Trauma from events like Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) can dramatically impact both individuals and their families long after the event itself is over. Even people who have experienced things that you wouldn’t necessarily think was a huge deal (which psychologists call “little t trauma”) can elevate a person’s risk for a wide-range of social, emotional, and physical problems. As I mentioned recently, past trauma impacts us as parents and can be inadvertently passed on to our children if we don’t take a proactive approach to healing.
Resilience is often thought of as the ability to ‘bounce back’ from bad situations; it’s what enables us to move past our trauma and heal. Some people seem to have natural resilience, but it is something we have the capacity to develop and strengthen. Building our resilience will help us as individuals, and it will increase our ability to parent the way we want to. Importantly, by taking steps to improve our lives, we’re also modeling self-care, good habits, and self-improvement for our children.
What develops resiliency?
If we imagine our trauma on one end of a see-saw and our coping skills and resiliency factors on the other end, we can visualize how resilience and coping skills help balance the effects of the trauma. Research from the Harvard Center on the Developing child has identified four key factors that help develop resilience. These factors interact with our biology in complex ways, but we’ll focus here on what we can control. These four methods of developing resilience work for both children who have recently experienced trauma and adults for whom it is a more distant yet still intrusive memory.
Having one or more stable, positive, supportive caregivers is the factor most likely to support the development of resilience in children. A relationship with a safe, positive adult can be a buffer that protects children from developmental disruption. In fact, it’s best for children if they have a few adults they can trust to keep them safe and love them unconditionally. If you didn’t have this relationship with an adult during or shortly after your trauma, then this could be an important reason why this experience has had an outsized impact on your life.
We can use some specific techniques for developing relationships with our children and others which are helpful for all children, but but their effects are particularly important in building resilience that can act as a buffer for trauma that occurs anytime in life. If a child demonstrates interest in something or makes an attempt to interact with an adult, the way the adult responds is critical. When we respond positively, we help children learn about the world and demonstrate that we value their thoughts and feelings. Sharing your child’s interest is incredibly powerful. By looking at the object that interests them, encouraging them with smiles, giving the child words to describe what they see we show children that we care about them as individuals. Keep these interactions interactive by allowing wait time after your response and letting the child take the lead. Don’t try to force extended attention if they’ve moved on.
If a child has already experienced some trauma, there are additional techniques to try. The top priority is ensuring safety and reassuring the child that they are safe. Children also benefit from calm adults who try to maintain a normal routine as much as possible. It may be tempting to try to hide a traumatic event from a child and make up a story that seems less upsetting, but experts warn against this practice. It helps children to hear about what happened from a person they trust. Keep the explanation brief and developmentally appropriate, but don’t lie to the children. As their trusted adult, they need to know they can rely on you to tell them the truth.
It’s also important to ask the children questions. They may be worried about things you didn’t think to talk to them about. One friend of mine had to go put down her dog. While she was gone, her daughter asked her dad when the dog was coming home. He explained that the dog wasn’t going to be coming home. The next question she asked was, “Is Mommy coming home?” Children don’t understand events in the same way adults do. They may come to terrifying conclusions that never occurred to us.
When children believe they have some control over their circumstances, they are more likely to develop resilience. This is accomplished by giving children choices, treating them with respect, and helping them recognize the relationship between their actions and the consequences.
When we develop supportive relationships with children, as discussed above, we show that we value them as people. We are part of the child’s environment, so when we respond to them, we show them that they have some control over their environment. This doesn’t mean they are controlling or manipulating us. Giving comfort when they are upset, addressing their needs, and engaging with them in two-way interactions shows them that their actions have an effect on the environment around them.
Giving children some responsibility and having them help with tasks they can do successfully also instills a sense of self-efficacy, or control. Putting toys away and helping you with chores shows them that they are part of the family and that their actions make a meaningful contribution to family life.
We can give children the opportunity to learn how to regulate their own behavior and build the skills they need in life. Young children need to learn things like how to zip their coats, tie their shoes, and take care of their bodies. When they get older, children need to learn how to get a job, drive a car, and manage their money. This allows them to be independent.
Learning is integrally connected to supportive relationships and control. When we are naming objects and including children in chores, we are helping them learn about the world. When we take turns with them and offer comfort, we are teaching them how people interact with each other in ways that are respectful and caring.
4. Spiritual and cultural community and support
Being part of a group gives children a sense of identity. This is particularly important when they aren’t getting hope, support, or a positive self-image from their immediate family. If you belong to a spiritual or cultural community, this is probably already part of your child’s life.
Teaching tolerance for spiritual and cultural communities and sharing a philosophy of life is one way will also be helpful. Focusing on the importance of living out your beliefs, learning from mistakes, and striving for self-improvement would also fit into this category.
You can also accomplish this by establishing family traditions and participating in community groups and events. Friends and mentors can be an important source of support as well – children may well find that connecting with another adult through a shared interest allows them the space they need to open up about the struggles they are facing.
Overcoming your own trauma
While you may be able to do some work by yourself, many people need professional support to work through their Adverse Childhood Experiences. As with most things, none of these methods are ‘guaranteed’ to work; what works best for one person may not work for another. Time does tend to help us heal, but if we aren’t proactive about our healing, time alone will probably not help us overcome our trauma and create the lives we want. The activities that follow may help this process along.
Disclaimer: This information should not be considered medical or psychiatric advice and is not a substitute for professional services.
1. Tell your story
When you explore your feelings and reflect on your experiences you may be able to make some sense of things. Making sense of the trauma does not imply there was a reason for it or that it was ultimately a good thing to go through.
When you tell your story, it doesn’t have to be something shared publicly. It doesn’t have to be shared at all, but it certainly could be something you work on with support from a trusted friend, a therapist or counselor, or a support group. In fact, some experts warn that the practice of writing your story can open up old wounds and retraumatize victims in some cases. Before diving in to writing your trauma narrative, consider if this should be done with support from a therapist.
At the heart of telling your story is building awareness. When you tell your story, you increase awareness of what happened. In addition to building your awareness of the past, you need to build awareness of the present – tell the story of where you are right now. If you can, write down what you can remember about your traumatic experience. Don’t edit; just write for twenty minutes. If you finish before the time is up, just start over – new details may come out the second time around.
Handwriting (instead of typing) increases the benefit of this strategy. Research shows that when people write their trauma stories down, they actually experience fewer physical problems and less psychological distress than if they just thought about their trauma.
2. Practice mindfulness
I hope I don’t sound like a broken record since I know I’ve mentioned the benefits mindfulness before, but the research is quite clear on its benefits. One strategy many people find helpful is to focus on gratitude.
You could include your child in developing a habit of gratitude. This is part of my evening routine with my daughter. After stories, we spend a minute talking about things we’re grateful for. It started with just me telling her I was grateful for her, then it developed.
We reflect on the day and discuss some of the good things that happened. We talk about how nice it is to have a bed to sleep in where she can get a good night’s sleep and prepare her mind and body tomorrow’s adventures. Recently, she’s started contributing. If I mention how we’re grateful for some people we visited that day, she’s quick to point out that I’ve forgotten to be grateful for their pets. We also practice sending ‘good wishes’ out to people in the world – both friends and family, and humanity in general. Hearing her contributions does wonders for my mood!
3. Take care of yourself
Self-care is a phrase that is thrown around a lot, and advertisers would have us believe it’s all about getting massages, taking bubble baths, and burning lavender scented candles. That’s all fine if you want to do that, but please don’t think that is the full picture of self-care. Many of us are so focused on caring for others in our lives, that we need to get more fundamental about self-care.
When I think of self-care, the first thing that comes to mind is health.
Are you taking care of your own health? This means getting your annual physical, going to the dentist, keeping up-to-date with preventative screenings and taking prescribed medicine.
Are you eating right and getting enough sleep?
Are you wearing clothes that fit?
Do you make time to speak with (or better yet, visit) friends and family who you care about?
I know plenty of parents who neglect these basic elements of self-care, and research actually shows how important this is.
4. Seek connections and support
Being a parent can be a very lonely job. Even those of us lucky enough to have a partner at home may find we spend very little time in adult conversation. If we don’t make a conscious effort to make and maintain connections, we become isolated very quickly. This is particularly true for those in need of healing. If you are a trauma survivor, it’s harder to maintain social connections. You may not have a good relationship with your family. You may be coping with depression, anxiety, or physical illness that makes socializing harder.
Try to identify some way to increase your connection with others. Maybe you can schedule times to call old friends, find a support group, or connect with others through a shared interest. Lots of communities have softball leagues or city bands. Sometimes there are clubs that meet at libraries to play games or study books. There are often groups of parents who connect on social media and plan gatherings that include parents and children, and while the children play together the parents actually get time to talk.
5. Cultivate positivity and hope
We have to maintain hope. Dwelling on negativity and ruminating on problems can eventually make us hopeless. There’s no need for blind optimism. We don’t need to pretend life is a ‘bowl of cherries’ if it isn’t, but we do need to find some way to have hope for a better future. One of the best ways to do this is by reframing our thinking, and to let go of trying to control things that we really can’t control.
Here’s how this can work:
Negative thought: My child is so defiant. This will lead to a terrible future for them and me!
Reframed thought: My child won’t be pushed around by others in this world. They will stand-up for themselves. They have such a bright future!
Negative thought: I have told them not to do that 100 times. Why are they still doing it? They are purposely pushing my buttons!
Reframed though: My child has perseverance! This will really pay off someday.
Negative thought: My child is so loud. This is embarrassing.
Reframed thought: My child is confident and has a commanding voice that won’t be ignored. A powerful voice is an invaluable tool for a leader!
Negative thought: My child won’t finish their food. This is so wasteful.
Reframed thought: My child stops eating when they are full. If only we could all do that! They are in touch with their bodily needs. (Or, I guess I the next meal is already made, that makes my life easier!)
Another way to do this is to learn to give and receive compliments. Look for things other people do well and give them a compliment. Look for things you’ve done well, and make note of them. When someone gives you a compliment, don’t deflect it. Just say thank you.
Focus on things that make you feel positive and limit things that bring you down. If looking at everyone’s perfect life on Facebook makes you feel inadequate, don’t look at it. If the news makes you hopeless about the future, don’t pay so much attention to it.
Find ways to resolve feelings of guilt. Some trauma survivors develop a habit of feeling guilty. We may have blamed ourselves for what happened. This may have become a pattern. Are you blaming yourself for something that you can’t control?
One day I heard someone mention that she had recently realized she wasn’t responsible for solving world hunger and it was very freeing. At first, I thought, that’s ridiculous. Of course you aren’t personally responsible for ridding the world of hunger. Why would you have ever thought that?
Then I looked at some of the guilt I was carrying. We’re often inundated with worthy causes to support. I was feeling bad about my failure to contribute money or time to multiple causes, contributing to global warming, and supporting businesses with unethical practices. When I started to consider all the things I felt guilty about, I realized the list of things I felt responsible for was absurd. Releasing yourself from an inflated sense of responsibility will help you let go of negativity and cultivate positivity.
Learn to Tame Your Triggers
If you’d like to work with a supportive community to put these ideas into practice, I hope you’ll consider joining the Taming Your Triggers Workshop. In this workshop, you’ll learn:
- What is a trigger, and how to identify yours;
- Where triggers come from – examining previously experienced trauma, as well as the stresses of daily life;
- How to use mindfulness (in just a few minutes a day!) to help you avoid feeling triggered in the first place, and respond more effectively on the fewer occasions when you are still triggered;
- How to recognize when you’re in a frame of mind that makes you susceptible to being triggered, and take specific steps to make yourself more trigger-proof;
- How to help your child WANT to cooperate with you, so you don’t have to lose your cool.
The workshop takes place over a period of two months. Each week you’ll receive an email and a homework exercise, as well as a video posted in a private Facebook group where you can offer and receive support from others who are also working through this process alongside you.
By the end of the workshop, you will:
- Understand why your child’s behavior leaves you so frustrated and angry (hint: it isn’t really about your child!);
- Feel triggered less often;
- Know what to do on those occasions when you are still triggered, and how to use them as a way to deepen your relationship with your child;
- Use these interactions with your child to model problem-solving skills that your child can use throughout their lives.
Click here to learn more about the workshop and sign up. Hope to see you there!