Parenting After Trauma: 5 Things I’ve Learned As I Work Through My Own Childhood Trauma
Lilly, Sam, and I just finished reading The One and Only Bob—Katherine Applegate’s sequel to her Newberry Medal Winner, The One and Only Ivan. This book is a sweet, funny, simple, and inspiring story of choosing to love and be loved—even when personal experience might say otherwise.
Bob is a scrappy and independent once-street dog who rejects the old adage, “dog is man’s best friend” and doesn’t rely on anyone but “numero uno.” But with the help of some heroes, everything begins to change.
I find ways to teach Lilly and Sam my story—that as a little girl my ability to love and be loved was destroyed, but with the help of my own hero, I learned love is a choice, my choice—and I made it.
My kids were captivated by Bob and his friends Ivan and Ruby, and so I hope through Bob’s journey from “numero uno” to embracing the raw vulnerability of love, their hearts learned just a little bit more of my story.
Parenting after a childhood of trauma isn’t easy. Do you tell your children? If so, what and when? And if you decide not to tell them, how do you explain certain behaviors or reactions? I’ve been a parent for eleven years now, and though I’m always learning and growing alongside my children, I also have found that it’s helpful to have a few concrete strategies in your back pocket. In this blog, you’ll find five things I’ve learned about parenting after trauma along with some tips to help you as you go on your own parenting journey.
1. Use resources.
Reading The One and Only Bob with my kids has helped us talk about trauma through the context of a fictional character, Bob the dog. As it turns out, the character’s story mirrors my own in some important ways. It’s through sharing this story together that we have been able to start entering into tough conversations.
Here’s a little peek into Bob’s journey:
Lemme tell you about being man’s best friend. Being man’s best friend can mean a lot of things. Companionship. Belly rubs. Tennis balls.
But it can also mean a dark, endless highway and an open truck window. It can mean the smell of wet wind as hands grab the box you’re in with your brothers and sisters and you go sailing into the unkind night and still, still, crazy as it sounds, you’re thinking, But I’m yours, I’m yours, I’m yours.
That’s what being man’s best friend can get you.
A black highway.
An empty box.
And no one in the world but you.
2. Discuss forgiveness.
There are a couple of scenes from The One and Only Bob that I love. They deal with forgiveness, forgiving yourself and forgiving others:
I stare at my sister and try to imagine all the pain she’s endured. And here I thought I’d gotten the raw deal. But to lose your pups. To wander alone. To struggle for every drop of water, every crumb of food.
I mean, I experienced a little of that. But Ivan and Stella kept me going. And then Julia and her family.
Why me? What’s so special about me?
Is it really that I am more resilient? That I’ve made my own luck? Am I somehow better than Boss? More deserving?
“It’s not right,” I blurt. “Not right you shoulda had it worse than me.” . . . “I will never forgive those people for what they did to us,” I say through clenched jaws.
“Really?” Boss seems surprised. “If I held on to that much anger, I’d never get out of bed. Not that I’ve ever had a real bed.” She sniffs at the towel beneath her feet. “This towel’s kinda nice, actually.”
I look at her in disbelief. “You’re one of those? Those ‘dogs must forgive no matter what’ types?”
She almost looks amused. “Well, it is kind of our thing, right?”
“When someone does something hurtful, they have to admit it,” I say. “Then they have to be punished for it. And maybe then, if they apologize and change, maybe—maybe then they get forgiven.”
“All I know is, I’ve done lots of bad stuff in my life, Bob. I’ve had to forgive myself plenty, just, you know, to get through the day.” Boss gazes at me with her wise, weary eyes. “And I figure if I’m going to forgive myself, I’d better be ready to cut everyone else some slack, too.”
It’s through Bob’s journey to greater understanding and self-forgiveness that we can discuss why it’s so important to forgive yourself and even others. There’s power in forgiveness.
3. Your kids may not always understand you. And that’s a good thing.
This is a tough one because we all want to be understood. To be understood is to be loved, isn’t that right? Not in this context. The fact that your kids don’t understand every part of you is a very good thing. It means that you have done your job and broken the cycle of trauma. They don’t understand what it means to have to endure trauma, and that’s thanks to you. You’re doing a great job.
4. Always listen.
It’s natural as parents that we want to fix everything for our kids. A scraped knee, a tearful moment, or heartache. That protective instinct is multiplied when we’ve been through trauma. But sometimes, all it takes is a listening ear and a hug. Practice active listening first before reacting so that you’re actually addressing your child’s immediate needs, rather than just fulfilling that protective instinct.
5. Be patient with yourself and with your kids.
Remember: You are on your own developmental journey just like your kids on their own developmental journeys as well. Be patient with yourself and with your kids. Your natural reactions that come from years of trauma may not always be productive or helpful for the present situation. Take a deep breath, and give it another go. Be patient. You’re doing great.
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