I was 5 years old the first time I called 911. I was 10 when I thought I would become an orphan at the hands of my stepfather. I was 13 when I made my first police report and 16 when I stood toe-to-toe with my very own boogie man.
Trauma doesn’t feel like trauma until you know differently, and I simply didn’t know. Not until 2006 when the nurse handed me my very first baby at 23 years old and everything I thought was “normal” all came crashing down. As a daughter, I found a way to forgive, but as a mother, I could never.
Sixteen years into motherhood, I am continually healing and evolving in the way I parent, but I am not (and maybe never will be) fully healed in the way I live my life. Due to my very unique truth, I navigate parenthood the same way I did in childhood, treading lightly and remaining vigilant for what lurks around the corner. Overthinking every rule I enforce, every boundary they test, and both of our reactions to all of the above.
Unresolved trauma can affect a parent’s ability to respond appropriately to her child/children’s needs, possibly intensifying the behavior and further increasing the risk of insecure attachment and/or the generational cycle of trauma. When experienced by one or possibly both parents, it can also contribute to breakdowns in marriage, resulting in compounded insult to injury. When it comes to trauma, time alone won’t heal our wounds, but therapy can give us the tools we need to thrive in our new chapters of life.
Parenting healthy children as a child of trauma can be painfully isolating, as well. While a majority share their woes about gentle parenting techniques and homemade puree recipes, I am doing my best not to trauma-dump on the first mom who looks our way. For many like me, childhood trauma affects both our parenting styles and our ability to build solid friendships. We found ourselves overcompensating, seeking validation, hyper-fixating on meeting our children’s emotional needs, and not overthinking every boundary we set and every rule we enforce. If we are not judging others based on our experiences, we are harshly judging ourselves.
After therapy, the four following tips have become foundational in the way I (try to) respond as a parent and child of trauma. While these can apply to parents of all backgrounds, I found they were skills that didn’t come as easily to me.
- Don’t take behavior personally. Children are simply children, growing and developing physically and emotionally. New experiences will bring on new emotions. Their responses are not always a reflection of your parenting or their feelings for you.
- Allow the child to feel feelings, without judgment or expectation. If their feelings strike a nerve, sit with it for a minute. Are you experiencing an emotional or rational response? Don’t respond until you feel it’s coming from a healthy place.
- Help them find the words. Creating space for communication mistakes is key. Ask questions, guide them into acceptable ways of expressing feelings, and then offer praise when these are used.
- Take a break — or at a bare minimum, a breath — before reacting/responding. Not everything needs an immediate response. Reactive parenting will only further traumatize you and your child.
Books I recommend for parents, families, and friends navigating trauma:
- Forgiving What You Can’t Forget by Lysa Terkeurst (Amazon)
- The Whole-Brain Child by Daniel J. Siegel M.D. & Tina Payne Bryson PH.D. (Amazon)
- The Body Keeps Score by Bessel Van Der Kolk M.D. (Amazon)
- It Didn’t Start with You by Mark Wolynn (Amazon)
What other tips would you add for parenting after trauma? I don’t have it all figured out and I will never have it all figured out, but I am here… taking the steps to heal generational wounds and end generational cycles. If you related to anything I said or ever find yourself needing someone who simply “gets it,” I am here for you! Let’s connect on Instagram at @motherhood.gonewild.