated. This can help you settle your nervous system, so you can start to feel safer and more in control.
When you do, you can be more present and less reactive with your child. This in turn helps model some good regulation management and problem solving skills for child and most importantly can help you provide them with a secure base. When a child has a secure base, they are
more able to explore and learn and develop the skills they need as they go out into the world.
Learning to trust
If you are a survivor, you may have grown up believing that people can’t be trusted. Feelings of betrayal can be very strong. These feelings can affect the way you connect with people, including with your child. However the good news is that the brain can change right through life. As you start to have more positive experiences your brain can build different pathways. And healthy relationships with a trusted friend, partner or counsellor can help you be kinder with yourself, build your capacity to trust and develop greater empathy for others, including your children.
As you learn to be there for yourself as others are there for you, you can, in turn, start to be there for your child, more consistently. And become more sensitive to their needs and emotions, over time. No one can do this all the time but as you develop these skills it will help your
child to develop emotionally and socially, and foster their health and wellbeing, too.
This is the second part of a two-part series about the challenges of parenting with a complex trauma history.
Building self esteem
Many survivors struggle with the way they feel about themselves. Feelings of self-blame, guilt and shame are common and can continue from childhood into adulthood. If you feel like this you may struggle to care for yourself, identify your needs and attend to them. It can help to find support to enable you to develop greater compassion for yourself, and to learn how to better meet your own needs, so you can meet your child’s.
Developing compassion for yourself, will help you become more empathic to your child. Children develop their sense of self through their interactions with their parents. Your body language, tone of voice, words and actions can play a big role in helping your child to develop their own sense of worth. It is important to be as honest as you can when interacting with your child – praising and rewarding them when they deserve it and reassuring them when they make mistakes. Loving our children doesn’t mean that you always love what they do. A part of any parent’s role is to help your child to feel okay about learning and developing skills and this includes making mistakes. One of life’s certainties is that we continually need to learn and develop throughout our lives. Building comfort in making mistakes and acknowledging them, and the capacity to learn and develop new skills and ways to approach issues is one of the greatest gifts a parent can give a child.
Modelling the behaviours and attitudes you want to see
Many survivors of childhood trauma have not learnt to regulate their emotions as effectively as they might. This can be because their own parents didn’t have these skills or were not able to help them develop them. If you experienced anger and aggression, or your caregivers showed little interest in you, or withdrew from you, you may find it useful to seek some support so you can build the skills you need to manage your own emotions. These are skills people can acquire at any age with information, insight and support.
Many survivors hope to raise their children differently from how their parents or caregivers raised them. Children learn from you just as you did from the adults in your world. Think about the ways you would like your children to develop and approach their world and model those behaviours. Whatever we focus on as parents will grow and develop in our children. If we focus on their deficits these will grow but if we focus on their strengths and resilience, these will grow instead.
We don’t always get it right but if we are kind and compassionate to ourselves and approach parenting in a way that we are continually learning and growing skills, we can reflect on why a rupture in the relationship occurred and problem solve how we might do it differently next time. Treat your child as you wanted to be treated when you were a child, with compassion, empathy and understanding. But also, at times, as the parent who creates boundaries and protects and takes care of your child. And remember that there are lots of books, programs and services which can support you to build your own skills, for yourself and for your child.
Learn how to set reasonable boundaries
You may have grown up with no limits or alternatively have been left to your own devices. Or perhaps you grew up with harsh, violent or chaotic discipline. You may have grown up with a combination of both, never knowing how your caregivers were going to respond. Because of this, you may struggle with setting boundaries. Getting support around this can help you reset your understanding and practice around boundaries, for yourself and for your child. Part of this is setting reasonable rules. When you are creating boundaries it is important to be kind, firm and understanding. When your child has behaved in a way which is not appropriate there will always be reasons for this. Understanding this can help you respond fairly rather than punitively and help them learn for the future.
All parents need to help their children learn the difference between right and wrong. This means setting consistent limits but also being adaptable and flexible. We need to be flexible around giving more freedom as our children move through their developmental milestones. This is the basis of good parenting.
All behaviour has a meaning and children’s behaviour expresses a need that the child can’t clearly articulate. Understanding your child’s basic needs in a particular situation helps the child feel heard, cared for and understood. It doesn’t mean that we can’t ever say “no” to children or direct them but it does mean that we understand what the child needs in relation to this boundary setting. This is attachment-focused parenting and there are many program, books and services that can help you understand this process and develop these skills.
Good communication and flexibility are important
When you grew up you might not have had any explanations as to why you had to do something a certain way. Like you, all children deserve to understand why they are expected to behave a certain way or need to comply with your rules. Children want and deserve explanations just like adults do. If we don’t explain things, our children will question our motivation.
Let your child know what you expect and if your child doesn’t meet your expectations, work to understand what your child needs in the particular situation, and how they feel. Help them settle some of their distress first before letting them know why the issue is important and work on a solution with them. This can include consequences. Make suggestions and offer choices but always be receptive to your child’s suggestions too. If your child’s behaviour repeatedly disappoints you, you might need to review your expectations, as well as your understanding of your child’s needs. Reading relevant books and information can help, as can speaking with other parents. Be flexible, as different children behave differently at different ages. Each milestone brings with it different challenges for parents. Be open, adaptable and seek help and support when you need it.
As a parent, it is your role to guide your children as they become more independent and learn. You will have to confront your child at times but when you do, be gentle. Avoid blaming or criticising them as this can undermine their developing self esteem. No matter what happens, show them that you love them regardless. And that you are with them on the journey of developing knowledge, relational skills, emotional intelligence and independence. At the end we want our children to be competent, connected, contributing, caring independent young people in the world.