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Trauma and Parenting



Some parents might be very aware of having been traumatized in their youth and understand, at least to a degree, why their own trauma is relevant to their role as parents. Others who have few memories of their childhoods might not be certain whether or not they experienced traumatizing circumstances and, if they have, what the impact on their children's experience might be. And still other parents may feel that they've had healthy upbringings or have done enough personal healing to feel fairly certain that personal trauma is not a factor in how they show up as parents. In my own journey, I have related to each of these positions at one time or another. Before becoming a parent, I had engaged in a lot of self-exploration and had reflected a great deal on my childhood. When I did become a mother at age 33, I felt I had healed enough to give my son a very healthy childhood, from his time in utero onward. While I had not planned his conception, I felt certain that I wanted him and that I had the inner resources to be a good, loving mother. I also felt certain that his father would be a wonderful dad.


Of course, my son's father and I came face to face with challenges and questions as we embarked on our journey as parents. We floundered, we got stressed and overwhelmed, and we doubted ourselves along the way but, for the most part, we felt we were doing a good job and our son's life seemed to reflect that. He was generally a happy little guy with an adventuresome spirit and a strong bond to both parents. We did notice some traits in our son that concerned (and frustrated) us, but they were relatively minor in the big picture. In hindsight, I recognize them as indications of anxiety and early manifestations of what later developed into disabling OCD and a failure to thrive.


When, at puberty, his symptoms became quite severe, I became consumed with trying to understand what had gone wrong and how I could stop what was happening. I wanted to relieve my son's obvious pain, relieve my own pain, and foster his return to the seemingly happy and well-adjusted child he had been before. I also now realize that a huge part of my own pain was guilt. I believed that if I had truly done a good job as a mother, my son wouldn't be suffering so much, so I interpreted the fact that he was suffering to mean that I had done something wrong - maybe even REALLY wrong. I racked my brain trying to figure out what I'd missed... or what his father had missed. For years, we took our son to various medical and psychological experts with mixed results. I was studying Family Constellation Work at the time and had learned enough to know that symptoms in children do not show up in isolation - that they are related to events and relationships within the larger family system and even to traumas that happened in previous generations. Because of this, I did many constellations of my own in an attempt to address any issues of which I was a part. To some degree, these were helpful, but the focus of the outside help we were seeking was primarily my son. While there were very real risks to his life that demanded attention, I can only imagine that the intense focus on him compared to the relatively minimal focus on what was unhealed within me and within his father must have added to our son's burden. Being seen as "the problem" or the "one with the problem" is a heavy weight for anyone.


As time went on, some things improved - at least on the outside. The physical risks to his life diminished and, by age 18, he was able to hold down a job and had a good circle of friends. I felt some relief with these changes but always worried about his emotional wellbeing. He wasn't a happy person most of the time. I found it difficult to move forward with my own life - allowing myself to engage in activities and relationships that were enlivening to me - while being a mother, albeit to an almost-adult son. I could identify many things that I thought would help him, but that he wouldn't or couldn't do. It was easy to get ensnared in a fruitless battle of trying to get him to change his behaviors and, in so doing, suck the life out of both of us. But when you see your kid hanging on by a thread, it's immensely difficult to step back and trust them to find their way.


'It's immensely difficult to step back and trust them to find their way' - I say this again because it leads to what, I believe, is the truly difficult part of stepping back. In stepping back from a pattern of trying to get someone else to change - to "help", to "heal", however you call it - we are now just with ourselves and a space opens in which we can begin to feel how we are when we're not focused on someone else. In my experience, this space was uncomfortable. I began to feel MY anxiety, MY lack of thriving, and to see MY compulsions. All the focus on my son had provided a distraction from my own pain - pain I hadn't even realized was there.


This is the point at which I really began to investigate what happened to me in my early life. My study of Family Constellation Work led gradually into the study of Identity-oriented Psychotrauma Theory, or IoPT, which is related but unique in its ability to reveal where and how the impacts of trauma live out in our own psyches and, therefore, in our relationships, especially in our parenting. As I discovered, 'wanting a child' and 'loving a child' are not so clear-cut. Intermixed with my authentic want of and love for my child were some other things. For example, a fear of being able to financially support a child, and an unmet need from my own infancy to be seen, wanted, and loved.


The incredible love and attention that are felt in a baby's gaze into the mother's or father's eyes... The reaching by the baby to connect with their parent... These are beautiful gifts we receive as parents, but if we come to these experiences with unmet bonding needs from our own infancies, there is the potential for the parent to inadvertently look to the child to fill their need to be seen and loved. This is traumatizing for the child because it causes them to split off their own need to be seen, loved, and nourished as the child in order to take care of the mother and/or father. This is a survival strategy of the child because they can best ensure the parents' presence and care by trying to meet their parents' needs. This is one example from my own life of how a parent's unresolved early childhood trauma can impact a child in a profound way. I believe now that a major factor in my son not thriving was that I was not thriving and had not ever thrived. I was an unplanned pregnancy and one that overwhelmed my mother - perhaps my father as well. I survived my childhood by becoming a 'good girl' and an overachiever because, by doing so, I received the best dose of my parents’ love and approval that I could. But my survival strategy precluded knowing who I really was and what I really wanted... for most of my life until recently.


IoPT has given me a tool with which to explore how my pre-, perinatal, and early childhood years were in order to identify and address how I was impacted by traumatizing circumstances. As I've learned, trauma is not just the result of violent or abusive things that happen to us, but is perhaps more often the result of having not been wanted, seen, and loved for who we are and of having to split off our own needs, so as not to trigger or overwhelm our parents. Over time, this splitting has more serious consequences, such as what my son experienced.


Ironically - or perhaps not so ironically - after I began investigating my own trauma, my son began to take more responsibility for himself and to develop emotionally/spiritually in a way that has given him a strong inner compass and the ability to love and regulate himself. He has found resources that work for him and continues to share many of them with me. He's almost 27 now and while I still worry about him on occasion, I deeply trust him. I also understand and accept that there is not one of us on this planet who hasn't struggled at one time or another. Being human entails feeling pain and experiencing hardship. These provide the contrast needed to know wellness and joy. And they are also the doorway into the discovery of who we are and of what we need and want in order to live out our best lives.



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