As a Survivor of Child Abuse, Here's How I Handle My Triggers in Parenting

One mom committed to intense therapy so that her children would lead lives free of abuse and neglect. She learned she needed to develop skills to deal with her triggers too.

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Content warning: This article discusses child abuse.

It was no coincidence that the physical, verbal, and psychological abuse that wrecked my childhood started right around the time I began to discover what power my own voice held. Growing up in a strict, conservative Christian home, there simply was no space for disagreement, no appetite for questioning, and certainly no leeway for a mouthy little Black girl who was just making sense of the world.

The abuse was constant—and it was coupled with emotional abandonment, which meant that, as a highly sensitive child, I was left to struggle with depression and anxiety on my own. After one particularly brutal fight, I ran away from home, marking the beginning of the realization that I was not bound inextricably to a life of abuse.

I had no idea then that the trauma from my childhood would deeply impact how I would parent my own children. I never wanted them to experience what I had but found myself triggered in certain parenting moments. The good news is experts say parents who are survivors of child abuse can deal with triggers in ways that not only leave our kids whole, but also help us heal our own trauma.

When I became a parent, I committed to rigorous and ongoing therapy to heal myself and also to not repeat the past, even as I dealt with triggers from my childhood. I learned therapy is key. "As the parent, seeking your own therapy can be very beneficial to assist you with dealing with past abuse, as well as dealing with triggers that you may have from your child," says Kadesha Adelakun, a Georgia-based licensed clinical social worker and registered play therapist.

Through therapy and conversations with other parents, I began to understand that I was not alone. This support has also helped me avoid perpetuating the cycle of abuse that threatened to be passed on through generations. My commitment has always been to a new way of parenting, one void of abuse and trauma for my kids and I'm determined daily to make that a reality for my family.

Here are four main triggers that pop up in my parenting (and are common for others who suffered childhood abuse) and how to deal with each.

Trigger: Kids Who Are Hitting and Screaming

This is sometimes a trigger for me because of how much I was hit and yelled at as a child. But yelling and hitting from a child is often a sign that they are seeking connection and are overwhelmed. When this happens and I myself feel overwhelmed, I often ask my partner to step in. It's my way of removing myself from the situation.

"As long as your child isn't at a place where they can harm themself or others and depending on the age of your child, sometimes it's best to remove yourself from the area (e.g. go into another room)," explains Adelakun. If stepping away isn't an option, consider offering a pillow for your kid to yell into or hit.

But communication with your child is key, whether you stay around them or not. "Children can sometimes have a sense of feeling afraid when a parent's behavior changes or seems out of sorts, therefore, children need to know that they are not being ignored or rejected and that you are safe," says Vivian France, Ph.D., a North Carolina-based licensed clinical mental health counselor who specializes in conflict resolution between parents and children. "They do not have to fear you, even in your low moments."

Parents should try and avoid saying, "Stop yelling!" and instead say, "Voices are not for yelling. Words are not for hurting." Encourage your kids to use "I feel" statements and use them yourself: "When you yell at me, I feel angry or frustrated. I would like you to not yell at me."

Trigger: Kids' Lack of Emotional Predictability

My little ones can go from being super happy to being in distress quickly. That emotional volatility, though a regular part of being a young kid, is reminiscent of the unpredictability of my parents' rage.

As mentioned before, therapy has helped me be more flexible and to understand that kids need space to express their feelings. I've also noticed that my kids tend to experience rapidly changing emotions when their basic needs are not met. They're more equipped to deal with their emotions when they're fed, rested, and feel listened to. "Being aware of your child's triggers can better prepare you for possible aggressive behaviors that your child may display," says Adelakun.

Instead of saying, "Why are you being so difficult?" try "I know you're having lots of emotions right now. Let's take a break and come back to this. Why don't we find a snack to eat/some milk to drink?"

Trigger: The Need to Sometimes Prioritize Kids' Needs

For those of us who experienced emotional neglect, this can be tough. On a routine basis, I try to be intentional about carving out time when I focus entirely on my needs so I'm better prepared for times when my kids' needs must take priority. I find small but important ways in our family life to validate and prioritize my own desires. I read a book simply for pleasure. I find time to talk to my friends. I make sure I have my favorite snacks just for me. I turn on Rihanna when I'm washing my hair and indulging in aromatherapy.

When you need your own space, it's key to communicate with your kids at their level and help them understand your point of view. Your instinct may be to say, "I can't deal with you right now." Instead, reframe your words to something like, "I'm having a rough day today. I love you very much, but I need some time to myself right now. Can we find a quiet activity for you to do on your own?"

Trigger: Not Having Dependable Grandparents

I ceased contact with my parents about a decade ago. As difficult as it is for me to not have that support from my parents, my partner and I are intentional about surrounding our kids with loving family members who are able to provide stability and safety. I also talk openly with my kids about why their grandparents are not in our lives. When doing this, Dr. France recommends demonstrating optimism in your conversations with your kids. Instead of saying, "Grandma and Grandpa are not good people," say, "Right now, until things improve and hopefully they will, we must love Grandma and Grandpa at a distance."

Finally—and I can't reiterate this enough—it's OK to ask for help when you are overwhelmed. Do whatever you need to do to be safe. Ask your parenting partner, if you have one, to take over, or reach out to a friend to come over to help. If you need to, put your kid's favorite show on and take time for yourself.

The Bottom Line

Parenting is hard and you don't have a blueprint to reference. If you haven't already, seek out therapy and know that you're not alone anymore. As adult survivors who are parenting, we're doing something we're not familiar with by parenting in a way that's different from how we were raised. That learning curve is steep but it will result in transformative parenting for yourself and your little ones. Keep at it.

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