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Trauma and parenting

What is a trauma?

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.

What are the symptoms of trauma

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: 

  • Having nightmares or flashbacks that make the person feel as being exposed again to the traumatic event;
  • Avoiding situations, places or people that remind the person of the trauma;
  • Being constantly on guard, suspicious or easily startled, having outbursts of anger, being irritable or having trouble sleeping or difficulties concentrating;
  • Feeling detached from the circle of family and friends or having trouble experiencing emotions;
  • Having little hope for the future or having highly negative perceptions of self or others.

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.

What are the repercussions of childhood trauma when become a parent? 

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:

  • Physical reactions (for example, accelerated heart rate, shallow breathing, muscle tension, etc.);
  • Strong emotional reactions (for example; anger, fear, despair, irritability toward certain situations or people);
  • Dissociation, that is a tendency of the individual to momentarily detach himself/herself from what is going on in his/her life, so that the individual can no longer remember what he/she has said or done;
  • Escape or avoidance, that is the tendency of withdrawing from others or from certain chores/activities, in order to avoid elements that trigger recollection of the trauma;
  • Alcohol or drug use or self-destructive behaviours (for example, self-harm) to try to feel better or console oneself.

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.

How can these traumatic reactions affect a parent in his/her role or in building a relationship with his/her child? 

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.

What can a parent with traumatic reactions can do? 

Certain things may help a parent who was exposed to adverse life events feel better when experiencing traumatic reactions:

  • To be kind to oneself and to keep in mind that traumatic symptoms are considered normal reactions following a traumatic event. These are often strategies to adapt to something very destabilizing;
  • To be patient with oneself since overcoming trauma-related difficulties is a lengthy process;
  • To approach difficult thoughts, emotions and reactions with the help of trusted people, healthcare professionals or health workers (i.e., at CISSS/CIUSSS, Maison des familles, shelter and other community resources);
  • To accept that trauma-related thoughts and memories can cause distress. This is quite normal. Struggling against this distress may increase suffering, whereas accepting to tolerate its presence may help to better deal with it. One should remember that accepting to tolerate the distress does not mean agreeing with the traumatic experiences per say;
  • To use strategies to make oneself feel calmer and safer despite the distress experienced. For example, relaxation or stress-management techniques. Such approaches are often available in community leisure centres, or available on paper or audio media;
  • To be patient with one’s children and to try to understand the motivation behind their behaviour;
  • To seek professional help. Psychotherapy is a good way to understand what has happened, its impacts and how to get out of it.

How can psychotherapy help?

A psychologist or a psychotherapist with good knowledge of trauma and its impact will work with the person in order:

  • To develop a sense of being better able to realistically evaluate if a given event or person is dangerous or, on the contrary, if he/she can feel confident and safe;
  • To understand past experienced events and their impacts on thoughts, feelings, behaviours and relationships (including the relationship with the child);
  • To regain hope that it is possible to feel better, even if currently experiencing suffering;
  • To learn new strategies to feel better and deal with stress and difficult emotions;
  • To be able to deal with the past and finding ways of building a satisfying future despite what has happened