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Too many Oklahomans experience abuse and neglect as children. Developmental trauma impacts a growing child’s relationship to self and others, and healing is a lifelong process. Survivors of abuse and neglect understandably want to approach parenting differently. If this is your story, take heart. You can be a good parent even if you had a bad childhood.
University of Oklahoma researcher and author Dr. Chan Hellman dedicates his professional life to helping children and adults overcome trauma and adversity. Hellman identifies that the strongest psychological strength for trauma survivors is hope. In his book Hope Rising: How the Science of Hope Can Change Your Life he defines hope as “the belief that your future can be brighter and better than your past and that you actually have a role to play in making it better.” Every parent can benefit from hope, but this is especially true for those who have experienced childhood trauma. There are three main concepts in defining hope: goals, pathways and agency.
Set a goal to become a healthy parent, beginning with your healing. With this goal in mind discover small steps (pathways) that will help you get there.
Pathways are identified actions that bring us closer to a goal. There are multiple pathways to healing from childhood trauma. Journaling may provide a useful outlet for self-expression. Self-help books are available that address shame, healing and creating boundaries. Seek a safe, confidential setting through individual or group therapy or support groups like Al-anon or Recovery International. The Green Shoe Foundation is a mental health nonprofit organization in Edmond that offers an intensive workshop with a mission to “heal the past and restore healthy patterns in your life.” These are all viable pathways to healing.
Some residual effects of childhood trauma may flare up in the journey to becoming a healthy parent. The difference between hope and wishful thinking is preparing for obstacles on the path to your goal. Common obstacles for parents from hard places are self-esteem, boundaries and emotional regulation.
Self-esteem is the core belief that every human being is worthy of love. Your value as a person is unconditional; self-esteem should not be tied to performance or productivity. Trauma survivors don’t always believe in their own worth. Negative ideas about worthiness learned in childhood can be internalized in the form of negative self-talk that continues to impact self-esteem into adulthood. Some examples of negative self-talk are “I’m not good enough” or “If I can accomplish this or that, then ________ will love me.”
Self-esteem is restored by treating yourself with respect. For example, be a promise keeper about self-care through small, consistent actions. Decide to exercise (or another healthy choice) once a week and follow through on that promise. Notice how it feels to practice self-care. Chosen pathways will help address self-esteem by changing your perspective on your worthiness as a person.
Believing in your own worth will support some of the challenging work of holding children accountable when they misbehave and not feeling guilty when a consequence needs to be given. Improving self-esteem will empower decision making with confidence, an important skill in parenting.
Agency is the motivational component of hope. Agency reflects the necessary willpower to dedicate energy and sustained effort to achieve a goal. You are in control of making changes, and change is difficult. A positive community boosts agency along the way. Look for parenting classes in the community to build skills and find encouraging friendships. Surround yourself with trusted, positive allies in parenting. On low energy days, a strong support system will encourage persistence in your parenting goal.
Relational boundaries refer to the expectations people have of themselves and others. For those who grew up in a family with neglect or distorted expectations, it may be hard to ask for help or feel comfortable practicing self-care. An example of poor boundaries would be having responsibility for other family members, like younger siblings, when it was not age appropriate. Boundary violations of abuse contribute to difficulty with assertiveness and/or the ability to leave relationships that are disrespectful.
In boundary work, “no” is a complete sentence. It isn’t necessary to explain why we say no. We all have felt the regret of saying “yes” to a project that takes time and energy away from family or other interests. It is liberating to begin saying “yes” and “no” when that is what you really mean.
The process of goal-setting will encourage building healthy boundaries that will inform reasonable expectations of yourself and others. Better boundaries will guide you to create a home where the relationships are safe, developmentally appropriate and encouraging.
All feelings are OK but how we express them matters. We learn to manage our strong emotions in childhood. Chronic stress early in life changes the way a developing child learns to identify, control and release emotions. Emotional reactivity is common among survivors of childhood neglect and abuse.
Take a time out when you notice strong emotions. Use solitary time to practice relaxation techniques. In a calm state of mind consider the most effective way to express strong emotion. Think through the best timing and approach to convey your message.
Parenting is stressful. When you build skills to regulate emotions, self-calming is easier even on overwhelming days. Developing effective skills to manage stress and express emotions will also empower you to teach your child to manage their feelings.
Post-traumatic growth research reminds us that healthy parenting can be enhanced from the skills you learned through healing trauma. Parenting is hard and you can do hard things. Providing safety and stability for the family without an early foundation makes the goal crystal clear. Despite the hard work of healing, it is normal to make parenting mistakes. As a healthy parent, it is a great gift to have the emotional flexibility to repair the connection afterward. Correction with love and forgiveness builds a culture where parent and child learn to try again. Some of the most effective and compassionate parents I know are survivors of developmental trauma. They inspire hope in me.
Dr. Lisa Marotta is a private practice psychologist working with women, children and families in Edmond. She facilitates parenting classes and is the author of the award-winning children’s book Suki and Sam. Stay connected with Dr. Marotta through her blog Psyched About Life: Tools for Everyday Living at drlisamarotta.com.
Editor’s note: This column is the final in a series on family mental wellness, written by local experts on topics pertinent to parents and children. Columnists include Dr. Marotta, Thai-An Truong, LPC, LADC, in private practice as a postpartum therapist and mom of two; Stacey Johnson, LPC, (@staceyjlife) in private practice at The Purple Couch and mom of eight; Dr. Erica Faulconer, pediatrician at Northwest Pediatrics and mom of three, and Jeanae Neal, registered behavior therapist and mom of one.