When Your Child Is Your PTSD Trigger
By Dawn Daum
When I became a new mother, I was prepared for a lot — but nobody told me that parenting when you have experienced childhood abuse can feel like walking back into a war zone as a soldier with PTSD.
Before becoming a mother, I could physically re-shift focus away from what was triggering me — take a walk, journal, call a friend, distract myself with music. Once a parent, I could no longer rely on old methods, no matter how effective. I couldn’t run away from, drown out, or excuse myself from the trigger.
You can’t eliminate or avoid the trigger, when the trigger is your child.
I purposely waited to have children until I felt like I had “dealt with” being sexually abused. By the age of 28, I had undergone countless hours of therapy, convinced myself to take my antidepressant even when I “felt fine,” and acquired a toolbox full of coping skills. I also hoped that becoming a mother would move me even further along in my recovery, by providing me the chance to end the dysfunctional and abusive cycles that had diseased my family tree.
Instead, once I became a mother, I was thrown into mental and physical chaos marked by a near constant state of anxiety. And as I started paying more attention to what exactly was triggering me, I came to the realization that it was the most basic acts of parenting — nurturing and protecting — that were causing my pain.
Kissing my kids at night before bed made me question if I was violating their personal space. Diapering, dressing, and bathing them made me question if I was engaging in inappropriate touching. Showing too much affection made me feel sick, and showing not enough love made me feel like a horrible mother.
I was never warned that living with PTSD would be something else I would have to learn to manage when I became a new mom. My primary care doctor and OBGYN both took a social history from me at my initial visits, and my chart held the secret that from the age of 6 to the age of 14, I was sexually abused. My records briefly outlined the domestic violence I witnessed and the abandonment I experienced from both of my biological parents. Yet that is where my secrets stayed; it never came up in any of the discussions I had with these providers as I entered parenthood.
I don’t think it ever occurred to the lactation specialist to ask me whether or not I have a history of sexual abuse, when I cried in her office because I was struggling to breastfeed my child. She was puzzled that the perfect latch and adequate supply of milk was not enough to make this second nature for me, and surprised by my complaint that every time I nursed, I became nauseous and my body ached with stiffness. I wasn’t brave enough to tell her that flashbacks of my abuser violating my breasts is what I experienced every time I attached my child to my breast.
She told me I just needed to relax, and once she witnessed the baby swallowing my milk, she was satisfied that I was “better.” I wasn’t — but I didn’t tell her that. I just became more convinced that I needed to work harder to distract myself from what I was feeling.
I didn’t just hide my pain from my doctors; I was too ashamed to talk to even those closest to me about what was happening. I was afraid friends would judge me, my husband would doubt me, and my therapist would have to report my inability to be a “good” parent to authorities. I never felt so alone in my life. But I carried on, leaving clues for no one that inside, I was crumbling.
I mothered through the physical pain, mental anguish, and a broken spirit until, finally, I heard a whisper in my head that would help me begin to confront what I was feeling, and heal:
“You can’t be the only survivor experiencing parenting this way.”
The Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) study teaches us that exposure to trauma during critical times of development encodes trauma in the brain, leaving a person to react when triggered. Doesn’t it make sense, then, that even if a person has learned to manage her PTSD and live a “functioning” life, becoming a parent will expose her to triggers she hasn’t yet experienced, possibly initiating a whole new cycle of disproportionate reactions?
For children, giving and receiving affection is paramount, and disciplining is necessary. For a survivor who was denied such basic care as a child, or who only knows of such acts in association with abuse, these Parenting 101 tasks can provoke anxiety, depression, addiction, hypervigilance, chronic pain, and suicidal ideations.
A parent experiencing frequent triggers, without assistance in connecting the trigger (the child or acts of parenting) with PTSD, may revert back to methods that kept them safe and in control when they were younger — fight, flight, and freeze. These coping mechanisms that helped keep the survivor alive while enduring the abuse may now lead to unhealthy behaviors such as such as addictions, re-victimization, or poor parent/child attachment.
More and more — though not nearly enough — people are starting to address this issue. Slowly, authors are adding this chapter to their parenting books, those who work with parents are being trained to support those experiencing PTSD, and groups are forming to offer support to parents who are abuse survivors.
This change can’t come soon enough; providers equipped with the knowledge and tools to help parents manage potential triggers can profoundly change not only the parent’s life, but the lives of their children. It could make the difference between healthy and non-healthy parenting — breaking cycles instead of enabling them to endure.
As for me, I no longer experience triggers on a daily basis, though I do occasionally still come face to face with them. My children are now 7 and 4, and as they grow, my triggers look and feel different. The difference between now and three years ago is that I am prepared for them. There is no longer any confusion when my mind and body react in irrational ways to what I am doing to or for my child.
I know that if triggered, there is a reason for it — and I now see it as an opportunity to run right toward the trigger in order to heal, rather than running away out of fear. With the help of a therapist, I’ve been willing to go to the dark places necessary to identify what was so profoundly affecting me. In the process, I’ve been given a second chance at motherhood.
Lead image: Julien Ducenne