Discover how to hold onto your own heart, then you will be able to take care of your child’s heart too. If you are distracted by where your own heart got hurt or broken, you may not be able to take care of your child’s heart as easily. This blog explains what childhood trauma is, why healing from your own childhood traumas is vital, how to start your healing and the benefits this will bring to your family.
Many of you probably feel like you’ve dealt with your past. Until you unintentionally hurt your kids in the same way that your were hurt by your parents. Then you may feel guilt or shame. That is where healing comes into play.
What is Trauma?
If this is your first exposure to becoming a gentle parent, you may wrongly assume that trauma has to be extreme in nature. It does not. Whilst trauma can be huge events that cause distress, it can also grow from the smallest of mistakes, repeated to you throughout your life.
How Do I Know if I Have Trauma?
You may feel you were raised fairly well, by loving parents who tried their best. Even if this is the case, but especially if it wasn’t the case, there is one easy way to know if you have trauma that you’ve not yet dealt with.
If you feel a negative emotion in response to your child, then the likelihood is it relates to your own childhood. Negative emotions include feeling angry, frustrated, or a negative feeling about your child’s personality such as ‘my baby is so manipulative’.
Children cry or scream or hurt, whether you see a valid reason for it or not, ‘to get attention’ for one reason. They need your support and attention. Some parents feel that if they respond to a ‘cry for attention’ it will spoil the child. Gentle parents know differently. That cry is just as valid as a cry in response to what you see as genuine pain. They are trying to communicate to you, without being able to in the form of words, that they need your time or help.
If you react to your child’s cry for attention by screaming or smacking then you can follow my healing process instead, which was inspired by Siegel & Hartzell’s ‘Parenting From the Inside Out’ book. Daniel Siegel is a clinical professor of psychiatry, an award-winning educator, and specialises in attachment. In their book, Siegel and Hartzell explain how the human brain develops. It is a science-backed book which uses studies which have shown brains of people raised in trauma compared to those who weren’t.
They refer to two parts of the brain which function when trying to communicate. There is the ‘high road’ where you can empathise with another’s emotions and explain yourself coherently in words. This form of functioning is where you need to be in order to stay connected with your children. On the opposite end of the brain is the ‘low road’ state of mind, where people can become overwhelmed with emotions. Some can go as far as describing themselves as ‘losing my mind’, they can feel rage. This can be directed towards their children even with the best of intentions not to.
Trauma can cause the ‘low road’ to surface unexpectedly and/or frequently. Sometimes a result of the ‘low road’ can be that you intended to apologise to your kid but they just triggered you again and you lost it again instead. Or you avoid apologising to your baby at all because your own brain, or people around you, convinced you that your child deserved such treatment. You may even feel that it’s your child’s job to seek connection again because it was their fault that you got so mad.
In order to heal from a ‘low road’ interaction, you have to return your brain to functioning on the ‘high road’. This is where your empathy and words will come from. If you do not, and if this negative sort of interaction happens repeatedly with your child, you may cause trauma to your own children.
But How Can You Move Yourself From ‘Low Road’ to ‘High Road’?
This is the fun part. When I recently healed myself from a trauma that kept resurfacing within me, I was thrilled that the process worked.
As a bit of a background, my first unrelenting trauma was how angry and frustrated I felt anytime my daughter sucked her thumb. My brain and gut was screaming ‘You are now 2 years old! Stop it already! Argh!’. I responded in a low-road state at times. Once I was so overwhlemed with emotion, my husband had been working day-in-day out for months and I had two newborn babies as well. I told her to stop sucking her thumb in front of me as I didn’t like it. She looked upset, so I said “obviously you can go elsewhere and suck it, just not in front of me’. Or along those lines. She went off on her own for a few minutes and came back, not sucking her thumb. I realised how wrong I was.
I couldn’t find anything on Google to help with these insane feelings I was having. I started getting triggered by my daughter wafting her hair over her chest too. I knew childhood traumas existed, but didn’t understand how to process them. I was convinced it must have been because I was asked to stop sucking a dummy at the age of 2. I apparently willingly put the dummy in the bin and never looked back. Did my rage feelings towards my daughter’s thumb sucking mean I actually did not intend to give up my dummy so young?
I continued searching for answers as I could not cope emotionally feeling this way towards my daughter who I know I adored. It did not feel like that was how a loving mother should feel towards her daughter. I started blocking the emotions by putting a hand on the side of my head to block my eyesight if she was sucking her thumb near me. I sometimes had to put a finger in my ear to stop myself hearing it.
Then I read two of Daniel Siegel’s books – Parenting from the Inside Out and The Whole-Brain Child and summarised their explanations about brain development into some simple steps for me and my husband. The steps ensure we know when we need to heal ourselves, remain connected to our children, that we acknowledge our children’s and our own emotions, and that we get the outcome we desire in the present. All of this can be achieved without raising your voice or using force.
How To Heal Myself
Healing yourself is key to reducing the emotional turmoil you may feel when your children trigger you. The following steps are helpful tips to identify your trauma, assign words to it and lessen the emotional burden of your own childhood traumas.
- Emotion – when you start feeling some strong emotion towards your children, stop and think ’emotion’. This recognises that there is some healing and reflection to be done to help your brain understand what is triggering you. Write it down and come back to it later as it is likely that it is not a good time to start reflecting on these emotions with your kids around.
|In my thumb sucking trigger, I was aware of feeling anger, disgust, hurt, and sadness.|
- Theme – this part is the key that was missing to complete my jigsaw about what was causing my strong internal reactions. What is a broader category to fit the thing your child is doing to trigger you. For example, if you feel triggered when your child screams and shouts, the theme would be ‘noise’. This helps you move onto the next steps of healing.
|In my trauma – I realised that the ‘theme’ was comfort. My daughter was comforting herself with thumb sucking, as well as with wafting her hair on her body.|
- Reflection – now you’ve worked out the theme of your emotional trigger, you can start reflecting. What other triggers under the same theme cause you to react negatively. What sort of upbringing did you have which may have contributed to your behaviours under this theme.
|I could link that I was triggered in the same way with her hair wafting. I knew of the story about me quitting the dummy at a young age, but I started thinking of other things can could have contributed to the theme ‘comfort’ when I was a baby. I was put into nursery at the age of 3 months. My Dad worked a lot. My Mum had some undealt with emotional traumas so was likely to be emotionally unavailable.|
- Stories – the storytelling part is where you can just make up as many stories as you like. Become a story teller – both fictional and non-fictional. I’ve always had a talent in making up stories but dig deep in your own mind to create some stories to fit your trauma theme. You can do this by talking to friends and family, or journalling in some notes.
|I came up with some wild and wacky stories to see if they connected to the emotions I was feeling. I felt no shame about what crazy stories I threw out there. For example I wondered whether I had been raped as certain triggers related to private parts too (no, I wasn’t, only through the storytelling did I realise this definitely didn’t happen). I then clicked one evening. It felt totally correct when I created the story. I was offered no (or little?) comfort from my caregivers as a baby. Nursery settings often can’t cater for the needs of all babies sufficiently, so I may have been left to self comfort there. As mentioned too, my parents may have struggled to comfort me as they were working long hours and dealing with their own traumas. That was it, a huge weight was released from me.|
My brain could now tell a story on behalf of the subconscious memories and I no longer felt so triggered by my daughter comforting herself. If it did start making me feel uncomfortable, I could explain the feeling to myself before entering into any negative interaction with my girl.
I was feeling frustrated as the act of comfort was a necessity for me at a young age. I love my daughter so much that it was raising strong emotions in me. I did not want her to feel she had to comfort herself. Actually my instincts were screaming ‘Your Mummy is here for you!’. Now I feel like these emotions did actually make me a loving Mum, not the unloving mum I initially thought before I had dealt with them. I want my daughter to feel connected to me. In comforting herself, it triggered me into thinking she was going through the same as me at her age.
Steps to Disciplining Our Children – Dangerous Activities
Gentle parents don’t see the need for discipline in the way it is defined by the Oxford Dictionary ‘The practice of training people to obey rules and orders and punishing them if they do not; the controlled behaviour or situation that results from this training‘.
Instead gentle parents are motivated to teach our children through example and communication. However, even with setting a good example and communicating well, sometimes children can do things that can be be dangerous to themselves or others. We cannot let our children hurt others. But how do we go about stopping them without punishing or controlling them? Follow the steps below and you will see how lovingly you can guide your children.
- Protection – when the actions our children take pose a danger to themselves or others, we need to protect the target.
|For example, if they are taking their frustration out on their sibling by kicking them. Stand up and move yourself to protect the sibling. Explain very calmly ‘I won’t let you hurt your sister / brother…’|
- Connection – make the child know you are there for them and that you care. Hugging is a good way to connect in this example. Offer a hug, if they’re scared you can calmly say “I only want to talk with you to make sure everybody’s ok.”
- Emotion – next step is to discuss the emotions they were feeling which caused them to behave this way. It may be safer to wait until the emotion has passed, and if so just mention to your child that we’ll discuss this later. Personally I’ve always discussed the emotion in the moment with them as I haven’t yet been triggered by strong reactions. If you understand that the first words to come out of your mouth are related to your child’s feeling, this offers them empathy and allows you to understand their perspective too.
|I hold my toddler lovingly (if she wants me to) and discuss with her that she is feeling angry because her brother knocked down her tower.|
- Perception – now you can mention your own feelings on the matter.
|For example ‘because you were sad your tower was knocked down after all that effort, you hit your brother in frustration. That then made your brother cry too as he was hurt.’|
- ‘Can’t Allow’ – state that you cannot allow your child to do such behaviour. This makes it clear that you have set a boundary. The context of why you must hold that boundary has been communicated openly with your child in the steps above.
|‘So I can’t let you hit your brother.’|
- What They Can-Do – this is an important stage to reducing the number of times this behaviour repeats. Tell your son or daughter what they can do instead next time, whatever ideas you can think of. You can even ask them if they have any ideas of what they could have done instead (they usually repeat your ideas if this is a repeated discussion).
|I would say “Next time you can call Mummy for help. Say ‘Mummy!!! Help!”.|
- Stories – I then create a little story about the great idea we had. This instils them with the confidence that the solution we created in the last step actually still has the outcome they want.
|Something like “so you would have shouted ‘Mummy, help!’ and I would have come and could have helped keep your brother away from your tower. Then you wouldn’t have hurt him and we all would have been happy. Isn’t that a good idea!”. Your child then realises their brother would not have knocked down their tower. It also repeats the story about what they can do next time, with perhaps a little more detail. My daughter, now 3, frequently asks for my help now. Those could have been frequent hurting incidents in our household if I had not followed the above process.|
Steps to Guiding Our Children – Where You’d Prefer Them Not To Do Something
Sometimes actions taken by our kids may not be threatening, but may be mildly to very annoying to us. Remember to refer back to our own healing ‘How To Heal Myself’ above, if you’re feeling strong emotions about their behaviour. Generally there is no need to command that your child do anything differently. It is probably a natural part of their learning to be doing whatever it is their attention is focused on.
When relatively minor activities are getting on top of you, you can follow the steps below to try and redirect their activity gently.
- Connection – I will cover connecting with your children in more depth in a future blog post. Until then, imagine looking into a loved ones eyes and being really interested in what they are up to.
|For example, let’s say you are fed up with tidying away all of the clothes that your toddler continues to pull out of the drawers and cupboards. You have tried the numerous locks available on the market, all of which your child seems to master within a day. You simply do not have the energy to tidy up the 100th time today, but you feel you can’t let your child continue pulling clothes out because you also don’t want to have to wash them all again. This is a frustrating element to parenting, however it is not causing a danger or harm to anybody or anything.|
First get down to the same level as your little one, look them in the eyes and exclaim ‘Wow what a mess! Is that great fun! What are you looking for in here?’. If your child has an imagination they will reply with some fun answer, such as ‘I’m hunting for fairies’.
- Emotion – This is the same process as suggested above, with mentioning and naming emotions.
|‘Fairies? You’re kidding! Do we have fairies at home?! No wonder you’re feeling so excited!’|
- Perception – this is where you can now really briefly mention your view on the situation. In the years to come, this part of the process should assist children to being considerate of others’ feelings on a situation.
|‘I’m so pleased you’re rescuing all those little fairies. I’m just concerned that these clothes may get dirty…’|
- What You Can-Do – In many situations you can just use redirection, a common attachment parenting technique. However if you really would like some help now, try to think about what your child can do right now, or the next time, depending on the situation.
|Redirection: “…Do you think fairies like to hide in the garden when it’s daytime?… Let’s go to the garden and see!”|
What can they do now: ‘…So Mummy’s going to clean these clothes up. Do you want to help so those fairies can have a rest?’. If they reply ‘no’, then you can offer ‘ok, how about playing here for 2 more minutes and then help me clean up…’
I’m Inspired – Let Me Read More
I have very little free time with the next oldest member of my family, besides my husband, being only 3 years old. I know this is the experience of many new Mum’s, free time is a luxury. I have only recommended key reading here, even though my ideas come from a huge range of sources. I have even added chapter references that I felt changed my ability to parent kindly.
Daniel Siegel and Mary Hartzell’s ‘Parenting From The Inside Out’ – Written by a Professor of Psychiatry, these authors know how to heal from childhood trauma. I found this book inspirational, in particular their discussion about ‘high road’ and ‘low road’ brain functioning. They discuss these forms of processing in Chapter 7: How We Keep It Together and How We Fall Apart.
Daniel Siegel and Tina Bryson’s ‘The Whole-Brain Child’ – in this book the authors explain how a child’s brain develops. It explains about how memories are stored and processed.
- Those which we experience from birth (or possibly prenatally). Called ‘implicit’, these memories are remembered at a subconscious level in how we react to things around us. We may have little to no conscious memory of the experiences. An example memory like this would be if you were left to ‘cry it out’ and your subsequent behaviour may take the form of not seeking comfort from the people around you as you feel they don’t care or are unresponsive. You do not know why you don’t seek comfort from loved ones, but your subconscious learning experiences taught you not to.
- Then there is the ‘explicit’ memories which we all associate with memories. These are experiences that we can reflect back on and recall conversations or emotions or events. These memories range from vague through to clear.
- The book explains how there is even a part of the brain dedicated to bringing both types of memories together. This is how we heal from this subconscious ‘implicit’ memories. If we can assign words and a story to the subconscious memories then it can allow us to realise what has happened to us and feel more in-the-know emotionally.