elevating child care

Parenting and Triggers: Wounds of the Past (Guest Post by Elisabeth Corey)

In a recent post, I suggested some “dos” and “don’ts” for setting limits confidently that included:
Do recognize that your child is highly aware, but also small and unthreatening, and that you are big, mature, and experienced. Our children can seem gi-normous at times, but a more realistic perspective will help us recognize that a child is neither a peer nor an ogre. There’s nothing he or she can send our way that we can’t handle with relative ease.
Proving (once again) that one size will never fit all, a commenter responded:
“There’s nothing he or she can send our way that we can’t handle with relative ease.” I wish that this were true. After years of abuse and neglect in my own childhood, I seem to be constantly triggered by my child’s actions. I cower at my child’s defiance and insistence. It’s not just “giving in.” I seem utterly incapable of being “breezy” and “in-charge.” The social worker on the maternity ward actually said, “Given what you’ve been through, it’s amazing you have chosen to have a child at all.” Now I am starting wonder if she had a point. It’s almost four years on, and I have never been the one in control.
A friend recommended your site. I wish I felt anywhere near as capable as some of your comment writers. Have you written anything about how to parent confidently and respectfully as a survivor of abuse? Or do you have any other authors to recommend on that topic?”
Elisabeth Corey immediately came to mind. A survivor of family-controlled child sex trafficking and sex abuse, Elisabeth is a writer, speaker, and consultant who has dedicated her life to guiding and supporting other abuse survivors. Her perspective and insights are valuable to all parents, regardless of our own childhoods, as we consider our daily interactions with our children. I am a huge fan of Elisabeth and was touched and honored when she agreed to share her wisdom in this guest post…

When I became a parent, I knew I was in trouble … almost instantly.  While I had yet to remember my childhood trauma because of dissociation and memory repression, I had the sense that something was very wrong.  I quickly became painfully aware that I had no idea how to parent.  I know I am not alone in that feeling.  Almost everyone feels that way when they first have children.  But I was different.  I was unable to draw from my own childhood experiences because I didn’t have parents.  I had abusers, I had pimps, but I did not have parents.

So I started to comb the internet in search of bloggers who wrote about parenting.  I was looking for experts who were parenting in the way I intuitively knew would be best for my children.  I was looking for writers who could tell me how to do it.  And I was blessed to find Janet Lansbury.  I instantly related to respect for the child as an individual.  I loved the idea of giving children room to fail and succeed to help them build confidence and independence.  I knew I would never abuse my children, but I wanted to take it further.  I wanted to stop the cycle on many levels.

But there was a problem.

Everything about my trauma-riddled system was working against these parenting ideals.  Fear and anxiety were running my life, which made it impossible for me to exhibit the behaviors necessary to promote confidence and independence in my children.

So when Janet came to me with a comment from one of her readers, I instantly related to it.  I had been there myself.

When I was growing up, I was taught certain things about life, none of which were healthy.  And when I had children, I projected those same beliefs upon them.  This is normal and cannot be stopped.  But we can unlearn what we have been taught as children, and when we do this work to change our beliefs, the projection will also change.  Here are some of the beliefs I was taught:

  1. That emotional expression was completely unacceptable and would be met with horrific consequences. I learned quickly to hide all emotions, including the good emotions.  My family would get suspicious when I was too happy, but they could not tolerate sadness.  They would accuse me of being manipulative when I cried.  And if I dared to express anger, they would become oppressive, and abuse usually followed.
  2. That it was unacceptable to establish boundaries for any reason. I desperately tried to say “no” to my parents and other abusers, but my boundary was ignored every time.  As a teenager, I would try to say “no,” but it would lead to additional abuse.  I grew to become fearful of declining the wants and needs of others.
  3. That my needs were not important enough to be met. My parents were narcissists who made it clear where children stood on the priority list.  We were at the bottom.  Our needs were not considered within the family structure.  If I attempted to express a need, my family would do the opposite to discourage any future expression on my part.
  4. That I was a victim and had absolutely no control over my life. I am a willful person, and even as a child I attempted to stand up for myself.  I told people about my abuse.  I tried to find ways to escape the family.  But anytime I attempted an escape, it would end in more abuse.  I soon learned that helplessness was going to be my way of life.  I learned that my life was not my own.
  5. That trust was impossible. My parents would be kind to me when they wanted something in return.  Kindness was only used for manipulation.  It was never authentic.  I learned that connection to others could only be painful.
  6. And I was taught that confidence would be punished. In an abusive environment, a victim’s confidence is considered dangerous — a predecessor to breaking free and talking to others outside the circle of abuse.  Confidence was quickly squelched with insults and passive-aggressive statements.  I learned to keep my confidence and my passions to myself.  By the end of my childhood, there wasn’t much left.

Imagine attempting to raise children with these beliefs running through the system.  I didn’t know how to say “no.”  I didn’t know how to handle emotional expression.  I didn’t know how to express confidence when parenting.  And I wasn’t capable of truly trusting my children either.  For the first several years, I was so intimidated, I was actually scared to be around my children.  On the bad days, I even saw them as my next generation of oppressors.  I felt this way because they exhibited “dangerous” behaviors based on my own beliefs from childhood.

But through years of difficult awareness work, I was able to recognize how my past was impacting my present.  And I made changes.

So, how do we make those changes?  We must bring awareness to our triggers, our trauma responses.  Triggers are the painful response we have when our children are exhibiting behaviors we find dangerous.  For example, a parent with little childhood trauma may find crying to be an annoyance.  It might bother them some, but they may be able to cope with it.  But a trauma survivor may have a visceral fight, flight, or freeze response to the crying.  The survivor may unconsciously believe that their child is endangering their life or the life of others around them.  And honestly, this could be a realistic response based on their experiences in childhood.

When I first began my work, I noticed that I would respond to my daughter’s crying by yelling or telling her to stop.  When I became more aware, I realized that she was already learning that her emotions were unacceptable.  As I became more tolerant of her crying, she stepped it up for a while.  She cried louder and longer.  She had built up some emotions that needed to be released, but I was able to give her that freedom of expression.  It took time to undo, but I see a difference in her confidence now.

So how do we cope with our trauma responses to our children?  We must take steps to come back to our body.  When our child is exhibiting a “dangerous” behavior, there are several steps we can take to facilitate change in our response.

  1. We must recognize that we are triggered. This is the most important step.  Awareness of our trigger response will bring change, even if we consciously do nothing else.  Take note of how you are reacting in your body and mind.  What are you thinking?  Is your body tense?  Is your heart racing?  Journal about the response.
  2. We must work to stay in the present moment. One key to awareness work is understanding that our response is not about the present moment.  You are not having a panic attack because your child is upset.  You are having a panic attack because of what that behavior means to you.  And that meaning was created in the past, when you were a child.  Find a way to bring yourself to the present moment.  Breathing is helpful.  Making contact with objects in the room can be helpful also.  Your favorite yoga posture could be your way of staying in the moment.
  3. We must take steps to understand our reaction. When we understand where our trigger response is coming from, we will find it easier to change.  If we are reacting because of something we were told or an abusive experience, we can use that to help us in the moment.  You might think, “This is about what my father told me and it wasn’t true.”  Or you might think, “This is about being abused, and I am safe now.”  Journal about this understanding.

This awareness work is hard.  There will be painful emotions to be processed. (I recommend a therapeutic relationship to help with the coping.)  There will be physical reactions, too.  It takes a level of commitment that rivals our commitment to our children.  But that is just the point.  It is the commitment to our children, to bringing them up in a different world with different beliefs that motivates us to do this work.

Our children will become who we are, so we need to become who we want them to be.

 

Elisabeth Corey is a survivor of family-controlled child sex trafficking and sex abuse.  Her education in social work and personal experiences as a survivor inform her intimate discussion about the biological, psychological, social, and spiritual aspects of trauma recovery, which she discusses on her blog at BeatingTrauma.com.  She guides other survivors as they navigate life and parenting with private sessions, workshops and a forum.  She also works with media and organizations through her workshops, writing, and speaking.  Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Resources:

Trigger Points Anthology

https://www.facebook.com/TriggerPointsAnthology

http://triggerpointsanthology.com/

Beating Trauma

www.beatingtrauma.com

https://www.facebook.com/BeatingTrauma?ref=hl

A Safe Passage

http://asafepassage.info/

There are many sites that focus on healing from trauma and keeping children safe from abuse, but there are not many sites focused on parenting after trauma.  Here are a few sites that touch on the topic:

http://www.pandys.org/

http://www.themamabeareffect.org/parenting-as-a-survivor.html

http://www.isa.asn.au/109/survivors-and-parenting

 

(Photo by Heinz-Eberhard Boden on Flickr)

 

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41 Responses to “Parenting and Triggers: Wounds of the Past (Guest Post by Elisabeth Corey)”

  1. This is such an amazing and inspiring post! Emotional neglect and abuse started young for my family, and the physical fights didn’t start until I was a teenager, but I do find myself triggered with certain behaviours of my child. It’s been a constant battle for me to accept her emotions and be okay with them. I’ve heard myself say words to discourage the crying that I cannot believe are coming out of my mouth, and the hardest thing (for me) is trying to take it back and apologize adequately. It’s sometimes less intimidating to not guide or parent through it for fear of “doing it wrong.”
    Thank you for being a light unto others.

    • Thank you Jennifer. I completely understand. When we are taught that emotions are dangerous, it is so hard to calm ourselves when our kids express themselves with emotion. I have struggled with it so much. For me, it sometimes feels as though I am trying to save them from harm by encouraging them to be quiet (which is what my mother did with me so often). But of course, it doesn’t have the intended effect. The good news is we both have an awareness about it. That’s powerful.

  2. avatar Anne R. says:

    This is what I have been needing. I thought I had things under control and had put my past away and was finding good ways to parent. But my daughter is three now. She is bigger and smarter and more independent than ever and recently something snapped. I am sure I will have to do some work to figure out exactly what caused this, but it suddenly felt impossible to be the parent I was trying to be. I would wake up and think “today I will be the calm confident compassionate leader that my children need” but by bedtime I was worried I was suck on a path to become the demons of my childhood. My gut reactions to some moments are so fast and so strong. Once it is passed I think “how could I have said that? How could I have felt so angry? She just did something so small and normal.” I felt like I was going crazy. I realize now, I have just been avoiding the real underlying cause. Which is surely why my previous attempts at fixing it have not worked. Time to get to work.

    • Thank you Anne. You are right on cue. Everything spiraled when my children turned three. They suddenly became little people with opinions (even though they always were) and I freaked out. In my family, expressing an opinion was dangerous, so I would get triggered whenever they became adamant about anything. I even projected my parents on to them. Conveniently, I have one boy and one girl, so that was an easy leap to make. I had to come to terms with the fact that my children were not trying to control or manipulate me like my parents before I could calm myself in these moments. And it is still touch and go. I offer support for this type of work on my website at beatingtrauma.com with a forum and guidance. Feel free to stop by.

  3. avatar Nancy says:

    You are such a brave and wise woman.
    “Our children will become who we are, so we need to become who we want them to be.”
    It’s a huge responsibility, and yet the biggest motivation to be the best we can possibly be.

    Thank you for sharing.

    • Thank you Nancy. You are right. It has been my primary motivation in recovery. Otherwise, I might have spent a lifetime in denial.

  4. avatar Melissa says:

    Thank you for posting on Janet’s site I would have never come across this as I never think that I need to deal with my abuse from the past.

    I am keenly aware of it when my kids interact with other adults( I always have this feeling I can trust anyone specially men alone with them so I am always the hovering parent). But I guess it would and has impacted my parenting lately I have gotten a lot less sleep due to my work schedule and it seems this has led to reactive parenting , the surprising ( or not so surprising) thing is how intense they have been I have been yelling a lot and I wonder if it has to do with abuse

    I will visit your site … Maybe I’ll realize I need therapeutic help.

    • Thank you Melissa. I can completely relate to the need to hover based on a traumatic past. I sometimes write about that also. It is normal for abuse to impact our parenting, but most don’t realize it is a factor at all. Your awareness is a great first step. I am glad this article helped you with that.

  5. avatar Lauren says:

    Wonderful post. Thanks for sharing some several steps we can take to facilitate change in our trauma response. We must be motivated to have commitment to our children.

    • Thank you Lauren. It does take motivation to do this work. And our children certainly provide that.

  6. avatar Sophie says:

    powerful post, thank you Elisabeth and Janet. It has made me realize that even though I wasn’t abused as a child my parents would hit or threatened to hit me if I cried. So no surprise I am very uncomfortable with my son’s crying. I would love to read more about success stories of parents and children who did not discover or begin practicing R I E right away and were able to undo damage.

    • Hi Sophie, It is possible to undo the damage but it is certainly harder than doing it when their young. I didn’t discover RIE until my twins were at least 4 years old and I have managed to undo some of the earlier habits between us. It takes dedication and awareness to make it happen, but it can happen.

  7. avatar Ana says:

    Dear Elisabeth. I have got parents quarrels traumas in my youth and now few days ago I became a single mother of 3 year old boy. For now we do not have our home and live at my mam. I see that changing surroundings is very difficult for a small one.. He cannot play independently so easy any longer more, and his need for my attention is at the end of the day is exhausting for me. I often often aggressive and impatient with my boy.. And my heart fills with sorrow for my bad words and actions towards him..My question is about how to create a safe playing space for a child, when you are on the move and when you are stressed with arranging life for your child by yourself?
    Thank you kindly for your response!

    • Hi Ana, Transitions can be stressful for children and adults. There is no doubt. Try to take time just for holding him if you can. He will really need touch from you, and if he doesn’t get it, he will inundate you and overstimulate you. I have a very touchy son and he triggers me with his constant need for physical touch. He will come at me in any way he can to get my attention. When I make an effort to initiate extra hugs and cuddle time, his triggering behavior dissipates and our relationship is so much better. Try taking 10 minutes to hold him in the morning and 10 minutes to hold him in the evening. Give all your attention to him during that time. See if that helps to calm him down and inevitably help you with reclaiming your boundaries.

      I will ask Janet to weigh in on the play space, but I know when I moved my kids in their toddler years, I did what I could to create a space that looked similar. The consistency seemed to help.

    • avatar janet says:

      Sounds very challenging, Ana! I believe that it’s vital for you to clearly express your boundaries to your son long before you feel impatient and aggressive. That will require letting go of responsibility for his feelings. Your job is to accept his reactions to your limits, i.e., “I can’t play with you right now, because I need to make dinner… or go take a shower… or whatever.” Then he screams, “I need you to play with me!” And you respond, “You don’t like that I can’t play right now. I hear you. I will be available after dinner and I look forward to playing with you then.” He doesn’t need your attention for these extended periods… he wants it. That is different, and something you can help him with. But if you feel worried and guilty, you will not be able to set the boundaries he needs. And you will end up feeling overwhelmed and behaving in a manner that you may regret. It’s kinder and more loving to allow him to scream for you, while you are clear and comfortable with what you can and cannot do… Giving him this opportunity to express his feeling is positive. He may need to share the stresses of his day with you and this is how children commonly do it…they push until you set a limit so that they can cry or scream.

      This post might be helpful to you: http://www.janetlansbury.com/2015/04/help-my-toddler-cant-play-without-me/

  8. avatar Emma N says:

    Thank you Janet and Elisabeth- such a powerful piece. Parenting has been the most powerful impetus to work on my own childhood sexual abuse, neglect and abandonment. Your story brings me hope! I had panic attacks and rage when my son would cry. It felt almost impossible to see past my triggers. Your blog has helped me so much, as, of course, has Janet’s blog. Blessings to you both.

    • Thank you Emma. I am so glad it has helped. Parenting is quite the motivator, isn’t it? Honestly, I am not sure I would have opened the door to my past if it hadn’t been for the twins.

  9. avatar Donna says:

    Thank you so much for sharing this. I started to realize similar things a few months ago and began therapy (my daughter is 2.5 yrs and I’m due with my second any day now…).
    You are courageous and strong! It can be so lonely… Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

  10. Thank you Donna. I am so glad to hear you are bringing awareness to your parenting in this way. And good luck with the new addition.

  11. avatar agurl says:

    I have 3 sons aged 24, 23, and 20. I have bonus sons 16 and 21. I wish that I had this information 24 years ago. I have damaged my 3 bio sons…grace I have with my bonus sons.

    • Don’t inundate yourself with guilt. Each generation will take a part of the work and over time, we will all heal. It can’t be done in one generation.

      • avatar janet says:

        Elisabeth, you are so wonderful. Just had to say that!

      • avatar Rain says:

        This is the personal burden I bear, to undo it all in one generation.

        My mother suffered in her childhood but has never shared. She is also a narcissist. I did not realize all of this until I had children myself. All along I thought it was me. I was who I was and I reacted because of who I was.

        It wasn’t until having children and being triggered and the thoughts that came to my mind…but in that moment, while these thoughts went off in my head like a fireworks display, I made my first connection to trauma in my childhood. From there my journey has been long, painful, rewarding and freeing.

        I witnesses my mother exhibit emotional manipulation over my child and verbally diminish me in front of all my family members. That was the start to the end of that relationship.
        I happy, I free, I no longer have a role in the narcissistic narrative that was once my life.
        However, I still have triggers and my responses are not always admirable. So if this trauma cannot be undone in one generation, is my fate with my children going to take a similar path that I have taken with my mother?
        This is such a great fear of mine. I am working hard, on me, for them.

  12. avatar Mel says:

    Wow. GOOD subject and so infrequently addressed. The article seems to focus on more intense trauma during the now-parent’s childhood, but we all bring our baggage with us, I believe. It’s definitely something to look out for.

    • That’s true. While I do focus on intense trauma, most can relate to what I say. I think this trauma runs on a continuum and we have all experienced something. Honestly, I wonder if it is a mandatory part of the human experience.

  13. avatar Astrid says:

    Thank you so much for this deeply moving and transformative post. It really opened my eyes to my responses to my 4 year old and how I can improve awareness of my own anxiety to his big emotions. Since so many of us have been abused in the past (especially emotionally abused) it would be great to have more of these types of posts as it is a topic not spoken about enough! Thanks again for a wonderful post.

    • Hi Astrid, Thank you. I post about this topic often on my blog, but it does need more attention. It is very important that we build our awareness to our trigger responses.

  14. avatar K says:

    I have written so many comments here and deleted them all. I just don’t know how to express my utter gratitude at finding this article. Now, today, in this very moment.

    I can relate so much and feel like there is even a little hope that I can turn my parenting around and raise my children the way I wish I had all along. My greatest fear is that it is too late to undo the damage I have probably inflicted on my son (aged 3) but I know the only options are remain the same which is painful for us both or move forward and parent peacefully and hope it is not too late.

    I have recently started to parent with threats (stop screaming at night or i’ll turn the lights off and shut the door – awful I know) and in total fear of his emotions (You have to stop yelling, STOP. I CAN’T LISTEN TO IT PLEASE JUST STOP). How do you undo the damage done?? I love my kids so much. My son is such hard work (probably not but it feels like that for me) and I have no positive experience to draw on……

  15. Hi K, I completely relate to all you are saying here. I want to start by saying it is never too late. It is amazing how much can be reversed. And you are right, the alternative is to stay the same. The key is to focus on your reaction to him. And that is hard because it would be so much easier to blame the child. But they dance the dance we teach them, so it is all on the adults. I do have a guidance program. If you are interested in some one-on-one help, send me an email at beatingtrauma@gmail.com. I would be glad to discuss it with you.

  16. avatar Miki says:

    I am three kids deep and sinking. This website has changed my life (not exaggerating) in just two short days since I stumbled upon it. I loathe when my five year old son expresses any negative emotion. He writhes and shrieks and usually I respond similarly. Until reading this I had a sad lack of introspection as to why I hated crying. Now I can see it is because of my entire childhood of being encouraged/forced to suppress any emotion whatsoever but especially anything negative. I am hoping through education and awareness I can eliminate my response to his screaming and let him scream because he is just plain old mad. Its not the end of the world. Now my question is: He tends to scream the most when my younger children (2 and 6 months) are napping and I cannot handle when he wakes them up from their naps screaming because his Lego broke, his picture is not perfect or something of that nature. How do I handle him screaming and having tantrums without reacting while I am trying to preserve the sleep of two other children, in a small space? Or do I ignore him? I usually resort to taking privileges away but it definitely does not seem like the right option. Any tips would be great?

  17. I am sorry for responding so late to this. I just saw this comment. If your son tends to scream during their nap, I wonder if your anxiety rises during that time. Children can sense that energy and react out of fear or stress. Try making a conscious effort to stay as calm and present as possible. Watch your breathing and increase your self awareness during that period of time. See if he calms a bit.

  18. avatar Karen Martin says:

    I am so excited that Elisabeth and Janet have connected. The world for children is becoming so much of a better place for women like these. Thank you Elisabeth and Janet for all you have done for me! xo

  19. avatar Gabriela Noles says:

    Thank you very much for all of these information. It is of much help for me. This is such an amazing post!

  20. avatar Jen Naz says:

    This article is really great. Im really scared for my son. When he was a baby until 2 years old I was very patient with him but turning 3 I started losing control, i couldnt calmly handle his big emotions.im afraid ive scarred him for life, when i couldnt take his tantrums anymore I would shut myslef in the bedroom and not let him in, he would bang the door and cry hysterically for me to open, i kept yelling i will never come out again if he keeps behaving that way, i would threaten leaving him and moving somewhere and not come back for him 🙁 🙁 one time i even pretended to pack my bags… Then after the storm passes and were okay i would apologize to him but im afraid ive damaged him. Ive done this many times.

  21. avatar Brenna says:

    Hi, just wondering if anyone know of any good books written on this subject?
    Thanks!

    • avatar Brandi says:

      A book recommendation in respinse to Brenna: In addition to Janet’s books I think that ‘Peaceful parents, happy kids’ is another resource that is in line with what this topic is about – doing work to identify how our own experiences as a child affect how we interact with our kids and how to move forward peacefully.
      Thank you to Elisabeth and Janet for their tireless efforts to improve our world by opening the minds and hearts of parents. You have a real impact.

  22. avatar Emily Court says:

    My tip – Patience and Practice!
    Be patient with your self as you learn, heal and grow.
    And practice the new things you are learning (i.e. self care, parenting tips, calming strategies, home organization etc).
    ((Hugs))

  23. avatar Tamara says:

    For all those commenting that they are concerned about undoing the damage they have caused their young children…it is never too late.

    My father made incredible changes when he turned 60 (I was mid-20s). He repaired so many wounds that were created when I was a child. As a result, our entire family has healed. Of course, it is not perfect, but it is never too late to start.

  24. avatar Elizabeth says:

    I’m in tears as I read this article because I can relate so deeply. I am currently in EMDR therapy healing from an abusive childhood and past while being Mama to two sweet toddlers.
    Thank you for writing this and sharing your experiences. I am so sorry you were hurt. Thank you for sharing and breaking the cycle!

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