The Wounded Parent: Raising kids while we do our own healing work
Listen to me read this post:
Our vacation didn’t start well. We’d barely arrived at our AirBnB apartment when my daughter and I got into an argument.
Only one of us could have a bedroom to herself for the week we were there. My daughter had done the research on where to stay in Chicago and had booked the apartment. At some point, while making the arrangements, she’d told the rest of us where we’d sleep, and though I don’t remember the conversation, those arrangements involved me sharing a bedroom with one of her sisters. (The third sister was going to sleep in the living room.)
When we arrived, though, after two tiring days of driving, I suddenly thought “WHY am I paying for this vacation, doing most of the driving, etc., but not reaping the benefits of a room to myself?” And in that moment, the many years of having made sacrifices for my family bubbled to the surface and I thought “nope, not this time.”
I claimed the space, and she reacted. We argued, and then both stormed into separate bedrooms.
In that moment when I claimed the space, it wasn’t just about selfishness – I was trying to change one of my old patterns. For the twenty-two years I was married and the twenty-three I’ve been a mom, I have given up a lot of things and let a lot of my boundaries be crossed – especially on vacations – in order to keep the peace. (I learned it from my mom.) For whatever reason (ie. being away from home, spending too much time in enclosed spaces together, having to make more collective decisions than usual, etc.) our vacations have often been powder-kegs for conflict, especially between my ex-husband and daughters. Conflict makes me anxious and my typical trauma response, in that situation, is to “tend-and-befriend” – to look for whatever compromise I can make and to calm everyone’s emotions in order to smooth things over and return to what feels more safe.
I’ve given up so many things, in fact, that if you ask me (especially while I’m on vacation) which restaurants I like to eat at and where I like to stay, I get a little flummoxed and sometimes a little anxious because I want to make sure everyone else is satisfied first. (If everyone is satisfied and there is little potential for conflict, the little girl in me can relax and feel secure.)
In recent years, though, I’ve been doing a lot of healing and I’ve been trying to change some of those well-engrained patterns. I do this for myself, and I also do this for my daughters – I don’t want them to assume that, when/if they become mothers, they have to sacrifice themselves for everyone else. And I don’t want them to instinctually run from or rush to fix conflict whenever it surfaces.
The challenging thing about changing patterns, though, is that it can be quite disruptive to those who are used to the existing patterns. Also, the person changing the pattern hasn’t yet learned new skills in communicating this new way of being, and there’s tenderness in the exposed wound that they instinctually want to protect, so they can end up treating those they love rather brusquely and sometimes unfairly.
To put it frankly, I was a bit of a bully parent in the way that I claimed the space.
About half an hour later, my daughter came to me in tears. “Can I just tell you how that felt?” she asked, and I, softened by the time that had passed and the tears in her eyes, said “Yes.”
She told me that she’d felt brushed aside by me – that I hadn’t offered her an explanation, hadn’t honoured the agreement she thought we had, hadn’t considered the effort she’d put into researching and booking the place, and hadn’t shown any concern for her feelings or needs. “You don’t usually do that,” she said. “That triggered me and I pushed back.”
“You’re right. I handled that badly,” I said, and then asked if she’d like to hear the words I’d neglected to say earlier. I told her about how I’d been triggered in that moment too – how I’ve so often given up things to keep the family peace and how I’ve been intentional about trying to change that. I also told her about why having a bedroom to myself feels important right now – how it’s helped me heal some of my past trauma and how it helps me be a better mom when I honour my own need for solitude.
We listened, we soothed our own nervous systems when things were difficult to hear, we gave each other space, we forgave each other, and we figured out a compromise that allowed each of us to get at least some of what we needed. (In the language of Brené Brown, we agreed to “rumble” with what had transpired between us.)
The next morning, I told her “I’m proud of us. We managed to find our way through that without continuing to trigger each other and getting stuck in reactivity.”
I’m especially proud of HER, because she initiated the exchange that healed us, after the necessary pause. She was able to soothe her nervous system first and recognize that our relationship was much bigger than this conflict. And she wasn’t afraid to speak truth to her mother even though, ultimately, I’m the one who holds more power in the relationship and could have shut her down (and have done so in the past).
That exchange with my daughter came at a time when I’ve been especially aware of the impact that wounded parents have on their children when they don’t recognize and work on healing their own woundedness (which, admittedly, has been me in the past). In recent months, my backyard has been a bit of a haven for more than one young person who’s wrestling with how to communicate with reactive parents who shut down their children’s emotions and/or needs or shut down their own emotions and/or needs in the face of whatever triggers them. Listening to these stories and trying to offer support has made it especially clear to me how generational trauma gets passed down through the lineage until someone decides to face it.
Let’s be honest – there are few things that reveal our woundedness, our reactivity, our anxiety, or our fears the way that parenting does. There are few people who can trigger us in the way that our children can. There are few responsibilities that leave us feeling more insecure and uncertain than parenting. It’s a minefield for trauma triggers, for conflict, for overwhelm, for self-doubt, and for exhaustion. AND… it’s also the place where we put the most pressure on ourselves to “do it right” because we know we’re impacting someone else’s life. And it’s the area in which the old trope “never let them see you sweat” feels the most appropriate because we feel the pressure to show confidence in order to offer security to our children.
It’s all of that AND it’s the area of our lives in which we were given the least education and preparation and, for many of us, where we had little modelling of heathy parenting from our own wounded parents.
So here – from one wounded parent to another – are some thoughts on how to parent while you’re still working on your own healing. These come from my most recent parenting experience (with teens and young adults), so are geared to that age of parenting, but most of them can be adapted for younger age children as well.
1. Let them in on the story of your wounds. If you have childhood trauma, or you were in an abusive relationship, or you were sexually assaulted, etc., let them know as much about it as you think they can handle (keeping in mind what’s age-appropriate). This is especially important if the trauma left you with triggers that may show up in a way that your children will notice and be impacted. If they know, for example, that you might be triggered by car accidents because a loved one died in an accident, it might surprise them less when they see you having an anxiety attack or running from the scene. And if they have the understanding that your reactivity comes as a result of the trauma, they’ll be less likely to assume that your anger, etc., is targeted at them and less likely to absorb the shame of responsibility for triggering you.
2. Let them know what you’ll try to do to soothe your own nervous system in the moments when you’re triggered so that they can count on you to take responsibility for yourself and not to fall apart entirely. If you only give them the story of your trauma but don’t tell them about the healing work you’re doing, it will likely create insecurity for them and they’ll have their own vicarious trauma, worried about when and how you might fall apart, snap at them, etc.. If, on the other hand, they know that you might fall apart or be reactive momentarily, but then you’ll do what needs to be done to soothe and heal yourself, their security will increase.
3. Apologize when you mess up. You’re going to mess up – that’s a given. And you will likely wound your children when you mess up. We’re all human and flawed and nobody prepares us for this gargantuan task of raising children. You’ll snap at them, you’ll dismiss their feelings, you’ll make them feel invisible – it happens to all of us at some point, when we’re tired, triggered, overwhelmed, grieving, etc.. Start by forgiving yourself, do what you need to do to deal with the shame of the mistake you made (talk to a friend if that helps), and then apologize to your children. Your apology is a message of love to them and it helps them recognize that whatever happened is not their fault. It also lets them know that it’s okay to screw up once in awhile and it won’t mean that they’re a bad person when they do. (A word of caution, though – don’t over-apologize or insist that they forgive you right away. That can place a burden on them to process it too quickly or to look after your feelings instead of their own and that’s not fair.)
4. Help them to become emotionally literate by modelling it for them. Talk to them about your emotional responses to things (ie. what situations make you feel anxious, what might trigger your grief, etc.) so that they recognize (and aren’t afraid of) their own emotions when they show up. There’s good research that reveals that the more clearly we are able to articulate our emotions the more healthy our relationship with those emotions will be and the less they’ll control us. Help them to recognize that there are no “bad” emotions so that they don’t feel shame or try to hide what they’re going through. A child raised in an environment where all emotions are accepted and can be talked about will be more inclined to live authentically and to seek out help for the emotions that are hard to deal with alone. (If you’re not yet emotionally literate yourself, one way to become more so is to develop a mindfulness practice in which you name each emotion when it comes up. You might also want to write about your feelings in a journal.)
5. Don’t put the burden of holding space for your trauma, grief, healing, etc. on their shoulders. While it’s valuable for them to understand something about your wounds and your healing journey, it shouldn’t be their burden to look after you, soothe you, protect you, etc. That’s reversing the natural order of things and creates insecurity and instability, even for an adult child. Let them know that you have your own support system (therapist, friends, siblings, etc.) to whom you can and will turn when you’re struggling. You’ll take the burden off them, offer them more security, and model that it’s okay for them seek out help when they need it just as you do.
6. Teach them about boundaries by having your own and honouring theirs. Teach them about consent in the same way. Let them know what behaviour isn’t acceptable in your home, what kind of self-care you need in order to be a less grumpy parent, how they should treat your personal space, and what consequences might be in place when they cross a boundary. Let them establish their own, age-appropriate boundaries and honour their right to say no, even to you. For example, once my daughters were old enough to do their own laundry and clean their own rooms, I stopped going into their bedrooms without their permission. This was especially important when their dad moved out of the house and they had to grapple with the grief and fear that came from having their parents separated. I’ve always wanted them to know they have a safe place to go, where nobody is allowed to intrude, especially if/when they need solitude for their own self-care, self-soothing, etc.
7. Work to create an environment where it’s safe for them to challenge you, to talk about the ways your reactivity may have wounded them, and/or to admit their own fears, triggers, etc. A child who can trust that they won’t be shut down for expressing their needs or for being honest about how they feel will have a much greater sense of safety and security in their home and in life. A secure environment, with a healthy attachment to at least one parental figure (that isn’t threatened when they challenge you), is the best place for a child to grow up and to explore who they are. When they find themselves in their own trauma experience, they’ll be more likely to develop resilience if they have that secure base.
8. Don’t take everything personally. Especially in their teens, children go through a period in which they need to push the boundaries, break some rules, reject you, etc. to establish their own sense of independence. This is the normal individuation process – it’s NOT ABOUT YOU. You could be the perfect parent and they’d still feel the need to push against you. If you’re insecure and/or easily triggered, you might be inclined to take it all personally and that will activate your reactivity and trigger old abandonment wounds. Over and over again, you need to repeat a mantra… “It’s not personal – it’s just the way they grow up.” Work on communicating clear boundaries and expectations of acceptable behaviour without doing it in an emotional, triggered way. Give them the space and time they need to grow into themselves, and give them love and patience (even when it seems like they don’t return the love), and you’ll likely find that the relationship that’s on the other side is even better than it was before.
After my conflict with my daughter, I felt remarkably good about the way in which it helped us both to grow and to deepen our relationship. I once heard Dr. Dan Siegel say that “triggers can be your friends” and I agree with him. They can point you in the direction of what needs healing. They can reveal unresolved trauma and provide opportunities for growth and integration. And they can help you deepen your relationships with the people you love most.
If you’re reading through this list and it’s feeling overwhelming because you recognize the ways in which you’ve fallen short – take heart – it’s never too late to do repair work with your children and to change the relationship patterns. I’ve been doing a fair bit of that lately and I can see the ways it’s healing my relationships with my daughters and helping to support them in their growth as young adults. A friend of mine recently went to therapy with her adult daughter (who’s lived away from home for many years) and she said it’s been transformational in their relationship – especially the part where she took responsibility for earlier mistakes.
One more thing… if your children are not ready to trust you yet because of the ways in which they’ve been wounded, don’t give up on them – give them time and space to do their own healing work. As hard as it is to accept, you may have been the cause of trauma for them, and they’ll have their own healing journey to go through before they’re ready to trust.
P.S. In case you’re wondering, my daughter has given me permission to share this story. That’s another way in which I teach them about consent – I don’t write about them without giving them the right to say no.
If you want to learn more about holding space for trauma, grief, etc., and you want to expand your capacity to hold space for yourself so that you don’t wound other people, consider signing up for my Holding Space Practitioner Program. The next session starts in October and registration is open.