By Guest Blogger Christine Murray, Ph.D., LCMHC, LMFT
The daily to-do lists of parents can feel overwhelming at times–because they are overwhelming! Get the kids up, fed, and ready for school on time. Then, make sure the kids get picked up or have somewhere safe to go after school, manage extracurricular activities, and stay informed about school work. This is on top of keeping the house clean enough, doing laundry, getting groceries, and having dinner ready, not to mention paying bills, managing the family schedule, and trying to squeeze in a little fun and rest sometimes. And this doesn’t even include the work, volunteer, and family commitments that parents have to manage as well.
The life of a busy parent is a lot to manage even in the best of circumstances. But for many parents–myself included–who are somewhere on the journey of recovering from past trauma, managing the daily demands of parenting can become complicated and compounded by trauma-related additions to their to-do lists. These might include managing emotional triggers, making time for intentional steps toward healing, working through the short- and long-term effects of the trauma, and trying to stay hopeful amidst the difficult journey of trauma recovery.
Most of the trauma in my own life relates to a past abusive relationship I faced many years ago. You may have faced other traumatic experiences, such as a tragic loss of a loved one, a natural disaster, a life-threatening illness, or a painful divorce. All traumatic experiences are unique, but a common experience for those who’ve faced traumas of any kind is that the journey of healing and recovering can be long and, at times, painful.
I’m grateful that my trauma is in the distant past now, and I’m pretty far along my journey of healing and recovery. Even still, I face some moments when my healing journey intersects with my parenting experiences, which often leads to added stress, as well as new opportunities for healing. As I’ve been walking along the two journeys of parenting and trauma recovery for many years now–while also working in my career related to mental health, families and relationships, and trauma–I’ve learned several important lessons along the way, which I’ll share below in hopes that they can offer support to others who are in a similar situation:
Recognize and work through emotional triggers. Emotional triggers are situations or circumstances that bring up memories and emotions associated with the trauma you experienced. For example, because of my experiences with an abusive relationship, I can feel emotionally triggered when my kids act in ways that are very disrespectful toward me. Of course, no parent feels good when their children are disrespectful to them, but I realized that my emotional responses were extremely heightened, and those behaviors brought back memories of the abuse I experienced. Once I realized these emotional triggers, I was able to learn to identify them in the moment, figure out how to process my emotions, and also take steps toward deeper healing so I could navigate the triggering situations more effectively.
Carve out intentional space for your healing. Once you recognize your need for healing from past trauma, it’s natural to wish you could work through the healing process as quickly as possible. However, as a busy parent, it’s likely you can’t just check out of life for a few months (or even hours!) to focus intensively on your healing. Be patient with yourself and the healing process if your healing process happens in spurts. Just because your healing isn’t happening all at once doesn’t mean it’s not happening. Be intentional about planning time, space, and opportunities for your healing, such as taking 30 minutes to journal a few times a week or reading a book about trauma recovery for an hour a week.
Build and rally your support system. If you’re managing parenting responsibilities and the trauma recovery process at the same time, you’ve got a lot going on. It can be hard for people who’ve faced trauma (especially if the trauma involved being hurt by someone they trusted) to ask for help. But, finding the right support from friends and family members who you can trust can be a key part of the healing process. Your support system also can include professionals, such as a counselor or therapist. I’m trained as a counselor, but I’ve also benefited greatly from the counseling I have received personally at different points in my healing process. There should be no shame or embarrassment in reaching out for help. Everybody needs a little extra support sometimes, especially those who’ve faced a life-altering traumatic event. You can find more local counselors, psychologists and therapists HERE on TMoM’s directory.
And finally, focus on your strength, and let your experiences fuel your desire to be the best parent you can be. At times, I wish I could go back in time and change the course of my life so I wouldn’t have faced the abuse I went through. But then, I realize that all of the experiences I’ve had in my life–the good and the bad ones–have made me who I am. The bad experiences especially helped me to develop my strength, and I can use these experiences to help me stay motivated in my quest to be the best mom I can be. Those of us who’ve faced traumatic experiences can use the insights we’ve gained to shape the values we want to instill in our children, such as having care and compassion toward others and helping to make a difference for those in our communities who are hurting.
Know that you don’t have to be fully healed or recovered from past trauma to be a good, loving parent. Stay focused on moving forward in your healing journey–even if it’s moving slowly–and doing the best you can each day to care for your children, and for yourself.
Christine E. Murray, Ph.D., LCMHC, LMFT, is the Director of the UNC Greensboro Center for Youth, Family, and Community Partnerships, where she also oversees the Healthy Relationships Initiative. Her new book, “Triumph Over Abuse: Healing, Recovery, and Purpose after an Abusive Relationship,” was released in December 2020 by Routledge.