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Trauma

The 4-Letter Words Undermining Parent Confidence

Why parenting feels harder than it should during COVID-19.

Key points

  • Loss is a word that's never been so prevalent, so close to inner circles, and never felt so likely.
  • Fear is a word that exists to warn us of danger, but in a pandemic world, the danger is hard to predict and manage.
  • When parenting in a pandemic world, mindfulness, acceptance, and attention to valued relationships can help with coping.

Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved. –Tennyson

Sure. But to love after a loss—that's an act of courage. To parent with intimate knowledge of loss? That's an act of supreme courage. That's why I have such respect for every parent who has experienced trauma, or what I call a post-traumatic parent.

Tennyson’s claim might be valid, and it might not. I can hardly set up a well-controlled, double-blind experiment to experimentally verify that claim. I mean, we can’t randomly assign people to experimental conditions like “Lonely life, no relationship” and “Loss of valued relationship.” I doubt we’d get it through any institutional review board. What I do know, after years of working with post-traumatic parents, is that to love after a loss is an act of supreme courage.

Loss: A Four-Letter Word That Contains So Much

To the brain that hasn’t experienced trauma, the world feels like a safe place. Sure, the non-traumatized person knows that bad, sad, scary things happen. I mean, anyone who has access to the news in any form knows that. People die in all sorts of predictable and unpredictable ways. Sometimes, those people die even though other people love them, need them, and depend on them. Those are the people who call them spouses or life partners. Or Mom. Or Dad.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, many more experienced those losses, and they seemed to come ever closer. Even if a particular parent didn’t lose anyone, the concept of loss got a lot closer, a lot more accurate, and a lot scarier. It’s one thing to think of loss in the abstract—something that can happen but hasn’t happened, really, to anyone in our close circles. It’s another to think of loss as something that happens to the family down the block, my colleague, and my close friend.

Parenting in the shadow of loss is scarier. It’s more frightening to think of sending our kids out to school when we don’t know if another outbreak is lurking around the corner when we have lost our confidence in our government and our health organizations to protect us fully.

We used to live in a cocoon of safety—none of us lost sleep worrying about whether hospitals would run out of PPE or ventilators or basic medications—or doctors and nurses and other essential personnel. Even the most anxious parent wasn’t worrying about the lack of necessary medical equipment. But that’s what happened over the past year and a half. We were educated about all-new ways we could lose our loved ones. Even if we lost no one—we did lose our sense of safety.

Fear: The Four Letters That Warn

The other big four-letter word is fear. To parent is to fear, right? Kids are self-destructive from the moment they learn to walk till the moment they utter those terrifying words: “Mom, when can I take my driver’s permit test?” There are so many things to be afraid of—SIDS. Germs. Kidnappers. Electrical outlets. Peer pressure. We have this deep imperative to keep them safe, but the world seems so unsafe.

Enter a global pandemic, and suddenly, fear takes on a whole new meaning. Masking, other kids who don’t mask. School and the risks of going. School and the risks of not going. Vaccine debates. Vaccine choices. Vaccine mandates. Fear is that it wants us to weigh the risks and make the most informed decision possible, and we don’t have enough information.

Fear is persistent. It doesn’t give up. It exists to warn us, and it wants us to take risks very, very seriously. The problem is, the things we fear right now don’t have enumerated risks. We don’t have enough information, and we’re aware of that. So fear remains active in our brains, reminding us that we don’t know what’s around the corner. Will Delta continue to spread? Will another, even more devastating variant suddenly break out? We can’t protect our kids fully from a threat that we don’t see coming, after all.

PTSD: The Acronym We All Understand

prpicturesproduction/123RF
All parents are in a state of mild trauma right now. Here's what to do about it.
Source: prpicturesproduction/123RF

All parents are in a state of mild post-traumatic stress right now, and I don’t think all parents meet the full clinical criteria for PTSD. Still, just like COVID-19 gave all of us a little bit of insight into what it’s like to have OCD, this ongoing sort-of-end-of-the-pandemic is giving all parents a little bit of insight into what it’s like to parent with PTSD. That sense of hypervigilance—the feeling that we don’t quite know what’s coming around the corner, so we can’t fully relax—welcome to the life of a post-traumatic parent. Yeah, we know. It’s not all that enjoyable.

Welcome to the world of the post-traumatic parent. We parent, even though we understand, more than most, that loss is actual. It happens—to people like us, to our inner circle, to ourselves. Once we’ve experienced trauma—not just traumatic loss or grief, but any trauma—we’re so much more aware of the failure. We’re so much more aware of the courage it takes to love after loss.

One of the things trauma does is sharpen our attention towards the things we should fear and the things that keep us safe. I like to call trauma “Professor Trauma” because I like to relate to it like a teacher who is sometimes wrong but very effective. Professor Trauma wants us to think about what could harm our children because Professor Trauma wants us to keep them safe. The problem is, in a post-pandemic world that isn’t entirely “post-pandemic,” there’s not all that much we can do to ensure our kids’ safety. We can take sensible precautions, to be sure, but there’s no way to eliminate risk.

Parenting Is Always Scary

The thing is, parents have never been all that confident. Even before the pandemic, there were always parenting concerns and conflicting advice—feeding schedules, sleeping schedules, screen time, emphasizing one parenting approach over another—every aspect of parenting is embraced with fiery passion by some and condemned by others. This is especially true if we parent and have access to any form of social media, right?

Our kids look to us for safety and security. The hallmark of the attachment test, the Strange Situation experiment created by Mary Ainsworth, is all about how children refer back to their parents in times of stress and uncertainty. But what happens when we parents ourselves are uncertain and stressed? It’s hard to support someone else when we’re feeling so shaky ourselves.

Restoring Parenting Confidence

These four-letter words—loss and fear—and the four-letter acronym PTSD help explain why parents lack confidence these days. It may seem that the world has gone back to normal, but like so many hypervigilant PTSD survivors, we’re all holding our breath, waiting for that other shoe to drop. It’s hard to parent in those conditions.

So, how do we handle it? The same way we learn to cope with PTSD. We tell the story of the trauma to ourselves and a compassionate witness such as a therapist. We practice mindfulness and acceptance, remembering that we can only control the uncontrollable. We tell Professor Trauma—thanks for the warning. You can stop reminding me of the fact that the world can be a scary place. Sometimes, it listens and retreats for a while.

Most of all, we allow our awareness of loss to inform our parenting in the sense that we remind ourselves of just how precious our relationships are. After all, we only fear the loss of something precious. We use that fear and awareness to help focus our attention on our parenting relationship and our other valued attachments. We can’t stop all loss, but we can stop losing our current moments to our fear.

© Robyn Koslowitz, 2021.

References

Ainsworth, Mary D. S. Patterns of Attachment: A Psychological Study of the Strange Situation. Hillsdale, N.J: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1978.

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