When your kids are one of your c-ptsd triggers

CakeTue 9th June 2020

CW: trauma, c-ptsd, anger, parenting, family, intergenerational trauma, all discussed with little specific detail 

As I’ve been working in recent months to work through my c-ptsd, I’ve noticed that certain behaviour from my children (aged 12 and 10) form part of my triggers. It’s hard for many of us to talk honestly about the experience of parenting and even harder to admit that you have behaved in ways that you feel ashamed of. During May, the Covid-19 UK lockdown saw my anxiety spike and I experienced some intense flashbacks that were triggered by the behaviour of my kids. The anger and rage, the way in which I yelled, the sheer physicality of my responses shocked and appalled me. Luckily, I have support to help me and I worked hard to understand what had happened as well as to make amends. The last few weeks, with support and time, as well as because of helpful resources, I have been able to work through some ofd these experiences and move forward with less shame. Part of that healing is writing pieces like this as well as earlier pieces on my experience of c-ptsd.

Emotional flashbacks are part of the bodies way of releasing past harm. However, when we’re not expecting them or don’t know what they are they feel like visceral attacks or pain that can leave us reeling. The anger I experienced in one of mine took me more than three days to recover from. I felt physically unwell, in emotional as well as bodily pain and was upset and anxious. There is more her on recognising triggers and on these flashbacks.

As Meg John Barker writes, it is helpful if we can start to recognise the ‘flickers’ of a flashback before it escalates. This doesn’t mean stopping a flashback – none of these writings, or my thinking, expects that we can do anything other than, hopefully, minimise and reduce flashbacks and their attendant pain. It’s about gradually learning to be aware enough of the sensations, thoughts and feelings in our bodies that we notice when the flickers of a flashback are beginning. Maybe it’s a building irritation, a focus on your weight or food, poor sleep or frequent bad dreams. All of these are sensations of mine in the early stages.

Identifying triggers helps us to recognise when we might be more at risk of experiencing a flashback and the attendant reaction, pain and other issues. For me, when it comes to the children, I noticed the triggers were resistance as well as lack of engagement. From there, I was able to see that behind some of these issues were boundaries. Boundaries are the lines we draw around certain activities and/or connections and are often managed through and within time.

Boundaries that are set for yourself and children need to be held compassionately as well as flexed. Only you can know what boundaries of yours need holding firmly and which need to be loose. For me, I need to hold a tight boundary around screen time (it’s about 5 hours per day – in two and a half hour chunks – of computer games / videos during lockdown, about an hour and a half post-school usually with more time on one day over the weekend) as well as around the idea of getting dressed and out of the house once a day in the week, again, during lockdown.

When it comes to boundaries, the first thing we need to do is to ensure that we feel safe in ourselves and in the physical space we are in. This safety allows us to feel into ourselves and to begin to see, without blame and/or  shame, where we might have changes to make. From there, we can start to identify the areas of concern and then, next, to gently critique and asses them. Any relevant discussion and negotiation can take place before the boundaries are put in place. If they are likely to need adjusting, a review time can be identified too. It is rare that these things are fixed in stone but it is important to give yourself the time you need to see how these changes set and feel. This is an ongoing process and needs to be managed as gently as possible.

We need to be able to create and hold boundaries without too much anger or a sense of “fuck it” – we need to be clear on why some are more rigid than others and what the degree of flexibility is. When it comes to children, much depends on their age, but it is important to keep things clear and simple. For me, the main reason for a hard time boundary around gaming/videos is to create time in the day for other activities.

As I dod my work, I also began to recognise that I struggle to manage and hold boundaries when my own mood is low. I need lots of processing time and space every day and lockdown has put a lot of pressure on me as I cope with having the children with me almost all the time and in our small London house.

All too often I know that I can veer from hyper managing to fuck it do what you want, from control and anger to laxity and a desperate need to be left alone and to leave them alone

By understanding these issues and recognising the problems that caused them and were caused BY them, I was able to agree a timetable that has space for everyone to do what they like to do and have the time they need as well as gets the necessary work and chores done.

The other issues were around my expectations. I noticed that I expected no resistance. I seemed to expect the children to be delighted to do school work or chores. This is partly due to my own family of origin issues and the fact that I was not able to, or safe enough to, ever resist or argue back. I also think it is a developmental issues as my children approach puberty and push against boundaries and authority more.

Current circumstances around lockdown can exacerbate our anxieties as we may find ourselves comparing our kids to others –  why do they not have a hobby? Why do they not want to walk / bake / cook / contribute? I know that, for myself, when my anxiety is high, my expectations are high and my mood fragile. I also find that I fear that I’ve made an irreparable set of mistakes with my children. But, I began to realise, as I thought about and discussed these fears, nothing is fixed – this too shall pass, the good and the bad. The more honest we can be with ourselves about the ways in which we might have behaved differently in the past and our aspirations and hopes for the future of our relationships, the better connection we will have with them as well as ourselves.

With anxiety and a sense of disappointment/worry as part of my anger/anxiety, I found it helpful to do the work on boundaries and communicate those as well as to, on my own, identify the strengths of my children as well as to remind myself that there are many paths to a good life; to focus on what they can do rather than the areas of frustration.

Notice FACTs and separate them from FEARs

In dealing with issues such as c-ptsd and inter-generational trauma whilst parenting, it’s important, as always, to tune into the body, to get the rest you need as well as to learnt to ask for the support you need.  If you need a night off then you need a night off. The current Covid-19 lock down of summer 2020 limits what we can do and this makes it harder, we need to accept that and work with, rather than against, it. It can be helpful to find someone that we can safely vent to, someone safe who can support, listen to and encourage us. We all need cheerleaders as we pace along what can often seem like the endless, grey road of parenting and family life.

This is also where acceptance comes in. I cannot fix myself and be a certain, what I often see as “ideal”, way (especially as a parent) overnight (if ever!). I have to do the work of making changes whilst also accepting where I am. I need to be kind and compassionate to myself about the mistakes I’ve made to date whilst working to avoid repeating them. I also need to be kind and compassionate to myself about how very hard it is to be kind and compassionate to myself!

It’s important to acknowledge the strong and complex feelings that parenting can bring up. Whether it’s triggering or not, there are rarely days in any week where parenting doesn’t bring challenges and most of us (if we’re honest) were likely not very well prepared for the realities of parenting. Having never even helda child before I had my own, I was very unprepared for what family life involved and was also unprepared for the personal change and challenges that would come up during this time. While I absolutely acknowledge my many privileges and the ways in which I have had things much easier than many, I’m also aware that I have been processing trauma, adverse childhood experiences as well as my own alcohol dependency and poor relationship choices in the past decade during which I’ve also been parenting.

Acknowledging and sharing the intense feelings of shame around not being good enough as a human being, let alone as a parent, can be hard but is also really helpful. The fear of causing harm, and/or of having caused harm, through mistakes made in the past can be overwhelming and lead to us shutting down and giving up. But, it is useful to be reminded that every day is a new opportunity to be kind, honest and authentic as a human and as a parent. Even just-quite good enough is good enough if we are also doing the work of building on these foundations.

Family life, and raising children in particular, is about an ongoing relationship. It’s about how you all connect in the now as well as in the future. All life, all relationships, ebb and flow, go through easier and more challenging stages. I don’t want to end this piece on a false high note of joy – the usual triteness of “embrace the sunshine and shadows”. The cliches of “This all ends so quickly” and “Oh, if I could only go back to when mine were that age”. We need honesty, we need kindness and we need authenticity if we are to be able to love ourselves as well as those we are in family relationship with. If we can work on developing these qualities in relation to ourselves then that will, as soon as we start, begin to change how we are in relation to our families, and likely very much for the better. And the tough days? Well, they will still be many and they will still be tough (and sometimes even tougher than tough) but you’ll be able to recognise that and accept that. And, hopefully, your children will grow into adults who can do the same.