Parenting is hard, especially when you put energy into trying to parent in healthy and effective ways, with long-term goals of wanting to nurture emotional and relational health for your children.
How do you parent during those challenging situations when you may feel guilty?
And how do you parent when you recognize how often you aren’t sure about ways to manage challenging situations? Especially ones in which you may experience guilt or realize you have somehow disappointed both your children and yourself?
As promised in my last post, readers are invited to continue considering the wisdom shared by Dr. Gabor Maté in the ACEs Connection article Full-Potential Parenting, Even When It Is Hard. Dr. Maté encourages parents to realize they sometimes face issues that could stem from the very trauma they themselves might be carrying.
Further, this sometimes comes out in overt ways, such as from physical or sexual abuse. But it’s not always overt. The trauma is passed on through “anger, anxiety, depression and lack of availability” as well, which has tremendous impact on a child.
Dr. Maté acknowledges many parents might not recognize some of these reactions as being trauma-related.
“If it has been or seemed normal it doesn’t seem like what others call adversity,” Dr. Maté said.
In other words, if what we do with and to our children seems normal to us because it is what was done to us, in our mind, it is “normal” parenting. After all, how do we know what healthy parenting is if it is not something we were exposed to?
When we were growing up, if the ways we were parented were unhealthy, we might have actually been traumatized. That trauma would leave us feeling afraid, abandoned, and/or in danger. Consequently, when a traumatized child becomes a parent, they often don’t recognize their parenting attitudes, beliefs and behaviors as reflective of the trauma they experienced as a child.
Dr. Maté shared research which shows:“…stress on a mother in pregnancy causes the release of stress hormones that are passed on to the child. And when it comes to adoptive and foster parents and their birth parents, one can assume there’s been a lot of stress.”
He describes the extra stress put on children who have been adopted is in part because of the stress experienced by the mother who ends up giving up that child.
“If you are giving up a child, by definition, you are stressed,” he said, even if it’s a choice.
Even in cases where adoptive parents are present at the birth, and their child is placed in their arms as a newborn, that infant has still experienced an enormous loss, he said. Both the birth mother and the child are stressed. That baby is “attuned to mother’s voice and rhythms.” He said, “it is an emotional memory, a deep sense of abandonment” that creates insecurity for the child who “just lost the world that I grew up in.”
And that loss is real even without other ACEs [Adverse Childhood Experiences], losses, stresses and traumas. Yet, often, that is not the case. Infants and children often go through many losses, ruptures, and transitions during the adoption process, from birth parent, hospital, orphanage, foster care situation, etc. before being adopted.
An “adoptive parent full of nothing but good intention,” is meeting a child “already imbued with an unconscious awareness that the world is unsafe. I’m not worthy. I can’t trust because I’ll be betrayed,” he said.
He notes that children are not blank slates and neither are parents.
He stresses the parents must be very patient and dedicated to parenting well and should not be expecting children to take care of their needs.
“Preventing ACEs as well as supporting our children, ourselves and others, in the present to heal from ACEs and their impact, promotes and protects health and well-being now and in the future, for decades and generations to come,” Dr. Maté noted.
He added, “Attachment in the early years is pretty dang important and many of us need this reminder (and support) over and over.” Maté doesn’t “focus on it to the exclusion of other issues,” but attachment is a primary focus because “it’s the most significant and immediate,” and is “amenable to positive intervention.”
Unfortunately, there is still a lot of awful advice about parenting and much of it has come from experts. Advice, he said, which is “the opposite of what kids need.”
Lots of wisdom in this article! Lots of power in the information and recommendations! And certainly some pressure on parents to be intentional and mindful about their ways of parenting.
An important piece to hold onto: we need to appreciate and examine the ways we were parented as children; so, if there were unhealthy parenting practices, we will not perpetuate those practices.
Invitation to Reflect
1. To what extent is it possible that some of the ways you were parented as a child may have been less then healthy but for you simply were normal? Remember that no one grows up in a perfect home and some homes are less perfect than others. Children often can’t differentiate between what is healthy and right for them versus what is unhealthy and
2. toxic for them. And the adults they become also may not be able to make the distinction between what is healthy vs. unhealthy parenting that may just feel normal.
3. To what extent did the parenting practices you were exposed to as the child influence the ways you parent today? Which of those do you now see as healthy and worth embracing, and which might need tweaking or even complete makeovers?
4. What are some specific ways you can use the information from this article to raise your awareness and improve your parenting?
Diane Wagenhals, Director of Institute for Professional Education and Development, Lakeside Educational Network