How Unresolved Trauma Can Affect Your ParentingMar 15, 2023
Childhood trauma is an event, situation, or environment you experienced as a child that left you feeling vulnerable and like you could not count on the world or others to keep you safe. One crucial factor is to break misconceptions that childhood trauma only involves physical danger or harm. On the contrary, anything that leaves a child feeling alone, vulnerable, overwhelmed or terrified is traumatic.
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 how we think: about people, ourselves, and relationships. As a result, you find life challenging and complex in ways you might not be able to explain logically. But, unfortunately, these changes often seep into the way we parent. And most of the time, we are not aware of it.
There are numerous ways a child can be affected by trauma. Several examples include:
- Sexual or physical abuse
- Emotional abuse
- Severe neglect
- Violence in the home
- Witnessing a death, murder or suicide
- Natural disasters
- Car or plane crashes
- Hostage situations
What are the signs of childhood trauma?
- You have difficulty trusting people or particular types of people who remind you of the trauma.
- You are constantly hypervigilant, with an urge to stay always alert in case of potential danger.
- You tend to feel uncomfortable in situations that remind you of the trauma(s) — subtle reminders like objects, smells, songs, or places.
- You tend to avoid crowds, strangers, and 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.
How Does It Affect Your Mothering?
Avoidance is one of the most apparent symptoms of unresolved trauma. You may consciously or unconsciously avoid feelings, memories, or situations that even remotely remind you of your past trauma.
You may prevent these by becoming uninvolved in your child's life or choosing to drown the feelings in substances or other maladaptive behaviours.
Alternatively, you may limit your child's involvement in activities that you would rather avoid—this potentially limits their experiences or participation in something they enjoy.
Overly Protecting Your Child
The desire to overly protect your child from the world may stem directly from your own trauma. In essence, you are trying to protect them from what happened to you. You want your child to survive, and you will protect them.
However, overprotecting your child can limit the experiences they have in life. Or it can create a barrier for you as your child begins to explore things themselves or that are "taboo" to you. Or because your child has never had the opportunity to assess risk independently, they may grow up overly anxious and avoidant too.
Trauma feels like a complete loss of control in a terrifying and unsafe situation. Childhood trauma can affect parenting styles through overcompensation by becoming overly controlling.
Children of overly controlling parents may become rebellious or lack the skills needed for independence. Many also develop maladaptive behaviours to manage their feelings, such as eating disorders or substance abuse.
Neglecting the Emotional Needs of Your Child
Research shows a common reaction for parents with unresolved trauma is to emotionally separate from their children, often neglecting their emotional needs.
Parenting naturally creates an environment where you, and your children, are constantly exposed to a host of vulnerable emotions – sadness, guilt, love, anger, etc. Unfortunately, those with unresolved trauma often avoid those feelings. Children with emotionally unavailable parents struggle to tolerate vulnerability or regulate their emotions. These children tend to be needy, attention-seekers, or emotionally withdrawn.
Irritability and Difficulty Managing Anger
Parents whose irritability has resulted in discipline that is more intense than misbehaviour (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 mode sky-high, so it doesn't take much to send us into "fight mode."
Children with parents with difficulty managing anger usually feel confused, frightened, and angry with the parent, having no obvious explanation for the harsh punishment they receive, affecting the parent-child bond and trust, which can often feel traumatic to the child. These children often have complicated relationships with their anger, avoiding conflict entirely or having trouble with their temper.
What Can You Do?
Attachment research reveals that a strong predictor of how one will parent is directly related to how much you have made sense of your past. By acknowledging the pain from your childhood and learning how it is still alive in your adult experiences, feelings, and relationships, you begin to process the trauma.
When you understand your trauma and childhood, you can better relate to your child and provide the nurture and stability they need. Whenever you are triggered, notice how you "instinctually" react in various situations as you parent.
Are these instinctual reactions the way you want to parent? Or do you find yourself going again and again? If so, those reactions may be rooted in unresolved trauma. The key is developing an awareness of these patterns. Then you can begin to understand why your child or certain situations seem to trigger you.
There is evidence that practising mindfulness can be a helpful tool in the trauma recovery process. Mindfulness helps you respond to your child's needs instead of reacting to the triggers, i.e. when they shout or throw a tantrum. As someone who has experienced childhood trauma and suppressed my emotions, I had to learn that having feelings is okay.
Meditating daily enabled me to be a better parent, as I am more aware of my triggers and can regulate my feelings better.
Breathwork supports self-awareness and self-healing through various suggested breathing techniques. Trauma breathwork is conscious and intentional breathing that releases trauma stored in the body.
Intentional trauma breathwork helps with trauma processing and healing by bypassing the conscious mind, deactivating the sympathetic nervous system, and having a therapeutic effect on its practitioners.
Seeking Professional Help
There is no shame in getting professional help from a psychologist. Getting therapy is the first step to processing unresolved childhood trauma. Otherwise, it will continue to affect how you parent; the last thing you want is the trauma to be passed down the generation. Be the cycle breaker and learn how to manage your triggers.
You can also get a Neuro-Linguistic Programming coach to help you manage your triggers and negative emotions, such as anger, guilt and shame, to move on with your life with more awareness, calm and ease.
We can be all cycle breakers when we work towards resolving our traumas. Stop numbing and start feeling the pain. Let us work through our pain and wounds and reach the other end with more love, compassion, resilience, and strength for ourselves and our children.
When your children see you model parenting with love, nurturance and guidance, imagine what it is like for your future grandchildren—a future where a person is whole, confident, and safe in this world. Now imagine a nation of people like this, and can you imagine how the world would look if we did not have unsolved traumas?
You can book a Neuro-Linguistics Programming session with me and let me support you in your healing journey.
To your healing.
Marisa Sim is a trauma-informed coach. As a childhood trauma survivor, she understands firsthand how trauma affects our mental health and well-being. Now she supports women to heal from their childhood trauma and step into their power.
You can find out more about Marisa and her work here.
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