Parenting After Complex Trauma

Recalibrating Your Inner Compass and Disentangling from Your Abuser

One of the hardest aspects of parenting with a history of complex trauma is the near-constant fear of “turning into” your abuser in various ways. For some, the actual content of the abuse experienced was so objectively beyond the pale that you may know you will not recreate it literally. For example, if you experienced sexual or physical abuse, you may feel beyond doubt that you will never violate these boundaries with your own children.

But even if you do not, the emotional and psychological effects of the abuse you experienced—enmeshment, shame, codependency, anxiety, depression, parentification, and others—can imprint patterns that are more insidious and harder to identify and avoid reenacting. If you are someone whose abuse or neglect was almost entirely emotional, it can be even harder to discern and clearly name the abusive and inappropriate elements of your childhood experiences. 

When we have a hard time clearly defining what was wrong in our childhoods, it can lead to immense challenges identifying how to implement what is right when parenting our own kids. If you’ve grown up with trauma, you may start your parenting journey feeling clearly and strongly that you do not want to repeat the harmful patterns you experienced as a child, but when you try to put this into practice, it can seem so much murkier. 

Survivors of complex trauma often find themselves without the inner calibration necessary to tell the difference between harmful, insidious abuse and the common emotional challenges of parenthood. This is, in part, because very few abusers are only abusive. Most abusive caregivers can be charismatic, funny, affectionate, or responsible in addition to being agents of fear; physical, sexual, or emotional violence; neglect; and shame. 

This creates confusion in the nervous system, because fear and shame get all mixed in with moments of humor or affection; admiration and disgust comingle.

Questions arise: Does this mean that I must define my own parenting style by simply doing the opposite of whatever my abusive caregiver did? How do I make sense of the spectrum of interactions that I had with them? For example, if they did not let me do something they thought was inappropriate, and I was angry or hurt about it at the time, but would now question my own child doing the same thing, does that mean I’m turning into my abuser? Or does it mean that my abuser set some appropriate boundaries while being abusive in other ways? 

This line of questioning can be exhausting for survivors of complex trauma, because it can so easily lead them to gaslighting and undermining themselves about what they experienced, which they are already extremely prone to doing. This struggle highlights the fact that there is often not a hard line between “abusive” and “not abusive” that can be drawn in the emotional environments that complex trauma survivors experienced as children.

We are asking our nervous systems to respond to a spectrum of threat, when they initially evolved to respond to more polarized, black-and-white, life-and-death situations. To acknowledge this spectrum can be terrifying, because it appears to mean that there’s no objective, clear, unassailable way to draw that line between abusive and not abusive within our own emotional landscapes. 

If left unaddressed, this confusion can lead to parenting without boundaries, or alternately, to a cycle of anger and shame that is harmful to both parent and child. If you are convinced that the only way to be completely non-abusive is never to set a boundary that your kids don’t like (or that your own abuser set with you), you are ultimately doing your kids a disservice by not holding the container of parenthood that they need to feel safe and to make sense of their reality. 

On the other hand, if you think that it’s hopeless not to recreate the emotional patterns you experienced because of moments of intense overwhelm and frustration (i.e. “losing it” when your baby won’t stop crying), and proceed to spin in a cycle of unleashing your anger and overwhelm on your kids and then feeling guilt and shame after, then you end up recreating harmful patterns and allowing a valuable opportunity for rewiring your family’s emotional health to go by. 

A third common response that I have seen is simply to repress even the most normal anger, frustration, and other so-called “negative” emotions, and to feel shame for having them in the first place, thinking that you are a “ticking time-bomb,” or would be dangerous to your family if you ever allowed these emotions to surface. You may cut off and invalidate a major part of your own inner world because you think that your emotions are unpredictable and harmful. 

This approach also results in a missed opportunity: The chance to model emotional intelligence for your children; to allow them to witness you making mistakes and then creating repair. This modeling gives them permission to make their own mistakes and to trust that, even when they do, you will be there with and for them. They can learn that they are not bad when they stumble, but only if they see that you know you are not bad when you stumble.

Accountability, transparency and repair are the keys to parenting after complex trauma. When I was deep in the postpartum mire and feeling my own wave of fear about turning into the caregiver who abused me as a child, I realized there was one critical element that was missing from that relationship.

That caregiver never honestly, genuinely, and empathically apologized for hurting me. They were not transparent about what they were experiencing and how they were working to improve themselves, because they simply were not. They did not take accountability for their own emotions and behaviors, instead laying them at the feet of a tiny child who had no capacity to understand what was happening.

It is critical to note that I am not talking about taking accountability for the trauma you experienced. I’m talking about taking accountability for healing the effects of that trauma. When you take accountability for your healing, when you are transparent with your children in age-appropriate ways about the mistakes you make and the work you are doing to address those mistakes, when you actively work to repair your relationship with your kids after moments of anger, impatience, or overwhelm, you are doing the immensely important and challenging work of parenting after complex trauma. 

Therapy and coaching can help you get there. No parent deserves to carry the weight of childhood trauma and abuse alone. It is crucial to have a compassionate space in which to explore and suss out the persistent imprints of the trauma you experienced and how to soothe and heal them so that your wounded inner child does not become a habitually wounding parent.