Family, Kids & Relationships

Signs your own trauma is affecting how you parent (and what to do about it)

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Unfortunately, many of us have experienced some kind of trauma in the past—and those experiences can affect the way we treat our kids.

As much as we try to be compassionate parents, sometimes our own issues get in the way and we find ourselves perpetuating negative messages or repeating damaging cycles that we want to break out of.

It’s OK to need help. Being a parent is intense, and struggling alone when you haven’t found healing from past trauma is only going to make you feel less equipped to handle the daily challenges. If you suspect past trauma could be affecting your own parenting, below you’ll find some important steps you can use to “re-parent” yourself in order to break the cycle of trauma and do better by this generation of kids.

Recognize the signs

The effects of your own past trauma—whether it’s abuse, loss of a loved one, sickness or disability, discrimination, financial insecurity, mental illness or substance abuse in the family, etc.—can show up later in life in many unexpected ways, and the intensity of parenting can bring some of these issues back up.

The first step to breaking the cycle is to become more aware of the signs in your own parenting. Here are some possible signs to look out for:

  • Constant fear of acting like your own parents did
  • Shutting down when experiencing overwhelming emotions
  • Being overly protective of your kids
  • Not trusting your kids’ instincts, or not trusting their teachers and caregivers
  • Constant guilt over not being a good enough parent
  • Inability to set healthy boundaries and say “no”
  • Repeating negative messages you received in the past
  • Having trouble connecting emotionally with your kids
  • Struggling to manage your temper
  • Feeling like you can’t get through everyday challenges

When you learn to recognize these red flags as they happen, you’ll be more aware of what’s causing your fear, negative emotions, or unwanted reaction. Once you can pinpoint the cause, it’s easier to work on the solution.

Learn to accept the past

Past events have already happened and can’t be changed. The more you talk about it (with friends, partners, therapists, fellow trauma survivors, etc.), or write about it in a journal or in online groups, the more you will learn to be okay with the uncomfortable emotions that come up when you think about the past trauma.

Accepting the past doesn’t mean that you agree with what happened. It means that you can make more sense of it, and no longer have to wrestle with the feelings of denial and fear that are blocking you from moving forward and growing.

Finding another adult whom you can talk to about past trauma and your ongoing struggles is a sign of strength, not weakness. If you are not sure where to start, there are support groups for survivors of various types of trauma. Many of them are free and many of them meet online. Realizing that you’re not alone in your struggles is a necessary step toward acceptance and healing.

Take care of yourself

Think about the way you take care of kids: taking them to doctor’s appointments, helping them stick to their bedtimes, and making sure they get enough healthy food and physical and mental stimulation. Are you doing that for yourself regularly enough?

Instead of thinking of “self-care” as having a bubble bath and some dark chocolate, think of it as being a responsible, compassionate parent to yourself. Take yourself to the doctor, even if you don’t have a life-threatening condition. Plan your own meals and snacks, and the times you’re going to sit down to enjoy them. Give yourself enough time to sleep, exercise, and learn about things that you’re interested in.

These self-care actions not only help improve your overall physical and mental health and help you overcome stress, but they also cultivate your self-love and self-worth so that you’re motivated to keep working on your own healing process.

Become aware of your triggers

If you have explosive reactions to annoying behavior, or you tend to shut down emotionally or engage in other unhealthy behaviors in response to certain situations, there may be a trigger (or triggers) related to your past trauma. Figuring out those triggers will be an important key to improving your response.

Write down what types of situations lead to you reacting in ways that you later regret. For example:

  • Being interrupted by your kids
  • Not being listened to
  • The sound of yelling or screaming
  • Physical aggression or your kids not respecting physical boundaries
  • Messiness or disorganization
  • Other specific language or behaviors

Whatever the triggers are, learn to recognize that these relatively minor and common behaviors are setting off your brain’s fear response, which makes you act rashly and emotionally. Once you realize that is what’s happening, it becomes easier to come up with a more thoughtful response in the future.

Turn negatives into positives

It’s hard to break out of negative feelings and a negative outlook. But it’s a habit that can be broken, and training yourself to reframe things in a positive light can help you respond in a more compassionate manner towards your kids.

Next time you catch yourself having a negative thought, like “I’m being such a bad parent right now” or “Why does my child have to be so annoying?” …

Practice rewriting it into a more positive thought, such as “I’m having a hard day, but it’s wonderful that I can recognize that and think about how to make it better” or “My child has so much energy, it’s exciting to think about what they could accomplish with it someday.”

Celebrate your progress

Making a positive change in your life is not easy, especially if you’ve experienced trauma. Progress will likely be slow, and that’s okay.

So when you do make an improvement—such as opening up to a trusted friend about a past trauma, or successfully recognizing a trigger in the moment and responding more calmly—give yourself a pat on the back and commemorate the moment.

Write down your accomplishment in a journal. Brag to a friend about your progress. Make or buy yourself your favorite meal or snack. Tell your kids that you’re feeling proud of yourself.

Joanna Eng is a staff writer and digital content specialist at ParentsTogether. She lives with her wife and two kids in New York, where she loves to hike, try new foods, and check out way too many books from the library.