Parents with Trauma Histories Can Be Triggered When Parenting

Crying unhappy woman covering her face with hands while little child standing next to her.

I recently read a very poignant collection of essays called Trigger Points: Childhood Abuse Survivors’ Experiences of Parenting, edited by Dawn Daum and Joyelle Brandt. Something valuable for those of us students of trauma to appreciate is the reality that parenting itself can be a trigger for someone with a trauma history.

 The editors of this collection of essays say that there are two ways for parents to be triggered when they have a history of adverse childhood experiences.

The editors first describe the nature of triggers: “A trigger is any experience that makes a connection in your brain to your abuse history.” [Page 5] They go on to say that triggers can fit into one of two categories: flashbacks and flashforwards.

Flashbacks occur when an experience takes you back in time to relive your abuse.” They describe two kinds of flashbacks. “In the first kind of flashback you become your child-self again. An example of this could be having the physical sensations of breast-feeding remind you of your abuser touching your breasts. When your toddler slaps you in the face while having a tantrum and you are transported back to your childhood experience of being hit by an abusive parent.” [Page 5]

They then describe a second kind of flashback that they state may be the hardest to live through. “This is the moment when an experience takes you back in time to re-live your abuse, but now you are standing in the role of the abuser. For example, you stop in your child’s doorway at night as they are sleeping and suddenly you remember your abuser standing in your childhood doorway right before he molested you. This kind of flashback brings on anxiety, shame, and an overwhelming panic that because of your abuse history you are destined to become an abuser yourself. Many parents will never speak of this kind of flashback for fear that their children will be taken away from them because of it.” [Page 6] This fear that you will become an abuser to your own child can be terrifying. It can feel like a kind of compulsion that causes you to panic because you know you want to avoid hurting your child at all costs.

vector illustration. Woman with other faces silhouettes. Mental illness.

The editors describe a flashforward as, “any moment when you are overwhelmed by fear and anxiety about your child possibly being abused. For most parents, this comes up when we have to leave our children in someone else’s care. From leaving your child at the dentist to sleepover invitations, these moments can bring on crippling panic attacks for survivors of abuse.” If you were abused as a child, your experience tells you that the world is a dangerous place. Our job is to protect our children and if you have had some kind of traumatic experience during your childhood, the memories of that abuse couples with the task of protecting your own children in the here and now. This can cause overwhelming feelings of fear. You can know that your children need to experience life and have the freedom to be out in the world and yet your flashforwards can make it seem as if you are putting your child at great risk to let them be out of your sight. Finding the balance between protecting and allowing children to explore the world is extremely difficult for those who have survived childhood abuse.

Anyone who is parenting and has a history of adverse childhood experiences might find this information illuminating and relieving, because it explains some of the struggles that many trauma-survivors can have when they parent.

The editors of this book provided a forum for dozens of parents with histories of childhood abuse. They encouraged sharing their personal stories of coping with a variety of flashbacks and fears about reliving their childhood trauma or having a child be abused in ways similar to their experiences. No one can erase the pain that childhood trauma caused and can continue to cause. Being aware that both flashbacks and flashforward triggers are common and understandable can be the beginning of another form of self-awareness, self-understanding, self-compassion and healing.

Invitation to Reflect

  1. If you were the victim of childhood trauma, and you are now a parent, have you noticed that you can experience some of these flashbacks or flashforwards? What specifically were/are these experiences like? How did/do you cope?
  2. Now that you know that there are these different forms of being triggered, do you feel more self-accepting and self-compassionate?
  3. How might this understanding help relieve some of the fear that can accompany triggers?

Diane Wagenhals, Director, Lakeside Globabl Institute