Joyelle Brandt, trauma survivor, author, speaker, parenting coach & advocate discusses parenting with (C)PTSD
Janet is overwhelmed with a wave of revulsion and nausea every time she breastfeeds her child. Mateo feels guilty every time he changes his son’s diaper, as if he is doing something wrong. Han is filled with paralyzing anxiety every time her boys play-fight. What do these parents have in common? They are all parenting with ACEs.
Many research studies have now established how ACEs, or Adverse Childhood Experiences, negatively impact mental and physical health over a lifetime. The CDC-Kaiser Permanente ACE Study and subsequent surveys that show that most people in the U.S. have at least one ACE, and that people with four ACEs— including living with an alcoholic parent, racism, bullying, witnessing violence outside the home, physical abuse, and losing a parent to divorce — have a huge risk of adult onset of chronic health problems such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes, suicide, and alcoholism. An ACE score of six or more can shorten your lifespan by up to 20 years.
The question that is not being asked is, what happens when these survivors of childhood trauma grow up and have children of their own? Many survivors of childhood trauma are living with un-diagnosed PTSD that becomes un-manageable when they have kids of their own. These parents are blindsided by the sudden onset of flashbacks and triggers related to parenting. In the absence of information about this common occurrence, they are left feeling broken and alone.
Becoming a parent can give rise to unexpected feelings and thoughts for trauma survivors.
For parents who are survivors of childhood abuse, parenting is a daily minefield of triggers that can potentially bring on a trauma response. Some common triggers are:
· Pregnancy and labor and the feeling of being out of control of one’s body
· Physically touching their child and the child touching them
· Basic childcare activities, such as bathing, diaper changing and dressing
· The child turning the age the parent was when the abuse began or occurred
· Guilt because of lack of attachment to the child
· Having to put your child in care of someone else
Some of the most common reactions when we are triggered are:
· irrational rage
· debilitating fear
· unexplainable physical ailments (GI issues, headaches, chronic pain)
· substance abuse to numb
· over or under-reactions to protect child
· suicidal ideations and/or attempts
For many survivor parents, children become regular triggers for difficult feelings/memories from their past.
One of the most challenging aspects of becoming a parent as a trauma survivor is the lack of control. Prior to having children, most of us swung between living in a state of hyper arousal and dissociation or numbing. We actively avoided situations that we knew would be triggering. Survivors have spent a lifetime making invisible adjustments around their trauma. After having kids, we no longer have the option to avoid or numb the way we could before. This may be stating the obvious, but you can’t avoid your children when you are responsible for their caretaking. When your body is filled with rage as your child is having a major tantrum, crying and screaming, you can’t walk away. When you feel completely overwhelmed by the constant touch, you can’t escape it. When you suddenly find yourself reliving your childhood abuse as you are giving your daughter a bath, you can’t just get up and leave. You are not in control of your environment the way you were before having children, and that can be terrifying.
We need to acknowledge the impact of Adverse Childhood Experiences on families, and normalize the stress response that causes parents to be triggered by basic everyday parenting moments. For parents like Janet, Mateo and Han, knowing this information can mean the difference between suffering in silence and getting the help that they need.
I know this, because I am parenting with ACEs. I have been paralyzed by irrational fear when my son playfully stalked the house like a T-Rex. I have cried tears of horror when my toddler hit me, overwhelmed by flashbacks. I have felt guilt and shame while cleaning my children’s genitals, though my logical mind knew I was doing nothing wrong. This is the silent shame that survivors live with. This is the legacy of childhood abuse, and no one talks about it.
If you are parenting after childhood trauma, it helps to learn more about the impact of Adverse Childhood Experiences, and to read about how other parents manage their stress responses. That’s why we created the anthology and online community Parenting with PTSD.
The demands of parenting can uncloak a legacy of trauma that survivors may not have been fully aware of or prepared to deal with.
The greatest power we have is to share our stories. Stories have the power to connect us, to let us know that we are not alone, to let us know that we are not crazy or broken. In Parenting with PTSD, 26 survivor moms and dads talk about how they experienced moments of being triggered while parenting, and share resources that have helped them in their healing journey.
We can’t get better alone. Let’s talk about it.
Note: Joyelle will be joining us again in a few weeks for Part 2 when she will discuss some of the strategies/solutions for parenting she and her group have come up with.
About the author:
Joyelle Brandt is a parenting coach who specializes in working with mothers who are survivors of abuse. As a speaker, mothering coach, and multi-media creator, Joyelle works to dismantle the stigma that keeps childhood abuse survivors stuck in shame and self-hatred. She is the author of Princess Monsters from A to Z and co-editor of Parenting with PTSD, the groundbreaking anthology that breaks the silence about the long-term impact of childhood trauma so that parents can break the cycle of abuse.
When she is not busy raising two rambunctious boys, she is most often found playing her guitar or covered in paint at her art desk. You can keep up with Joyelle at www.joyellebrandt.com or follow her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram for art and inspiration.