“I will not make the same mistakes my parents made.” It may be one of the most common sentiments in the world of parenting. But when we express this desire, it is often met with rolled eyes or some other doubtful response. Why is that? Deep down inside, I think we all sense it is much more complicated than we are willing to acknowledge. Changing our parenting approach from the way we were raised is extremely difficult. The only easy solution is to swing the parenting pendulum to the opposite extreme, which does very little to improve the situation. It is as though we are hard-wired to behave in the same manner. In reality, that may be the truth. Our brain has been wired to perceive reality in a certain way.
With that said, the sentiment should not be met with so much skepticism. It is changes in parenting that are largely responsible for any human evolution that has occurred thus far. If we were parenting the same as the first humans, things would be very different. But to make changes in generational parenting requires conscious choices and a honed awareness of the patterns we want to stop. That is not easy. There has to be significant motivation to make that happen.
In the case of parents who grew up with complex trauma, we have all the motivation we could possibly need. The complex trauma survivors I know have vowed they will never abuse their children again. And this is great to hear. There are a large number of parents who have agreed to stop the cycle of abuse. And I know they will.
But there’s a problem. While the sexual and physical abuse will stop with them, there are other patterns or habits that are harder to notice and change. These habits come from the belief systems within abusive families that are passed down to children. And they are exceptionally hard habits to break. But the first step is awareness. And I have made it my mission to bring these habits in to the light. There are seven habits that seem to be particularly prominent within the survivor parent community.
1) We hover. I know what you are thinking. How else do we keep them safe? And I understand the sentiment. But we are sending the wrong message to our children. We are letting them know they can’t handle life without our help. We must prepare our children for life on their own. And we can do that by prepping them with the confidence and high self esteem that wards off predators. Hovering won’t do that.
2) We disconnect. Of course we disconnect from life. Dissociation was the only technique that got us through childhood. But now, we find it difficult to enjoy life and be present with our children. We may even feel like we are living in two different worlds. As we learn techniques to come back to the moment, we can dramatically impact our relationship with our children.
3) We struggle to set boundaries. Children are going to push boundaries even when they are set well. But with trauma, we struggle to set them and stick to them. Children may express emotions which can be triggering for us. Children may get aggressive which can be terrifying for us. But no matter what they say, children need limits to feel safe. And we have to find a way to tolerate their response to our limits.
4) We mistrust others. Let me cut to the chase, we don’t necessarily trust our children either. Why would we? We never learned trust. Our family taught us the opposite. So we may show a little more disbelief than the average parent. We may assume ulterior motives more than other parents. And we may be faced with a bit more lying, especially if we react strongly to it. It is important that we use trusting words with our children so they know we believe them. But that takes practice and awareness.
5) We respond from fear. I often hear from clients about how they lost control. I describe it as the “invasion of the body snatchers” phenomenon. We don’t want to yell. And we certainly don’t want to rage. But when the situation appears dangerous to our inner child, we are no longer in control. And it can take every ounce of strength we have to get it back. By that point, the damage is often done. And while apologies are a great thing, it sure would be nice to respond differently. So we must begin some inner conversations to curb that fear response.
6) We pass down our beliefs. We might not be passing down the traumatic abuse, but our unconscious statements and actions can make quite an impact on our children. And coming out of a dysfunctional family, there can be many. Children of parents with trauma can learn that they are powerless to make change, genders are not equal, maintaining control is safer, and emotional expression is not safe. If you are noticing anxiety in your children, they may be picking up on some of these messages.
7) We compensate for our insecurities. There is nobody who feels comfortable as a parent. I repeat. Nobody knows what they are doing. But survivors of trauma are convinced they are the worst at it. And there are so many reasons. Maybe there is no extended family around. Maybe there is only one parent. Maybe there is guilt because survivors have been taught that everything is their fault. But monetary and material compensation doesn’t send the right message. We need to find other ways to manage the guilt because more than likely, it is misplaced.
So what do we do about this? I wish there was an easy solution, but there isn’t. As I mentioned earlier, we are hard-wired and we have to make change slowly and deliberately. And if we have raised our children with these habits for a while, the children need to change too (although it is much easier for them to change). We have to build a daily awareness practice about how we are carrying the legacy we don’t want.
This is why I have developed an email workshop called Parenting with Complex Trauma. Each week of the workshop, you can examine how one habit is impacting your life and what you can do about it. The first step is always awareness. And I can help you with that step. If you are determined to make positive change in your family, I can provide you with tips and journaling prompts that helped me in my own journey. So join me as you start this life-changing work. And let’s stop this cycle for good.