Experiencing trauma can dramatically effect our ability to effectively parent. Additionally, children can exacerbate existing symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD).
Here are 4 major factors to consider when parenting with PTSD:
1. Dealing with Triggers
If you have never been in therapy, you may not be aware of your triggers. Triggers are essentially the things that cause other things to happen. In trauma, triggers are the things that lead to flashbacks, body memories, or emotional flashbacks.
Flashbacks can be both a sense of re-experiencing an event (feeling like you are really there, seeing/hearing/smelling things that happened, body memories etc) or can also be a sudden, intense emotion. Emotional flashbacks are extremely common in CPTSD and involve a feeling of being transported back to a time you were powerless (often a childhood emotional state). They are often trickier to understand because they are usually separated from the actual memory of the event. For the person experiencing the flashback, it can feel like a wave of emotion just came out of nowhere. To the outside observer, emotional flashbacks can look like a severe mood swing or an outburst of rage that can be difficult to understand.
Some of the biggest parenting triggers for parents with PTSD & C-PTSD are:
Kids are touchy. They are intrusive. They cling and climb and always want to be in your personal space (when is the last time you went to the bathroom uninterrupted?). All parents experience feeling over-touched and need a break sometimes. For someone who has experienced body violation or non-consensual touch, this can be a nightmare. We may lash out or find ways to avoid physical contact with our children. This can create a tough cycle because children are soothed by touch. If a parent is triggered by the thing that soothes the child, the child is likely to demonstrate more dysregulation and thus trigger the parent more.
Children make a lot of noise. Lots of noise constantly can be overstimulating for any parent (especially when we are trying to work from home or complete other important tasks) and can lead to overwhelm. When kids make sudden noise it can trigger our startle response and or a fight response (yelling, disproportionate anger).
Children need constant attention & presence. This is draining for any parent. But for someone who never experienced attunement or safe presence from their own caregivers, this can be overwhelming. Parents can feel flooded with anxiety or doubt about their ability to provide care.
Parents with PTSD or CPTSD may experience anger or rage at developmentally appropriate behavior. For example, if you were never allowed to cry or whine (or experienced harsh punishment for doing so), you may find your toddler’s whining intolerable. This can lead to harsh or disproportionate responses (yelling or slamming things) and subsequently feeling guilt, shame, or powerlessness. Parents may find themselves acting in an overly harsh or militant manner to try and prevent the child’s behaviors and prevent the cycle from continuing.
Hypoarousal is a survival state of the autonomic nervous system (think: the “freeze” part of fight/flight/freeze). It is basically when our bodies go into slow down mode. We may be under-responsive, numb, or even “check out” or dissociate. Dissociation can make it difficult to play or enjoy time with your children. Untreated PTSD can lead to persistent feelings of being disconnected from your children. Children aren’t able to understand this and may feel like they aren’t getting enough attention, attunement, or even feel as though the parent doesn’t care about them.
Folks with PTSD and CPTSD who tend to go into hypoarousal often try to avoid potentially triggering situations. For parents, this can mean avoiding things that are meaningful to children (movies, play places, large events). This can lead to difficulties because the avoidance can be misinterpreted by the child as disinterest or lack of caring when in actuality, the parent is trying to protect themselves. Hypoarousal may also mean that you are not able to provide appropriate discipline to children. Parents with PTSD or CPTSD can be overly permissive in an attempt to avoid emotional escalation and overwhelm.
Hyperarousal is our bodies “fight” or “flight” survival response. It is when we feel constantly on edge because our bodies are constantly screening for danger. Over time this can lead to chronic fatigue (allostatic load) and makes us generally irritable and gives us a low frustration tolerance.
Consider that you aren’t an “angry parent” you are a traumatized parent.
Chronic hyperarousal can leave us feeling like we have a “short fuse” For parents with PTSD and CPTSD, this can look like anxiety or preoccupation with danger. We may become nitpick-y, demand perfection, or feel inflexible. Kids can feel smothered, overprotected, or over controlled.
4. Not having a “village”
If your trauma has come from your early childhood experiences or abuse by a family member, there is a chance that your “village” has been affected. This means that typical sources of support (ex: asking mom or dad to come watch the kids so you can get some self-care) are not available. Additionally, when we have experienced trauma, we may find it difficult to trust paid supports like babysitters or daycare providers.
If we were “parentified” as children (expected to act like “little adults,” to take care of siblings or a parent), we may find ourselves feeling like we are the only ones who can do things properly and can feel intense discomfort with the idea of delegating caregiving tasks. All of this prevents us from accessing support and relief.
If you think your traumatic experiences are being exacerbated by or negatively impacting your parenting, please know that relief is possible. Treatment by a licensed therapy professional who specializes in CPTSD and PTSD can help you regulate your body, understand your triggers, and develop tools to feel safer and more empowered as a parent.