5 Tips for Parenting Traumatized Children Despite Your Own Childhood Trauma

5 Tips for Parenting Traumatized Children Despite Your Own Childhood Trauma

My Own Childhood Trauma

I was a scrawny freckle-faced girl, underweight, fearful, and constantly in survival mode.  What it boiled down to? My early parenting experience was chaotic.

“My early style of attachment was disorganized, which is common among those who grew up with an alcoholic parent. I wasn’t sure which “personality” of my dad would wake up in the morning. Would he be angry, or sweet? 

The sweet moments were rare. What I did one day and received a “good job” for might get an angry retort the next day. I became a dodger. I dodged being in the same room with my dad. The next moment, I tried to please him. 

The best way to explain disorganized attachment is with the adjectives confusing and scary. My dad was angry most of the time. I’m not telling you this so I can slam my dad. He had his own past to deal with. It pushed him around just as my past was pushing me around.” – How to Have Peace When Your Kids Are In Chaos

 I mistakenly thought my trauma history would give me the skills that would make me a great adoptive parent. When we adopted a sibling group of four to add to our three bios, I quickly found out how false the assumption was. 

Triggered By Stress

 A National Parenting of the Year Award didn’t eliminate my triggers or make me a better parent to my newly adopted kiddos. One of my sons complained when someone referred to me as “former National Parent of the Year”.

“It sounds like they stripped the award from you,” he said.

I often joke that the “Parent of the Year” should have been revoked after the adoption. Even though I had some great parenting after my mom remarried, I reverted to my early parenting years when triggered by stress. Rejection, shame, and fear were my go tos. I’m not going to get into that now, but just for your sake, you need to know the residue of trauma on your life and what triggers you.

Want to learn more about the residue of trauma? Read “Does Our Past Childhood Trauma Matter Now?”

Trying to parent kids who have trauma histories when you have experienced past trauma.

If you’re reading this and you, like me, experienced trauma at some point in your life, you may feel as if you aren’t able to parent your kiddos well. I get it. I went from thinking “I got this!” to “I can’t do this!” I was sucked into a chaotic loop some days, weeks, and even months. My kids had triggers. I had triggers. Our triggers entered into a game of tug of war. The result? We all got pulled into a deep pit of mud full of fear, shame, and rejection.

But, that’s not the end of the story. When I began to research, read, listen to the material, in essence, become trauma-informed, things began to change. I first had to become trauma-informed for Kathleen (me) and make “Sense of and Peace With My Past.” (Click title to read).

Then I had to go through the material again. Next, I had to put my big girl pants on and realize my past could not parent my children. Read that again.

If every time …

  • you have a power struggle with your kiddos,
  • or they get on your last nerve
  • or they push all your buttons
  • you revert to the negative/unattached ways you were parented -your past is parenting.

If a child evokes a feeling of rejection, shame, or anxiety, your past may be parenting. It doesn’t have to be that way. Before I move on, let me say, yes, you need to “Make Sense of and Peace With Your Past” but it’s not all going to happen in one day. And you don’t have to be healed to parent well. You need to be on the road to healing. I’m still on the road to healing. I don’t think I’ve passed the first-mile marker yet.

Five Things You Can Put in Practice Today to Parent Traumatized Children

1. Remind yourself your kids aren’t pushing your buttons on purpose.

Remind yourself your kids aren’t (always) pushing your buttons on purpose. They aren’t out to get you. They are protecting themselves. Survival mode. Don’t get stuck in us versus them.

“This is a common misconception among parents in general, but even more so with kids who have experienced trauma. Kids who have had trauma seem to have a built-in button-locating radar. They find our buttons and push them over and over. It’s natural that we parents may think they are pushing our buttons or misbehaving to make us mad.

In reality, their behavior stems from early trauma and its effect on them. Most children that come into foster care, orphanages, or other institutions are disorganized in their attachment and stuck in dis-integration. The people who were supposed to care for them hurt them. This sets off a constant warning bell in the brains of these children. We call the result a stress-shaped brain.” – How to Have Peace When Your Kids Are in Chaos

2. Be the adult. You can change your mind/attitude when your kiddos can’t.

You’re an adult. You can change your mind/attitude when your kiddos can’t. Don’t take the stance that you aren’t budging. Giving choices is sharing power. I’m a recovering control girl. I don’t like sharing power. But sharing appropriate amounts of power gives your kids voice and choice. “By sharing power appropriately with their children, parents can teach them to communicate effectively about their needs and fears, rather than resorting to behaviors, and can help them develop a strong foundation that will serve them well as they grow older.” Watch Dr. Karyn Purvis talk about “Sharing Power With Your Child” Here.

3. Be Aware -You will be triggered by their triggers.

You will be triggered by their triggers. Be aware. Start keeping track of your triggers. This is a tough one especially when we get stuck in reactionary parenting. We’re stuck in the loop of reacting the same way we always did without knowing why. Finding your triggers takes the intentionality of stepping back and observing yourself as if you were watching another person. Or as if you were watching a video and then advising the main character.

Kind of like, every time that kid leaves his shoes in front of the shoe keeper, this lady blows her top. My true story- When I realized my inner control-girl was overreacting, I started charging the kiddo for my cleaning service which usually resulted in us both making a mad dash to see who could put the shoes in first and laughing at the same time. Another way of tracking your triggers is journaling them – Read “Journaling Your Triggers” here.

4. Use Your Superpower of Empathy.

” Empathy is our superpower. So yes, our past childhood trauma matters now. Because of our trauma, we have the ability to activate our superpower -empathy.

“Compassion is a deeply held belief. Empathy is the skill set needed to bring compassion alive.” 

Brené Brown

Empathy is our motivation. Empathy is why those of us who experienced trauma in our childhood are drawn to kids from hard places. We were kids from hard places. We know what it’s like to be abused, neglected, abandoned, and have attachment issues. While we didn’t have all of the above and our stories are different. We understand the common theme of the residue of trauma.” – Does Our Past Childhood Trauma Matter Now?

If you have a trauma history, you have an advantage. You have empathy. You don’t just have a list of trauma-informed facts in a notebook. You have experience and that’s a skill set that “brings compassion alive.” So when you are parenting and things feel out of control, take a deep breath and push your empathy pause button. Remember the child in front of you is feeling things you understand. You’ve experienced those feelings. Empathy propels you into their shoes and you can pause and parent from there.  

5. You may suffer from compassion fatigue.

“I stood in the bathroom, brushing my hair before an appointment. My son was having a hard day and I couldn’t stop thinking about how to respond, react, or help him. I kept playing out different scenarios in my mind and trying to come to a solution. I grabbed my hair and gave it a tug and said to my frustrated image, “Get out of my head!”  I needed to think of the appointment in front of me and focus on it instead of on him.

When raising a child from a difficult place, we can develop what experts refer to as “compassion fatigue.” It is usually used to refer to professionals such as paramedics, nurses, counselors, and so on, who get overwhelmed with the input of negative second-hand stress. What about a parent raising a child who has come from a traumatic beginning or with developmental delays or a capital letter syndrome (ADD, ADHD, Sensory issues, on the spectrum, FAS, etc…)? Yes! Parents can and do experience compassion fatigue because parents can’t go home at the end of the day.

Psychology Today describes compassion fatigue as a type of Secondary Post Traumatic Stress. Compassion fatigue is a somewhat common phenomenon that affects medical workers, social workers, and even pastors. It stems from witnessing or hearing about traumatic experiences in the lives of other people and feeling helpless because you can only do so much to help.”

Our superpower of empathy, if not managed well, can lead to codependency and compassion fatigue. See my example above. Although this last one doesn’t really seem like a helpful tip, more like a warning, it is super important. If you recognize yourself as having “Secondary Post Traumatic Stress,” you need to treat it or you will not be able to parent well. You will be unwell. Ask me. I’ve been there. If you fell and broke your wrist, you would go get it treated, right? If you fall and break your compassion, your superpower will turn into living on the edge of frustration and fatigue. It’s no way to live. You can start with reading “Self-Care, Adoption, and Compassion Fatigue” for some helpful tips.

You Can Parent Your Children Well

You can parent traumatized children despite your own trauma history. Remind yourself your kiddos aren’t pushing your buttons to make you mad. They are just trying to survive according to the rules past trauma taught them. You have the ability to be the adult and share power with your child. Give them the voice you wish you had as a child. Once you learn how to pinpoint your triggers, you can pivot from reactionary parenting to proactive parenting and even have some fun like racing for the shoe keeper in my story earlier. You can parent well because of your superpower of empathy. Finally, if you are suffering from compassion fatigue, make sure treating it is a priority. Find a support system and encouragement – like this website and the people who follow it. You can parent your children well not despite, but because of your own childhood trauma.

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