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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
Trigger Points Anthology
A Safe Passage
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:
(Photo by Heinz-Eberhard Boden on Flickr)