How to Be a Resilient Parent after Experiencing Abuse

I’ve been a trauma therapist for over 12 years, and working in the Violence against Women field for 20 years. Over this time, I’ve seen women, families and children work on their healing and move on with their lives. It’s not always easy, and they don’t do it alone. I have been reflecting on what helps them be better parents than some of them had, or more present in their day to day life even with the flashbacks that still catch them off guard. Here are some things I’ve learned.

When we become a parent, we go into the role wanting to provide our children with all the love and security in the world. Sometimes, when that wasn’t available to us as children, it’s hard to be able to do that for someone else. When that wee baby cries for hours, when our children fight with each other, and when those little ones keep demanding from us, it makes it hard to be calm and joyful, when it’s our children that are triggering our own pain and abuse experiences.

The experience of abuse and violence can vary, as can its impact on us. For some of us, we have survivors of family intergenerational trauma that can stem back years, and other survivors have experienced sexual violence or intimate partner violence that continues to impact today. Sometimes, the onset of preparing for and becoming parents can open wounds that we thought were otherwise healed. Being a parent is such a raw, vulnerable, and exhausting role in our life. Having tools and a clearer understanding of this connection is so important.

Post-traumatic growth (after trauma) is a process and sometimes we become parents before our own healing from trauma is complete. That doesn’t mean you can’t be a great parent to your little one! Be kind and gentle on yourself.and know that healing is a journey. Notice if you catch yourself with self-judgement and instead choose radical acceptance and self-compassion.

Here are some helpful tips and strategies to help you get there (in no particular order).

Develop your Own Parenting Style
The only real model of what parenting looks like are our own parents,so when that is not a model that you want to follow, we may need to be more intentional with how we learn to do better. When we want to change that pattern and style, we need to learn something new to replace it. So get some books, read, take a course and connect with other parents that you see or know. You know your child best and also your own story. Trust your instincts, establish your own family values and house rules and don’t set unrealistic parenting goals. Make intentional time as a family. You can do this in big ways (i.e. birthday party, host a BBQ, go on a family vacation) or smaller daily acts of fun – play games, do a family craft, eat a meal together. It’s also helpful to allow time in each day for some 1 on 1 bonding time like reading, a morning cuddle.

Attachment Work
There is a lot of talk about needing to create a bond with your new baby. Sometimes this is not possible, as our baby may be one of the triggers to our own trauma. Also, we don’t become mindful and present parents as soon as we meet our baby – for some of us it can take a few days and others it can take months, or longer. We are all on our own journey with parenthood. Whether you breastfeed, use formula or cloth diapers, use a stroller or baby carrier wrap, it is not what we do with our child, but rather how safe and attached they feel with us after receiving our regular and daily presence. Just as in adult relationships, trust is something that is earned. That can take time, and this work of building a bond and connection is the most important step to create a healthy relationship with our children. Once our child is attached to us, there is a decrease in power plays, increase in quality time, and it allows children to come to you as their anchor and home base. Make a point to share love and affection to your children EVERY day: hugs, words of encouragement and signs of love are so important to break away our own feelings of unworthiness, and it also builds on the bond with our own children.

Practice Self-Care and Balance
We are more than a parent so we NEED to get a break from that role sometimes. That doesn’t make us a bad mom, the opposite in fact. What are some things you do to help you after a hard day? What helps you unwind. This is a good time to building on your Wellness Toolkit. Things that are important to put in it include activities that have a body connection – do some work to connect with your body and what it is trying to tell you – yoga, a jog, stretches, body scan, massage. The body-mind connection has been studied and shows it’s really a important part of healing from abuse. How we sit, our posture, and what we notice in our bodies are necessary to help us be resilient. Other things include something that is relaxing like a long bath with a good book, time with friends, time to laugh, putting your feet up instead of doing that last load of dishes. The chores can wait – you can’t give from an empty cup.

Build a Village
In Brene Brown’s book, Braving the Wilderness, she talks about how important it is to feel more confident in ourselves, without relying on others. As a parent, that is a crucial step in feeling in tune with the choices you make for your family. And then, it’s even more helpful to build on that and then build a village around you with like-minded friends and parents. We really can’t do it all and do it by all by yourself. So, it’s not enough to have a network of mom friends if they don’t share your values or realities of parenting – it can be hard to feel supported as a nursing or cloth diaper family if your friends don’t share this same practice, for instance. Create your own village – join a group or programs that make you feel safe, included and respected. As a therapist myself, I may have a slight bias but I do feel like having a therapist or someone else in your life that is a neutral person that you can share anything with, who is there for you with unconditional support is also a life saver. We all need someone to vent to and get support from.

Reframe, Forgive Yourself and Move on
How to rebuild after a conflict and role model this for our children is a great reminder that our nurturing is what guides them. So, we need to work on nurturing and be a healthy role model for feelings. Most of us were not taught that all feelings are okay, and to instead hide the hard feelings from our parents. We were also taught to say sorry, but it was not common for our parents to say that to us. That’s why it’s imperative to accept ourselves as parents and the Perfectly Imperfect days of it all. Start the next day with a Do-Over and don’t blame yourself, provide yourself with that same (self) compassion you give others and forgive yourself. Ask for forgiveness and have those hard chats with your kids. Ask that they also apologize and work on their mistakes. That is one of the best ways to learn how to be empathetic and respectful people.

Accepting Love and Self-Compassion
Self-esteem is a part of self-compassion, but it’s not all of it. It’s important, especially as a trauma survivor, to work on including self-compassion in your daily life. It’s definitely a big help when we feel good about ourselves, but if we don’t incorporate behaviour of self-compassion into our daily rhythm, it’s easy for it to get lost or left behind. Find ways to share love with yourself, your child, and your partner or family. Accept all of you as you are. Donald Winnicott talks about the Good Enough Parent – a way to be present both emotionally and physically, and provide for our child. We need to be gentle also with them and accept mistakes. Keep trying: It’s not a race. We need to nurture the relationship now for long-term gain.

Catch your Feelings
Most often than not, people are not taught healthy ways to experience their range of emotions or feelings, and typically feel shy around the big hard feelings of anger, sadness, disgust. This is especially true for the adults that have become parents in recent years. If only movies like Inside Out were around when i was a kid! The tool Window of Tolerance can help you see how your mood can impact others and us for longer than it needs. It may also help to see what your primary emotion is so that you can take care of it, before the iceberg effect of all the other feelings that come raising in. While it’s not absolutely necessary to go to therapy, it is crucial that you learn that the abuse or violence your experienced is NOT your fault, you deserve better, and the abuse we experience is due to patriarchal beliefs and power and control. There is a lot to unpack here I know. This is an important part of becoming resilient whether you are a parent or not. This is hard work, and necessary in order to break any residual intergenerational trauma that stems from our disconnect to feelings. In order to be present parents, we need to do our own work in unpacking the pain and trauma we experienced in our life.

Find Joy in the Present and Every Day
For you to be in present and here and now, it helps to learn some strategies, tips, and tools to stay in the moment that is in front of you. As parents, especially to young kids, it can be hard to actually find time with them truly fun. Give yourself permission to know that it is not all joy but rather can actually be no fun. It may not be your cup of tea to have a teddy bear tea party, and Lego can be more harm than good. Find ways to allow yourself pleasure and play in your role as a parent. That means doing things with your kids that you also love. So, focus on the present and don’t multitask – put your phone down, get your hands away from the dirty dishes, and check if your autopilot monkey brain of thoughts is on. Mindfulness work is so helpful to stay in the present. A helpful tip to stay present when with kids is to do a sensory exercise – notice 5 things in the room that you see, 4 things you can touch with your hands, 3 sounds in the space, 2 smells you can locate, and do 1 action with your body. Add fun to your family rhythm, and include yourself in the activity. It’s when we stay present that we are given the gift of peace and also a shared laugh.

Hold on to Hope
Take some time each day to journal, reflect, or otherwise hold on to good things that happened in your day, and times that you did something you are proud of. It is a helpful way to minimize or challenge any of the negative self-talk moments that creep in. Notice the monkey brain and inner critic, and instead choose to say hi to the voice that reminds you of something to be grateful for or proud of. Be a cheerleader for yourself, just as you are for your kids and other important people in your life. Find ways to hold on to hope as a family – it can be a weekly Rose Thorn Bud exercise at the dinner table, or a communal gratitude journal entry.

Reach out and Support Others
In our journey to become resilient and empowered, it’s important to discover what our voice is – how it sounds and what it can say. This can be seen in so many ways. It may mean finding an improv class or choir to join, so that you can hear yourself and also feel the strength you have from within. This is important work as it helps carry the momentum forward, and also gives you courage to stand up for yourself and others. This may seem like a hard and time-consuming task, especially after the above-mentioned suggestions to be present and gentle with yourself. Further to this, it is also key to provide similar support to others who may not be as further along in their healing. Advocacy for others or self-advocacy for ourselves is a key part of post-traumatic growth. It is not necessary to self-disclose your trauma story, but it working from a trauma-informed place as a parent to another family can be just enough loving kindness and respect another mom needs to know that she is also not alone. You can subtly pass on a resource to her, have a coffee date with another parent, or reach out after a parent and tot program. While different than building your own village of support, it can be so good for our own healing to support someone else too.

I Write This Post for December 6

This week marks the anniversary of the the Montreal Massacre. On December 6, 1989 14 women were killed because they were attending school to be engineers. A lone gunman felt threatened by their presence and his misogyny lead to his decision to kill them and himself.

I write this after reading about a few more women and trans folk in Toronto who have been killed this year, this month even, or have gone missing. While we have made great strides to create change and lessen violence against women, it is still something that we are faced with on a regular basis.

I write this as someone who has worked in this field for 20 years, as a shelter worker, helpline staff, and now as a therapist for women who have experienced violence.

I write this as someone who sees so many forms of violence and unhealthy relationships in my own personal life. My own relationship with my partner is solid and happy, but like so many of us i have experienced harassment, abuse and unhealthy relationships in my past. Friends of mine still do.

I write this because some of the women i support are working on leaving their abusive partners, people that they have small children with and know that they deserve better. It’s such a complicated and courageous step to make – putting our own needs on the list means sometimes that we have to make a hard decision.

I write this because while we hope to change and help others, we cannot do it unless that is wanted. We can love ourselves more and trust that we when we fall, we will do so standing up with others around us for support.

I write this because we deserve to be safe, and happy, and feel valued.

I write this because i don’t think someone can be a good dad or parent if they are using violence on someone else. I also know that it’s ok to be angry and show all our emotions, but it’s never ok to have others afraid of us when doing so.

I write this because i support people who were raped and sexually violated in their lives, and that trauma impacts their life now. It’s hard to think about giving birth without connecting it to the pain and suffering of something that was taken from us.

I write this because there are communities of us that are disproportionately targeted – women of colour, Indigenous women, women with dis/abilities, and trans people. This is not okay. If violence is about feeling like you have power over someone, the intersections that we are labeled with seem to have even further oppressions.

I write this because sometimes abuse starts or escalates when we are pregnant. When we are already more vulnerable, and needing more support, love and understanding. This form of abuse happens when someone else is feeling or low or unneeded, and in order to make up for these feelings, they target their partner to feel more in control.

I write this because i’m angry that someone would be jealous of something that i feel like a Goddess for – being privileged to grow another being inside me. That someone would be jealous of this connection and feel like it means they don’t get the same attention.

I write this because i want to not have to write this again.