Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Breakthrough: Parenting From Trauma to Resiliency

The emotional and psychological lockdown that COVID unleashed is challenging.

Kelly Sikkema/Unsplash @kellysikkema
We are in a state of emotional and psychological Lockdown
Source: Kelly Sikkema/Unsplash @kellysikkema

Just like that, it seems, the world went nuts. Pandemic. Riots. Economic collapse. Where several months ago we clung to our routines and our habits, today we face the unknown every step of the way.

But the truth is, we’ve been living for decades with increasing levels of anxiety. We feel it in the public sphere, in our places of work, our homes, and even inside of ourselves. The ground beneath our feet has become jelly. The center, of which so many were so sure would hold, has given way.

Amid this swirl of conflicting forces, we’re supposed to be good parents. No, scratch that. We’re supposed to be great parents. We have to be, because what if the kids don’t get into a good school? What if they don’t get into a good college? What if they see all those terrible things we know they’ll see online? What if?

In our panic, we turn to books, courses, therapists (like me), advice, conversation—anything to make this gargantuan task seem a little more manageable. But we know deep down it’s not really working. We’re stuck. We’re frozen. It’s like we’re trapped in one of those slow-rolling parental nightmares in which our kids need us to save them but we can’t move. We just can’t get to them. We’re locked down.

When I wrote my first book, Lockdown, it was a few years before that terrible phenomenon became a universal experience. But, already, our society had been singed by lockdown. Assailants—as often as not, other children—were walking into schools on a terrifyingly regular basis and shooting kids. In their desperation, schools instituted lockdown drills to simulate those horrific events and, in so doing, scarred and even traumatized the kids they were working to safeguard.

Treating dozens of these kids and their parents, I came to understand something critical. The kids have nowhere to turn. At school, well-intentioned but misinformed administrators are playing the sound of gunfire on the PA once or twice a month, shouting, “Shooter! Shooter! Shooter!” (And, for all these kids know, that could very well be a real-life shooter.)

And at home, they bury themselves in their silence, their screens shielding them from our attempts to reach them but, at the same time, opening them up to a whole new world of danger. From lockdown to lockdown, their lives have become something we would not want to define as childhood. And yet, we’re helpless to change things in any meaningful way.

As I spoke with more and more parents, I came to understand that the core issue isn’t whatever might be going on in the world around us. The world has always been a strange, dangerous, and anxiety-inducing place. Yet, for the most part, people have always found ways to cope, if not thrive.

Rather, the problem lies with us. We’re in a state of emotional and psychological lockdown. Carrying the shards of our own trauma inside us, we’re afraid to move too suddenly or dramatically, as if that trauma might mar our insides. We’re scared of taking even the simplest emotional risks, worried that we might do more harm than good.

But this is where lies the opportunity for a profound shift in the way we approach our job as parents—and our lives more generally. By breaking through these barriers—of trauma, of anxiety, and of fear—we can bring our whole selves to our parenting. We can be ourselves and not just “Mom” or “Dad.” We can locate our authenticity, our humor, our irony, our vulnerability, our strength as human beings and pass that living wisdom on to our children who are so, so hungry for it.

I call this approach Breakthrough. It’s about learning to face—and accept, and overcome—our own past hurt so we can find a place of stillness to stand in. It’s about discovering for ourselves first the true meaning of resiliency so we can teach it to our kids, not through words but through action; not by explaining but by demonstrating.

From fear, we can move to courage. From alienation to togetherness. From anger to an open acceptance. From confusion to clarity.

We do this not by forging new selves in a fire of extreme experience of radical change. On the contrary. We do it by sifting away crusted layers that we mistakenly believed were there to protect so we can uncover our truer, deeper, more vulnerable, and infinitely more resilient selves. And we learn how to bring that version of our self to the moments that matter most: our interactions with our kid.…

More from Nancy J. Kislin, LCSW, MFT
More from Psychology Today