A trauma can be an event that threatens life or may endanger the safety of a person. We consider that any context preventing a child from developing a sense of security at the physical level and at the psychological level may represent a trauma. We think, for example, of family contexts when a child experiences or witnesses spousal violence, physical abuse, sexual assault, psychological violence or neglect. Other situations can also be experienced as trauma by a person, such as living with a parent who uses illicit drugs or alcohol or suffers from a mental health problem. Therefore, this way of defining trauma includes intense events that may occur only once and others that may last over time.
A trauma can result in short-term or long-term physical or psychological reactions. These reactions can affect the capacity of the person to adapt. In general, healthcare professionals consider that the following symptoms may be linked to a traumatic event, whether this event has happened recently or not:
Research helps us understand how trauma affects individuals exposed to it. Today, we know that a person may have experienced trauma without after-effects, and that some traumatic events seemingly benign might, however, have major impacts on the individual’s functioning. The after-effects of trauma may be externalized (noticeable by others) or internalized (not noticeable by others).
They may develop quickly after trauma or many years later. It also seems that a person might be considered as having traumatic symptoms even if he/she does not consider himself/herself as being traumatized by what has happened. Inversely, a person might be considered as resilient, even if he/she presents certain difficulties following what was experienced.
In short, we know that the way we perceive a difficult life event, and the way we react to it, varies from one person to another. Speaking with a mental health professional to reflect upon it together might be a good way of seeing a clearer way ahead.
Expecting a child and the year following the birth represent important adaptation periods for all adults and may be among the most critical life periods with regards to psychological well-being. Research that focuses on this period in adult life is expanding. Some data indicate that expecting a child and the infant’s birth can represent an even more important challenge when parents have been exposed to adverse life events during their childhood.
It seems that pregnancy might reactivate previous trauma symptoms in about 20% of future mothers. In addition, expecting a child might be a propitious moment to look back on past family experiences and to reflect on the type of parent one wants to be. When an individual’s childhood or relationships with his/her parents have been marked by difficult elements, it is plausible that these normal reflexions may cause distress.
This distress may still linger after the child’s birth and force the parent to deal with painful emotions, while having to respond to a baby’s needs. This is one of the reasons why the STEP team believes in the importance of providing a space, for adults who have experienced adverse life events, to go over their queries before the birth of their child.
When parents have gone through a traumatic experience, they might be confronted by elements that trigger recollection of the trauma. These triggers of traumatic memories may occur at unexpected times and may take different forms: a diaper change, a time when a parent is unsuccessful at comforting the child, a comment from the circle of family and friends, or even a feeling experienced while interacting with the child.
Possible reactions to these reminders include:
Some of these reactions may be normal, since they are attempts to adapt to a difficult and stressful reality. Other reactions can, however, bring negative consequences or be harmful to the parent and/or to other family members, including the child. These reactions may be the signal that the parent puts a lot of efforts into dealing with past events, possibly leaving him/her with fewer resources for his/her parental role.
Besides the impacts on the parent’s well-being, the traumatic reactions mentioned previously may affect his/her role as a parent and his/her relationship with the child. The parent may have trouble discerning whether the child or he/she is safe of not. The parent can also become very alert to the possibility that the child may experience the same thing that he/she did. On the contrary, it is also possible that the parent minimizes the impact that such an event could have on his/her child, since the parent him-/herself has managed to overcome it.
Furthermore, the child’s emotional manifestations of insecurity may provoke distress in the parent, because it reminds him/her how he/she felt as a child or because he/she already feels vulnerable. Finally, for a parent who has experienced past abusive and disrespectful behaviours, it may be difficult to avoid taking personally the child’s aggressive or defiant behaviours. These behaviours are part of a normal child’s development and serve to communicate uneasiness, or construct his/her own identity. A parent who has experienced trauma as a child can wrongfully believe that the child is rejecting him/her, is ill-intentioned or is deliberately making him/her angry.
Certain things may help a parent who was exposed to adverse life events feel better when experiencing traumatic reactions:
A psychologist or a psychotherapist with good knowledge of trauma and its impact will work with the person in order: