When I first met Sally (not her real name), she was completely overwhelmed. She came in at the gentle insistence of her husband who was worried she was depressed. She spent her days shuffling kids back and forth to sports and activities, watching every practice for fear that something bad would happen to them if she weren’t there. She had to stay busy. Always. Or the memories would creep in. And at the end of the day, to turn off the hamster wheel of thoughts in her head, she found a glass of wine was the only way to fall asleep. She was doing the best she could. And she was totally exhausted from living with the effects of her sexual trauma.
As a psychologist, I work every day with people who’ve experienced trauma. And most of those people have been doing the best they can to be wonderful parents, in spite of the pain they carry every day. They’re AMAZING and SO STRONG. They didn’t choose to experience trauma; no one would. But they live with it every day. Just like Sally.
I wish it were untrue, but it is important to know that a parent’s unresolved trauma can affect her or his children. This is a painful reality I witness daily. I have no wish to make any parent feel guilty or badly. Rather, I hope to empower even one mama who carries this pain to seek treatment.
If you’re reading this and worry I’m talking to you, read this first: YOU are AMAZING and SO STRONG. No one chooses to experience trauma, including you. You live with it every day, but it doesn’t have to stay that way.
Trauma can change our brains. It can change how we see the world and how we perceive danger. It can also shift how our emotions work and how we manage them. And it can certainly change the way we think: about people, about ourselves, and about relationships. These changes often seep into the way we parent. And most of the time we’re not aware of it.
Signs You Might Be Living with Untreated Trauma
- You have difficulty trusting people or particular types of people who remind you of the trauma(s).
- You feel on edge, with an urge to stay constantly alert in case of potential danger.
- You tend to feel uncomfortable in situations that remind you of the trauma(s) — even subtle reminders like smells, songs, or places.
- You tend to avoid crowds, strangers, and/or situations that remind you of the trauma(s).
- You often feel irritable, depressed, or numb.
- You might use alcohol or other substances to help you cope.
- You have nightmares about aspects of the trauma(s), or you have memories of trauma that seem to pop in from nowhere; you do your best to avoid thinking about the memories.
Ways Untreated Trauma Can Subconsciously Affect Parenting
The number one behavior that maintains trauma symptoms is avoidance. Unfortunately, in trying to avoid feelings, memories, and situations that remind us of trauma, we prevent the natural healing process from occurring and actually strengthen the power of our trauma symptoms. I know it’s counterintuitive, and I too wish there were some pill you could take to make it all go away. Until then, many parents with unresolved trauma tend to overly shelter their children from possible danger, even in situations that are relatively safe. This is understandable because the brain’s number one priority is to survive, and parents’ number one priority is to protect their children. Unfortunately, over-sheltering often causes more pain than it prevents.
Possible effects: Kids who are over-sheltered can become overly anxious and avoidant, sharing their parent’s perception that the world is a highly dangerous place and all risks should be avoided. These children may struggle to trust, build relationships, or adapt to new or unstructured environments.
Many people with unresolved trauma tend to struggle with the issue of control. This makes complete sense, as trauma represents a complete loss of control, which feels terrifying and unsafe. As a result, parents sometimes overcompensate by becoming overly controlling with their children in an attempt to manage their own fears and difficult emotions.
Possible effects: Children with controlling parents may become resentful, rebellious, or overly dependent, depending on their personality style. These kids often lack the basic skills for independence and feel overwhelmed and worthless when faced with adult tasks. Many of them also develop issues around over-control (e.g. anxiety, eating disorders) or under-control (e.g. substance abuse, aggression) to manage their painful feelings.
One of the main symptoms of unresolved trauma is irritability and difficulty managing anger. I often see parents whose irritability has resulted in discipline that is more intense than the misbehavior (e.g. spanking for dropping a cup of water, screaming at a toddler who didn’t listen the first time, etc.). Trauma can turn the volume on our fight-or-flight system sky high so it doesn’t take much to send us into “fight mode.”
Possible effects: Children with parents who have difficulty managing anger usually feel confused, frightened, and/or angry with the parent, having no obvious explanation for the harsh punishment they receive. This can affect the parent-child bond and can often feel traumatic to the child. These kiddos often have complicated relationships with their own anger, avoiding conflict entirely or having trouble with temper themselves.
Many people with unresolved trauma have difficulty tolerating emotional vulnerability which, again, makes perfect sense. It’s protective and the brain’s attempt to guard against future pain. The problem is, parenting exposes us to the entire array of vulnerable feelings — in ourselves and in our children. Sadness, guilt, caring, and even love are all emotions that require us to be vulnerable. Many with trauma avoid making contact with these feelings personally through emotional numbing, substance abuse, isolation, or simply not being emotionally present. Others avoid making contact with these feelings in their children, scolding or punishing their kids for expressing vulnerability.
Possible effects: Children with parents who cannot tolerate vulnerability often have difficulty feeling emotionally connected to that parent. These kiddos often appear needy, attention-seeking (with positive or negative behaviors), or emotionally withdrawn themselves. They often feel invalidated and unseen, particularly when experiencing vulnerable feelings. Chronic invalidation can disrupt children’s sense of self, ability to regulate emotions, and have long-term effects on their personality development.
Now What? A Word of Encouragement
So if you’re reading this and any part struck a chord with you, I want to give you HOPE! Healing from trauma can be an empowering, freeing, and life-changing experience. It is painful . . . and possible. You will shock yourself with your own strength. I see that every day, too. You can do this. For you as a person, and as a parent.
Contact your insurance provider to explore therapy options or your local MHMR — here’s a link to Tarrant County MHMR.