The Impact of Trauma and PTSD on Parenting

By Brandi Kennedy, Family Violence Victim Advocate

Trigger Warning: This blog post references or discusses information about sexual assault and/or violence/abuse, which may be triggering for survivors.

As a Family Violence Victim Advocate, I often notice a survivor’s past traumas impacting how they parent. Part of my work at New Horizons includes working on the agency’s domestic violence legislative agenda and writing testimony on behalf of the survivors serviced through our agency. While I was gathering testimony for Connecticut’s coercive control bill, I reached out to individuals whose cases contained aspects of coercive control that included financial, emotional and psychological abuse. Many of these survivors disclosed a history of childhood physical and sexual abuse. Each story highlighted how trauma associated with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and their past abuse as children continued to impact their daily life and the lives of their children, affecting the ways they parented, the partners they chose and their responses to abuse when there were red flags. What struck me in many of these chronic abuse cases was that children often became triggers that survivors could not avoid and this awareness caused them to spiral into cycles of hopelessness, many asking, “How could my own child set me off? Does this make me a bad parent?”

A survivor’s  story

One particular survivor’s testimony expressed that, at 16 years old, her pervasive experience with emotional neglect, physical and sexual abuse created an environment where she constantly felt like she was walking on eggshells throughout her teenage and young adult years. As a teenage mother, she moved in with her controlling boyfriend to escape being physically abused by her own mother and sexually abused by her stepfather. She described that parenting a newborn was more challenging at times than actually enduring abuse, and being in a post-partum state increased her depression, anxiety, night terrors and onset of traumatic flashbacks as symptoms of her PTSD all at once. She said she internalized and hid many of these challenges due to the shame and guilt associated with her ability to parent her children. Even showing her children affection was particularly hard as she struggled with feelings of panic when changing a diaper, bathing or breastfeeding. She described feeling “tainted” by flashbacks of her own body being sexualized and violated throughout her childhood. Her post-partum state became the catalyst leading her into overwhelming cycles of negative self-beliefs and feelings of inadequacy during a time that she states she should have been at her happiest.

Parenting added a new level to her recovery that no one had ever warned her about and that she had to learn to navigate. She began to understand how innocent she had been at the time her abuse began by witnessing her children at the same age, and this realization showed up in her parenting style in which she called herself a self-proclaimed “helicopter parent.” She described needing to control everything around her and her children, recognizing that she felt she needed to limit her childrens’ independence and autonomy to keep them safe. Many of our discussions would focus on her inability to trust, hypervigilance of those around her, feelings of unworthiness as a parent and self-injurious behaviors that resumed shortly after giving birth to her third child.

Having a complex history of compounded and prolonged abuse as well as chronic toxic stress levels distorts connections in the brain and fosters an internal environment where a survivor’s nervous system rewires in an abnormal manner. Beseel van der Kolk , one of the world’s foremost experts on trauma, outlines in his research writings that trauma lives within the body. Van der Kolk says, “trauma victims cannot recover until they become familiar with and befriend the sensations in their bodies…the mind needs to be reeducated to the physical sensations, and the body needs to be helped to tolerate and enjoy the comfort of touch.” Survivors of violence and abuse can often feel numb when engaging with their children. Normal parenting actions like hugging, playing and cuddling children can trigger feeling disconnected from their own bodies.

Seeking help

It is important for survivors feeling this way to seek out someone who can help them process these feelings. Talking to a certified domestic violence counselor can allow survivors a safe place to emphasize on a strengths-based therapeutic approach recognizing the incredible amount of conviction, energy and resilience it takes to work through PTSD symptoms while raising children.

Advocates can also make immediate referrals to clinicians for long-term behavioral health therapists to offer more in-depth trauma support. This is essential to healing as children often respond to their parent’s PTSD behaviors in similar ways either exhibiting many of the same symptoms themselves, having to “parent-ify” themselves to take on more of the parent’s roles or shutting down their own ability to express their emotions. The impact of traumatic stress on children can also manifest as learning problems, lower grades, somatic complaints such as headaches and stomach aches, insomnia, attention problems and either refusing to eat or overeating. These effects can last a lifetime.

For survivors, it is critical to understand you are not alone. Your emotions and the trauma you have endured are valid and you do not have to go through it in silence.