By Catherine Liggett
The pressure in my chest was unbearable. Every part of my body was in a total rage and utterly collapsed.
Somehow, I had to escape. With the effort it might take to lift a semi-truck off the ground, I peeled myself off the floor. Phone and Kleenex box in hand, I desperately made my way out the door and into the driver’s seat of our car.
The reason for my emergency departure? My 2-year-old daughter was having a massive meltdown on the kitchen floor. My husband was with her, but there was no way I could stay.
This isn’t the first time this has happened. Far from it.
And every single time, the same swirl of inner voices circle in my mind: “I should be able to handle this, right?” “Why does my body react like it’s Armageddon when my daughter has perfectly developmentally appropriate reactions?” “What’s wrong with me?”
But here’s the truth: There’s absolutely nothing wrong with me. I am a survivor of childhood trauma.
Like all survivors, my nervous system is turned up to 11. This makes me highly sensitive, which is often beautiful, and sometimes - like today - absolutely excruciating.
You see, because of what I’ve been through, my body is brilliantly tuned to detect danger around every turn. The problem is that this detection system doesn’t realize that my daughter’s cries are actually happening in the safe environment of my home where no one is in real danger.
At intense moments like these, what happens might seem like an overreaction, but it actually makes complete sense based on my lived experience. I was born and raised in an environment that was unsafe, so of course, my nervous system adapted accordingly.
Parenting Paradigm Shift
The normal, developmentally appropriate behaviors of our kids can feel like a minefield of triggers each and every day. The good news is that this isn’t the end of the story. It’s just the beginning.
I want to share the paradigm shift that’s made all the difference for me:
What if the crucible of parenting as a trauma survivor is also the most powerful path to healing you could ever imagine?
I’ve been on an intensive healing path for almost two decades. But these two years as my daughter’s mother have been a fire that’s forged me into someone I never even dreamed I could be. I’ve become solid, confident, and connected, at least most of the time.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s been one wild ride, and will continue to be. But because I’ve come to see the challenges of parenting as an initiation into myself, the hardest moments have become easier. Sometimes, they even feel like a gift.
Tools For Transforming Trauma In Parenting
So how do we go about this paradigm shift, turning trauma into wholeness through the daily life of parenting? Below are the three most powerful ways that continue to work for me, day after day:
1. Our triggers reveal what’s asking to be healed
You know that thing your kid does that sends you through the roof? The reason it creates the “over the top” reaction in you is this: What your kid is doing is what you couldn’t be if you wanted the approval of your caregivers.
I know this is a lot to wrap your head around, so I’ll give you an example:
When my daughter whines, I lose it. My body feels like it's about to explode into an inferno, even though my mind knows it’s developmentally appropriate.
Why do I lose it? Because I grew up needing to stay quiet and small to get approval. I was punished for expressing my needs, and so I shut them down.
So of course, when my daughter is “needy,” my nervous system interprets it as a threat, and that’s where the trigger response comes in. It’s my body’s automatic, unconscious way of protecting me from this “threat” by getting angry.
This is why triggers are absolute gold for our healing journeys. They shine a bright light on the wounds that are calling out for our loving attention, and to heal them, we can acknowledge and honor them. Moments after a triggering event, hold your hand to your heart and repeat, “I see you. I am here for you. Thank you for protecting me in the way you know how.”
2. Co-regulating with our kids can heal our attachment wounds
If you’re a trauma survivor, you probably struggle with trust. In other words, you have your guard up, even around people closest to you. Especially if you experienced childhood trauma, your body got the message that “love” means pain, and connecting with others means abandoning your own feelings and needs.
Because of my own attachment wounding, I had a difficult time feeling connected to my newborn daughter. That intense otherworldly love just wasn’t there for me at first like it was for some mothers I know, and that was a massive source of grief for me.
But as both of us have grown into our connection, I’ve noticed subtle magic happening: Because of my intention to turn towards her in difficult moments instead of away from her, our bond has deepened.
Having this solid bond with her has also expanded my ability to trust others. When things get hard, I notice myself staying connected to my husband or other family members rather than seeking my usual solitude. The magic of attachment has grown roots within me, and my sense of belonging deepens every day.
3. Cultivating emotional intelligence in our kids helps us heal from emotional neglect
If you’re a survivor of childhood trauma, you’ve likely learned to censor, deny, minimize, and/or repress your emotions to get the approval of your caregivers, or to keep yourself safe in an abusive environment.
We grew up with the clear message, whether explicit or implied, that we cannot both be loved and express how we really feel. Maybe there was just no room for our feelings, or maybe we were punished or ignored for having them.
Because we were conditioned to repress our feelings, we also never learned how to feel better when it got to be too much. We were left alone with our overwhelm, which is traumatic in and of itself. This is called emotional neglect.
As a survivor of emotional neglect, I’m deeply passionate about teaching my daughter about her feelings and how to help herself move through them. Discovering Generation Mindful was like the clouds opening up and gifting me the perfect tools to make my dream a reality.
Months before my daughter turned two, we set up our Calming Corner, and honestly, I don’t know who benefits from it more: me or her. To have a beautiful place in our home that’s dedicated to emotional well-being has been a revolution.
Just today, I started crying in front of my daughter - the day had just become too much. I explained to her that mama was feeling sad as she looked at me with otherworldly empathy.
I led both of us to the Calming Corner, where I pointed to the “sad” face on the feelings chart. Then, I turned to the chart of calming strategies and told her what I wanted to do to feel better. I pointed to the glass of water, and then, magic happened: Without any prompting, my daughter went to the kitchen, filled a glass with water, and brought it to me. (We had done this for her many times before.)
At that moment, my inner child wept tears of joy and redemption. The cycle was breaking.
In truth, the power that parenting holds to heal our trauma is beyond words. These three examples above are just the first that came to mind - there are countless more.
Parenting as a trauma survivor takes endless patience, both with my child and especially with myself. Some days, my triggers are still in the driver’s seat, and that’s okay. For me, this attitude of grace towards myself is itself a sign that I’m healing.
So there I was, sitting in my car after my emergency escape from tantrum Armageddon. I sat there with myself, holding my heart, allowing the waves to crest and fall within me. Growls of rage soon melted into sobs of ancient grief. I am healing.