Trauma in Families: How to Stop it in its Tracks

Embracing Our Parts – A Look into Internal Family Systems Therapy
August 12, 2019

Trauma in Families: How to Stop it in its Tracks

Many of us have memories of experiencing hurt caused by a parent growing up. Perhaps these experiences are only small blips in an otherwise blissful childhood. Or perhaps there are a lot of blips, much too many. For those who have these memories, a common fear when having children is “how do I make sure my child never experiences what I did?”

This fear is coming from a valid and healthy place. What was modeled to us from our parents growing up can strongly influence how we parent our own children. This is how transgenerational trauma takes place. So, how can we use these experiences to influence our parenting styles in a more productive way, and change the way we parent from how we were parented?

Below are some of the ways to be more mindful of your parenting patterns, and therapy can be a wonderful and supportive space for you to engage in this work!

1. Evaluate objectively.

A good first step is working with an objective outside party, (such as a therapist) to explore both the positive and negative parenting practices your parents engaged in. Instead of saying “my parents were perfect” or “my parents were terrible” it is also important to break down both the good AND the bad. No parent has ever done everything well, and no parent has ever done everything horribly. Perhaps your parents were overly strict but were great at making sure they showed up to school functions. Perhaps your parents were amazing at showing love and care but never enforced any boundaries or rules. Even for those who cannot find the positive in their parents’ caregiving strategies, there is still much to be learned about what you do not want to use in your own parenting.

2.Feel the pain.

Many times we want to “brush it off” when others hurt us, or minimize it. This is not helpful. Make sure that you are letting yourself feel any hurt you may have experienced in growing up. This may seem like a daunting task, but a supportive therapist can help you through it. Feeling the hurt and exploring it not only allows you to understand exactly what was an issue in growing up but also how strongly it affected you. Emotions are powerful teaching tools, and truly feeling the hurt can help identify how our parents’ parenting style contributed to our pain and in ensuring we don’t repeat those patterns.

3. Understand where your own parents’ difficulties came from.

Have you ever caught yourself doing or saying something and thinking “I sound just like my mother/father”? Perhaps it was even something you promised yourself you’d never do when you experienced it from them! If you do not understand what caused your parent to behave as they did, it can be extremely difficult to make sure you never act in that way yourself.

For example, let’s say your grandparents were strict, so your parents learned to be strict as well. You decide you are not going to follow this path, but find yourself experiencing difficulty in this when worries arise about the safety of your child. You find that your first reaction is to set strict rules! It might be important for you to explore how your own parents may have felt these worries and reacted to them. It also might be important for you to explore how your parent’s worries impacted your own anxiety or worries for your child!

4. Tune into your body.

Many times trauma and pain is “stored” in our body. We might not consciously recognize its effects without turning inward. Bessel Van der Kolk in “The Body Keeps the Score” talks about how anxiety, reactivity, and somatic symptoms (e.g. headaches, stomach aches) are just some of the ways our bodies store trauma. All of these can make it difficult to parent in the ways we envisioned for ourselves. A supportive therapist can aid you in finding self-care and self-soothing skills to lower difficulties that cause us to be more reactive or experience difficulties within our own bodies.

5. Try not to overcorrect.

Many times we might wish to change a pattern we had in our own family growing up, but we rebel against this pattern by overcorrecting. Using the same example as above, if our parents were strict we might become very lenient with our children. However, research has shown that overly strict and overly lenient parenting can both cause difficulties for children. Both Amy Morin in “4 Types of Parenting Styles and their Effects” and Michael Fulwiler of the Gottman Institute discuss outcomes of these types of parenting (see articles below).

If we find ourselves overreacting, it is important to go back a couple of steps. We might evaluate both the good and bad that comes from rule setting and feel the hurt caused by the way our parents chose to set rules. Next, we might try to understand why our parents may have wanted to set rules (even if they went overboard) and utilize some self-soothing skills for any anxiety or difficulties that we feel about this in our own parenting. Last, we might explore how to find a balance in this through the knowledge we have gained!

Fulwiler, M. (2014) “The Four Parenting Styles”. Retrieved August 11th at

https://www.gottman.com/blog/the-four-parenting-styles/

Morin, A. (2019) “4 Types of Parenting Styles and their Effects on Kids”. Retrieved August 11th at

https://www.verywellfamily.com/types-of-parenting-styles-1095045

Van der Kolk, B. (2014). The body keeps the score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. New York, NY: Penguin Books.

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