PARENT'S CORNER: THE COURAGE OF PARENTING WITH A HISTORY OF TRAUMA
This is for all of you parents who lived through difficult childhoods, difficult years--through trauma (however you would define it), through neglect, through war—especially, but not necessarily, as children. This is for all of you who had to do whatever you needed to do to survive and now you are out on the other side. You made it with a lot of grit and effort. Your life is calm. It is good. And you are working hard as a parent to raise your children, whether they are toddlers, teens or young adults.
As a therapist I saw how hard it was for you-- as you work to raise your children in a life of happiness, even as that was something you did not get as a child.
You grew up in the country of trauma—and you managed to emigrate from that land and come to this new country of health—of peace. The country of health where your children are now growing up.
On the outside this sounds like the perfect happy ending. Parents are safe, and children are happy and healthy. It should be easy, right? It’s not. Because if you do it well, if you raise your children to get what you didn’t have –and I am not talking about material things, though they may figure in; I am talking about attention, and consistency, and care. I am talking about help with their homework and going to their games, and friendly dinner conversation. I am talking about the freedom of being a child, of being able to be age-appropriately self-focused; to be able to lean on you and struggle with you, and even ignore you.
If your child lives in this world of health, what’s difficult and painful is that they really will never understand your world—the world you grew up in. And this can be incredibly lonely. And can make a parent feel incredibly torn. On the one hand all you want is for your children to get what you didn’t get and have the opportunities you didn’t have, and on the other hand you worry that they don’t appreciate what they have and that they won’t get the strengths you have that saved your life. Holding these two vastly different worlds is so very hard and takes so much strength.
What I tell parents who have lived through trauma is this: If all goes well, your children will never completely understand you. They will love you and they will learn from you, but your experience will always be foreign to them. Maybe when they are adults they might be able to understand some of it, but they will never know what you really lived through. They will never see the world through the same lenses as you do. They will take things for granted that you see as the biggest gifts. They will not see all that you do for them, because what you do for them is a part of the fabric of their lives. Children only see what they live in. This is as it should be. It means you are doing it right, but it can feel so isolating.
One of the most baffling things for parents who have lived through trauma is this: childhood isn’t always easy, even if everything is going well. Learning is hard work. Growing up is hard work. Kids struggle and wrestle—they cry, they tantrum, they worry, they do thing wrong. They get sad over small things and small disappointments. Even in the happiest of households, it is a long trail with a lot of ups and downs. It takes a lot of learning to build the muscles of becoming a healthy person. And for parents who lived through trauma, this can come as a shock. Many of the parents I have worked with have voiced a similar sentiment: I thought a happy childhood was easy—I never imagined my kids having a hard time if there weren’t bad things happening. I don’t understand them when I see them getting upset over ‘nothing.’ I don’t understand them. And they don’t understand me.
And what I try to help them understand is that in healthy families—the kids are doing the developmental work they need to do. They are working on their growth, not yours. You need to work on your own growth, healing and development—so that you can support the growth and development of your kids.
It is tempting when you have had a difficult childhood to want to give your children the childhood you didn’t have. Yet the most important thing you can do is give your child what he or she needs. Each of your children will need different things—different parenting—than you needed –or even than the other siblings need. A more anxious kid needs different parenting than a more risk taking kid, for example.
The biggest casualties of a difficult childhood are the emotions. If you grow up in trauma you survive by shutting your emotions down, and then you have kids, and man, kids are nothing if not emotional. And they can trigger yours. How do you suddenly learn to manage your emotions? Find language for them? Tolerate them? One of the best books on emotional coaching is Faber & Mazlish’s How to Talk so Your Kids Will Listen and Listen so Your Kids Will Talk. It is a clear easy guide to talk about and coach kids through emotion. I made it required reading in all of the therapy classes I taught because it was the best guide out there, even for future therapists. And as you help your kids with their emotions. You can learn about your own.
Parenting with a trauma history is one of the bravest things that people can do—and it is invisible. If you are doing it well, nobody knows. Nobody cheers. If you had been physically disabled by a past trauma and chose to run a marathon—people would call you brave. But we don’t do that with emotional wounds. They are invisible and the parents who rise to the occasion—and parent with love and purpose—who give what they never got—they are unsung heroes.
One of bravest things you can do is to heal from your own trauma—because it allows you to hold your feelings, it allows you to get just a little bit of what your own children are getting—some support and help with the hard things. It allows you to have someone help you and coach you about child and adolescent development and understand what the losses and gifts were in your own trauma. It might help you understand your child’s world, this new world that you created. It is easier to have compassion for your children’s struggles when someone has had compassion for yours.
So I say to you. Stay strong and know you are doing one of the most difficult things I have witnessed. That you may feel alone, but you aren’t alone. That your courage and bravery are creating not only a better world for your children, but for the world right now and for generations to come. And as you teach your children about love, have compassion and love for yourself and the journey you are on.
© 2015 Gretchen L. Schmelzer, PhD