Parenting as a Survivor of Childhood Trauma

By Erin Emmanuel

Being Reminded 

I did not anticipate that becoming a first-time parent would acutely challenge my sense of self and cause me to re-examine traumatic childhood experiences I thought I had laid to rest. And yet, as I rocked my little girl through the long and harrowing nights of her infancy, I was freshly reminded of the innocence I had lost too early and gripped by the anxiety of what might mar this little life resting in my arms. The low-grade hypervigilance, which I had learned to identify and tame after years of psychotherapy, reared its head in a new way. My arrival into motherhood was yet another opportunity for my childhood trauma to taunt my present realities. I could feel its familiar grasp. As my daughter’s face looked up at me, my shame was magnified. I ached to know that we would be ok. 

Parent Survivors of Childhood Trauma 

The arrival of a child into the life of an individual who has survived developmental trauma is complex. Many can attest to the challenges of adjusting to parenthood. There is so much to learn and do, and it is constant. Managing this steep learning curve is a vulnerable process. But it may feel even more raw for parents who have endured trauma in their childhoods – acute instances or chronic episodes of abuse, neglect, and/or exposure to violence. Not only must they adapt to the tiring flood of care-taking demands, but the process of parenting may evoke painful childhood memories. Such parent survivors are challenged by their present and their pasts simultaneously. At times, this may feel unbearable. 

We know that childhood trauma has long-term impact, it rearranges the brain, lowers self-esteem, complicates relationships, and resides in the body, sometimes prompting medical and somatic concerns. Despite efforts to heal from trauma’s imprints, the intense nature of parenting may highlight remaining scars. It’s unlikely that a single aspect of parenting will prompt trauma recall. It’s often the accumulative effect of change, challenge, and bodily deprivation. Children require their caregivers to give of themselves intellectually, physically, and emotionally. And so, parent survivors, who may be unjustly deficient in one of these aspects, must push beyond their means. This can cause parents to panic. Intellectually, they know they are not helpless, but their nervous system says otherwise.

Parents may be caught off-guard when their child’s cries, requests for more food, and clingy behaviors trigger recall of their own unmet needs for comfort, safety, and attunement throughout their childhoods. The body remembers primal stress, a time when basic needs were ignored or outrightly denied. Such remembering may make it difficult for parents to remain present to their children. They are caught between an historic grief and a very pressing demand to be responsive and responsible. This dilemma can cause parents to suffer emotionally as well as prompt acute  signs of traumatic arousal. 

Her Tantrums Made My Body Tense 

When my daughter turned two, she upped the tantrum ante. This was par for the course. How many times had I heard parents bemoaning the “terrible twos?” I knew her highly emotional reactions to seemingly benign things – her tower of blocks falling, her shoe being tied too tight, her food not being cut just-so – were completely normal, age-appropriate, and necessary for her growth. And yet, her high pitch screams with her limbs flailing in all directions caused me to feel panicked; my stomach churned, my heart raced, and my entire body tensed. My mind was filled with flashbacks. Something about my two-year-old’s normal display of distress activated memories of my childhood trauma. On paper, there was not a direct correlation between her tantrums and my trauma. But the terror of once being a child, alone with the unthinkable, still lived in my body and had not been so precisely re-felt until now. My daughter’s tantrums brought me to a state of hyperarousal, I needed to find calm in order to bring her calm. 

Possible Signs and Scenarios of Traumatic Remembering

Over the past few years, I have had the opportunity to connect with many parents who have also recognized that their childhood trauma is at play in their current parenting. They have identified that the unpredictable nature of parenting offers constant opportunity to be reminded of their own childhood losses. Without notice, they have had to process physiological reactions that often do not match their current circumstances, some of these have included: 

Emotions: 

  • Anxiety 
  • Despair 
  • Shame 
  • Irritability 
  • Rage   
  • Panic

Bodily Sensations: 

  • Increased heart rate
  • Tightness in chest 
  • Restlessness
  • Muscular tension

Later Stages 

Although recall of developmental trauma may be most present during the initial stages of parenting, it is possible for parents to encounter this at later stages as well. A child’s developmental milestones, experiences in the community, relationships with peers, are all opportunities for parental stress. For example: 

  • A parent who is sending their child to school for the first time may become increasingly anxious, reliving their own experiences of bullying when in elementary school. 

  • A parent may find themselves distrusting the authorities in their child’s life, fearing that their child will also be subject to public shaming and verbal abuse. 

  • A parent permits their child to have a sleepover, but finds that they are constantly on edge, recalling their own experience of sexual abuse at friend’s sleepover. 

An Opportunity to Honor, Heal, and Regulate 

The self-soothing tactics I had leaned on prior to parenting, did not hold the same as a new mom. The stakes were much higher now. I knew I needed to once again engage the source of what felt like prehistoric pain; but this time as a mother, as someone responsible for molding a life. 

Honor:

When I became a parent, I really wanted my childhood trauma to be far behind me. In many ways it was. And yet, my body let me know there was still more to be processed. Despite my disappointment, I knew I could not brush its cues under the rug. I had to attune to my anxiety, my rage, and my churning stomach. As Bessel van der Kolk writes, I needed to “befriend” my body (103). To honor its physical experience, was the first step in “releasing the tyranny of the past” (van der Kolk 103). 

Heal:

Through my work as a clinical social worker and a fitness trainer, I was very familiar with the concept of mind-body connection. However, my former years in psychotherapy had mostly involved traditional talk-therapy. I realized that in this next phase of healing, I needed to pursue more holistic measures. I began making consistent time in my schedule to combine my typical workout routine with verbal processing, and movements that involved bilateral stimulation. With the guidance of a therapist, I also explored Internal Family Systems Therapy and allowed my younger self to share her needs more explicitly. This inspired an overall increased awareness of my emotional and physical needs in parenting. I learned to identify them and increasingly respond to them. 

Regulate:  

Healing is ongoing. Although this statement causes the perfectionist part of me to cringe, I know it’s true. It’s often when we attempt to bury our challenging experiences, that we are constrained by them. Healing from childhood trauma is not complete amnesia of the experience, it is being able to effectively regulate my mind and body when I remember.

Practical Ways to Cope

Like many survivors, over the years I’ve made my various lists of coping mechanisms to secure sanity when daunted by my feelings. In the heat of parenting and with my revised approach to attune to my body, only a few of these coping mechanisms have stuck. Here are my go to’s: 

  • Move my body: Doesn’t matter how, I just move. Walk run, dance, stretch, yoga. 
  • Cultivate community: I’ve found safe and validating people to call, text, and audio-message.  
  • Apply heat: I pay attention to tension in my body and target it with heat. Hot showers, heating pad, warm sweaters. 
  • Breathe mindfully: I breathe deeply and intentionally. There is safety in this. 

TRF Offerings 

It is so wonderful to have access to a creative, scholarly, and practical community that is seeking to sustain and replenish lives post-trauma. TRF offers several resources for those seeking to better understand and heal from childhood trauma as well as do the on-the-grounds work of parenting. In the past several months, I have had the opportunity to participate in the Traumatic Stress Studies Certificate Program. This has been a deeply enriching experience and I have gained even more understanding of the implications of developmental trauma. TRF is also beginning The Inspired Parenting Series, which will seek to support parents and equip them with techniques that promote attunement and connection to their children. 

Erin Emmanuel, LCSW, cPT, is a therapist, fitness trainer, writer, and of course, mom. She lives in Boston, MA and is invested in helping others recover from their traumatic experiences through practices of creative attunement.

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