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8 Ways Childhood Family Trauma Can Affect Parenting

Overcompensating for what you did not receive, or even regressing, are common

Key points

  • The way we experience our first family relationships can often repeat itself as we start our own families.
  • People may struggle to form healthy relationships with their children if they did not have healthy examples.
  • Finding ways to move forward while validating your history is a crucial part of the healing process.
Image by 5540867 from Pixabay
Source: Image by 5540867 from Pixabay

Donovan threw his hands into the air in both desperation and frustration. "I don't know what to do anymore!" he cried. "This feels impossible!" Donovan was struggling with the seemingly impossible task of parenting while trying to break the cycle of his own childhood trauma.

He was a highly intelligent and successful software engineer, but this did not change his history, and how, in times of stress, he often resorted to unhealthy behaviors or communication patterns. He frequently argued with his teenage son, recently becoming so enraged that he punched a wall. Embarrassed by his behavior, and wanting to break this cycle of unhealthy patterns, he came in for therapy.

If you experienced a history of trauma in your family of origin, it likely stuck with you into adulthood. Depending on the severity of your trauma, it may affect your ability to maintain healthy relationships with your children. In times of stress—which are likely frequent while parenting—we often resort to what we know, and if our developmental years were traumatic or dysfunctional, it can be difficult to break those habits.

Like my client in the above vignette, you may feel that parenting brings up all of the bad history that you would rather have left behind. Parenting, with all the stress it brings, will evoke many of the manifestations of your trauma history and the coping skills you had to learn in order to navigate those experiences.

The first thing I did when I met Donovan was to commend him for seeking support. Often, bad behavior can evoke such immense shame that it is easier to avoid admitting where we went wrong. Rather than shame, I like to start from a place of recognition and positively reinforce those who want to do better. After we started there, Donovan felt more comfortable opening up about his history, and more empowered to learn and change.

There are many ways that your history can affect how you parent; there is no such thing as a "perfect" parenting example. It is likely that you will make mistakes; what matters is that you acknowledge and learn from them. The way you experienced love and affection as a child will likely influence how you give love and affection to your own children. Likewise, if you experienced dysfunctional or unhealthy patterns in your family, such as inconsistent discipline, enmeshment, lack of boundaries, or even abuse, you may be more likely to repeat these patterns, even unknowingly.

You may struggle with the following:

  1. Difficulties regulating your emotions, particularly anger and frustration. Your history can make it difficult for you to cope with your feelings, causing you to react in inappropriate, and often emotionally immature, ways. This can make it difficult to support your children’s healthy development of understanding their own feelings and emotions.
  2. Difficulties with being an authority figure. If you were not parented in a healthy way, this may lead to discomfort with being in a position of authority. Some may react to their children as a peer rather than as a parent. Similarly, others may react more authoritatively due to trying to overcompensate for the parentification they received as a child. This can result in inconsistent or even nonexistent discipline, which can lead to unhealthy parent-child interactions and dynamics.
  3. Forming healthy bonds with your children. If you have a history of unhealthy, or even nonexistent bonds with your caregivers, you may struggle to form healthy bonds with your children. When we do not grow up with healthy examples of intimacy in familial relationships, intimacy can feel scary and uncomfortable.
  4. Being overprotective or overcompensating. If you grew up neglected, you may overcompensate by showering your children with gifts or attention. This can easily feel like smothering, and can take the place of healthy emotional bonds and boundaries. Overprotection is often done out of concern or fear for the child's safety, such as wanting to protect them from the traumas you may have experienced. This can lead you to try to prevent your children from experiencing anything negative, which can stunt their emotional growth.
  5. Victim mentality behaviors. This is often seen in adults who feel victimized by their children, despite them being the ones in power. These are often the people who reported feeling victimized by their children's behaviors or "attitudes" that, while undoubtedly frustrating, are likely representative of normal adolescent behavior.
  6. Parentification. If you never had the healthy support of a parental figure, you may unknowingly cast one of your children into the role of a surrogate spouse or emotional caregiver. This is unfair to the child and can lead to unhealthy behaviors and interactions.
  7. Re-traumatization. Many who were abused in childhood, and did not get adequate support to heal. find that their behaviors and emotions actually regress when they have children. When we are not given support to heal from our traumas, this is a natural reaction to seeing our children at the same age we were when the trauma(s) happened.
  8. Immense fear of repeating the cycle. Many of us worry about repeating unhealthy patterns we experienced in our own families. In some, this can cause avoidance of having children due to fears of repeating the cycle.

What you can do to heal

If you can relate to any of the above traits, or even some that were not listed, it's important to know that it is possible to unlearn unhealthy patterns. Developing self-awareness of how your own childhood family-of-origin trauma manifests is the first step. We cannot heal what we do not, or cannot, acknowledge. Unfortunately acknowledging can be the most difficult step.

After working toward acknowledging and recognizing, you can take steps to change any unhealthy patterns. For some, working with a therapist helps. (Journaling, reading, and educating yourself are also great tools.) If you feel that you were affected by your history and want support in working through your experiences, please reach out to a therapist who can help. It is common for the act of revisiting childhood memories to be painful or difficult, and there is no shame in seeking therapy or additional support if it brings up difficult feelings.

Search Psychology Today for a therapist who specializes in family dynamics and childhood trauma.

More from Kaytee Gillis, LCSW-BACS
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