Parenting Through Trauma
Over the last three decades, the effect of traumatic stress on a person’s development has been an increasingly important factor to consider when addressing mental health struggles. Recently, the trend has been to study trauma in children, but I have seen little on the effects of trauma in parents. This week I will be briefly discussing what traumatic stress is and how traumatic experiences may affect your parenting.
A study published in 1998 showed a link between traumatic experiences in childhood and later instances of poor health outcomes. The researchers who completed this study (commonly referred to as the ACE study) found that over half of adults surveyed had experienced at least one traumatic event in their life. Further, researchers found that a higher number of traumatic events a person experienced correlated to a higher probability of poor health. (See Dr. Nadine Burke Harris’ Ted Talk where she discusses how early childhood trauma affects health throughout life.)
Incidents that may lead to a person experiencing trauma vary widely. Incidents can be both acute (a singular moment such as a natural disaster, a car accident, etc.) or chronic (an abusive childhood, living with an abusive partner, etc.) For a person who has experienced an acute trauma, traumatic stress generally occurs after the incident has ended. For a person who has experienced chronic trauma, traumatic stress may occur both during and after the incident has occurred.
“Traumatic stress occurs when a [person] is unable to regulate emotional states and in certain moments experiences [their] environment as extremely threatening even when it is relatively safe.” (Saxe, 2016). In other words, if you have been affected by trauma, you may experience a flight-or-flight response even in situations which are perfectly safe.
If you have experienced trauma, it is important to understand how that experience may negatively affect your parenting so that neither you or your child are put at risk. Common responses to trauma include: anger and aggression, anxiety, trouble sleeping, depression and hopelessness. In parenting, trauma can lead to a low tolerance for children acting out in age-appropriate ways, struggles in recognizing dangerous situations or being overprotective, and create difficulties in maintaining secure, healthy relationships with partners and children (NCTSN, 2017).
Awareness of how a traumatic experience may affect your parenting is only the first step. It is also vital to develop healthy coping strategies. Trauma can happen to anyone at almost any time. Not taking care of yourself, whether it was an acute or chronic situation, will only serve to prolong the negative effects of a traumatic experience not only in you but potentially in your children as well. There is no shame in seeking help from a mental health professional.
Personally, I have experienced trauma acutely and chronically. Though I am not currently experiencing either, I still find myself, even years after the fact, sometimes slipping down the slope of anger, emotional numbness and sadness bordering on depression. It’s easy to say “I’ll be fine” or “I just need to toughen up” but those responses have not seemed particularly helpful in the long run. Only through intentional applications of self-care techniques (such as practicing mindfulness or exercising regularly) have I been able to maintain good mental health.
I will readily admit to not being perfect in taking care of my mental health. It requires a constant vigilance of self that is often easy to forget. I try though. Because ultimately, I want to be healthy and I don’t want my mental health struggles to become my kids’ mental health struggles.
(Note: As always, the information shared here does not serve as a replacement for any intervention or advice a mental health professional may provide. If you are need of help from a mental health professional, go to MentalHealth.gov for resources and information on how to contact a professional in your area.)
National Child Traumatic Stress Network. 2017. Resources for parents and caregivers.
Saxe, G., Ellis, B.H., & Brown, A. 2016. Trauma systems therapy for children and teens. The Guilford Press: New York.