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  • Writer's pictureDayna Sharp, LCSW

How Parenting Can Trigger Past Trauma

You've done it. Somehow you've survived a difficult past. Maybe your parents were unavailable or emotionally abusive. Maybe you grew up around addiction. Perhaps you were physically or sexually abused. Maybe you were bullied in school. Or raped after a school dance. Maybe you had an unrecognized learning difference that caused you to struggle with school work--and your own sense of competence and self worth. But you are resilient. And you've overcome all that and now you're an adult. Things aren't perfect, but you're on track.

And then, you have a beautiful baby and your whole world changes.

As you transition into parenthood, you might have a fantasy of how things are supposed to go. You know, snuggling with your baby, enjoying their first smile and words, chasing after your toddler, laughing as your toddler's "NO!"s unfold, putting your toddler in a "time out" and feeling competent as a parent as your little one learns to manage their behavior, watching your preschooler begin to make friends and discover a new world of learning, helping your child with their homework and eating dinners together, going to baseball games and gymnastic classes, helping them pick their outfits for school dances, attending graduation...You get the picture. It's a fantasy of what it will be like raising children.

But at its best, parenting is hard. From birth recovery to sleepless nights to food allergies and ear infections, to unimaginably absurd (and inappropriate) behavior to school difficulties and homework challenges, to social issues--(My kid said what???), and beyond, raising kids will push you to your limits and back. This is the kind of thing that people talk about. What is less often discussed is how trauma makes parenting harder.

Trauma and Parenting

By far, the most difficult part of parenting after trauma is that even though the trauma wasn't your fault (because it never is), it nevertheless leaves us feeling like we can't trust ourselves, we can't trust others whom we depend on and that things aren't going to be okay (because at one time, they weren't). These kinds of beliefs can really hurt, because they can leave us with tremendous anxiety that our children won't be okay, and we can feel very alone trying to do everything all by ourselves--which is virtually impossible when it comes to raising children. Plus, when things get messy, (spoiler alert: with kids, that's basically all the time) it's easy to blame ourselves that we're somehow not good enough in order to "manage" the mess. Of course, none of these beliefs and interpretations are accurate, but they are usually a way we tried to make sense of things after trauma, so that we could survive.

It's also true that at every stage of your child's development, it's possible that your trauma beliefs will re-surge, possibly in different ways. If you've lost someone close to you, for example, feelings of grief, fear or anger may come up as you put your infant in their own sleeping space, or as your preschooler goes to school for the first time, or when a friend's family invites them out for the day--without you, or when your child starts to drive! If you've experienced rejection, you might feel that again the first time your 3 year old yells "I hate you!", and again when your pre-teen is embarrassed of you at school, and again when they choose to go to college across the country. If you've experienced sexual abuse, you might feel fearful leaving your child at daycare, worried about diaper changes, and again at a sleepover, and again on a first date, etc. etc.

The Good News

First and foremost, you are a strong, resilient human being--you've had to be to get where you are today. This is an absolute gift that you are passing on to your children.

Compassion goes a long way. By practicing compassion for yourself, you can really work on revising those old trauma-related beliefs. It's not that you're not good enough, it's not that you can't trust yourself, it's that no one really knows exactly what to do as a parent, and you're doing the best that you can. Parenting is hard. And it's hard for everyone.

Just as we all might have some "ghosts" from our past that may "haunt" our parenting, it's also true that we all have "angels" from our past that enrich our parenting. That's true for everyone. Keep close to your heart the people who were kind to you, who showed you healthy love, who lifted you up.

It might be hard to imagine, but it's possible that your child's developmental milestones--and the feelings they bring up--can be an opportunity for you to work through some of your feelings from the past. So that you can grow and heal. So that you can take a walk through all the neighborhoods of your heart and mind. So that your child learns to do so as well.

At Creating Space Counseling and Wellness, you are welcome to bring your past, your present, your "ghosts" and your "angels", your feelings, and of course, your parenting to my office. We can work together to help you connect with the parent you want to be, to hold that together when life gets hard, and to generally feel more confident in your parenting choices. When you thrive, your children thrive.

Call today to schedule your first appointment. 856-281-1664


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