Not every adult experienced trauma as a child, but far more people have than what most of us realize. Research by the CDC estimates that about 60% of adults in America experienced at least one case of trauma during their childhood.
That’s 200 MILLION people.
It’s important to remember that trauma isn’t just physical or sexual abuse. It could also be something like losing a loved one, being in a car wreck, getting a medical diagnosis, having a parent deployed, growing up in an unsafe neighborhood, emotional neglect, food scarcity, or being chronically manipulated. The list is long, and what is traumatic for one child might not be traumatic to another.
Regardless, trauma leaves scars on both the brain and the body. It can change the way neural pathways function, cause people to live in fight-or-flight mode for the rest of their lives, freeze people at the mental age at which they were traumatized, and even stunt or exacerbate puberty. Going through a single moment of trauma can truly change a person’s entire life.
Going through repeated trauma can be even more damaging.
So what happens when someone goes through something–or several somethings–as a child that causes a traumatic response in them, and then they grow up to raise their own child who has experienced trauma? What does that look and feel like as a parent? How is it even possible to help another human being process their own pain in healthy ways if we’re still living with our own?
If you’ve never experienced trauma yourself, this question might not make sense to you. As someone who has, I can tell you that my own PTSD has trickled down into my children (particularly, my oldest child) because there are just some moments when I’m unable to keep myself together.
I was in car wreck as a teenager that left my mom immobile for three months and barely walking after that. Still to this day, fifteen years later, I hyperventilate whenever I have to ride in a car at nighttime on a one-on-one road. I go to therapy, take anxiety medication, and practice positive coping strategies, but the PTSD is still there.
Now, my oldest daughter, who has never been in a car wreck in her life, has an irrational fear of getting into one. She double and triple checks to make sure her little sister is buckled every time we get in the car, and if she thinks I’m not paying close enough attention while I’m driving, she screams and hides her eyes.
My own trauma initiated an anxiety in her that shouldn’t be there. Every time she screams while I’m driving the car, my heartrate immediately shoots up and I’m panicked the rest of the day. My trauma triggers her trauma, which triggers my trauma, which…. you get the idea.
A person close to me experienced severe neglect and sexual trauma as a child. She remembers coming home from kindergarten to fix dinner for her younger siblings. As she grew older, her drug-addicted mother lost custody of her, she went to live with her dad, her dad committed suicide, she went to live with grandparents, one of the grandparents molested her, and then she ended up bouncing around from foster home to foster home until she aged out.
And then when twenty-one years old, she was eight months pregnant with her first child when an F-5 tornado almost crushed her to death inside a grocery store.
What a freaking life, right?
As an adult, my friend now goes to therapy several times a week and takes medication for anxiety. You’d think she would be in a psychiatric facility after how hard life has been to her, but somehow, she’s still functioning and raising her own children. In fact, she’s even raising her biological niece who has Reactive Attachment Disorder and was removed from her parents shortly after birth.
[Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD) is a severe behavioral disorder that stems from early trauma revolving around emotional attachment.]
Talk about raising a child who triggers your own trauma!
Whenever my friend’s daughter (niece) has a behavioral episode, it almost ALWAYS triggers my friend to go into fight-or-flight mode. She doesn’t mean to. It just happens … because hearing someone scream takes her back to being a child who got screamed at by drug addicts. The high levels of stress that come with her daughter cause her to always be on edge, even when there’s no threat.
She’s also reminded of her traumatic childhood simply by the fact that, at any moment, her daughter could become explosively angry. It makes her feel out of control of her environment and makes her feel like she did as a kid in an abusive home.
When her daughter with RAD makes the other kids in their house feel afraid, my friend is back in that mindset of the kindergartener who had to protect and care for her younger siblings who were in danger. Or she’s that pregnant mama in the middle of Walmart with a roof lying on top of her, trying to protect her unborn baby.
She’s always tense, even when her daughter isn’t home, and as the time gets closer to go pick her daughter up from school, her stress level visibly rises. She gets irritable, impatient, and emotional. Attending therapy three times a week with her daughter helps them both, but it doesn’t take the trauma away for either of them.
The PTSD will always be there, and the two of them will probably always trigger one another. It’s not a lack of love. It’s just a lack of emotional security.
Raising children is not for the faint of heart, regardless of what our own childhood looked like. However, when life deals us a crappy hand at an early age, sometimes rearing children feels impossible.
And then when that same world is hard on your kids, too? It feels like defeat.
Are you raising a child who’s walking through trauma of their own? Did you go through trauma of your own? How do you cope with parenting now? What are your child’s behaviors that trigger you, or vice versa?