Parenting While Juggling Kittens
- on May 6, 2011
What does society expect of parents? How often are we expected to be the “Top 10 Most Perfect People” image of a parent?
Better yet, what do family, friends, and those we work with in the community expect of parents when trauma has been a part of their life?
I think some parents get supportive and encouraging help but I also watch as some struggling parents are treated in punitive, judgmental ways and as a result, have inappropriate expectations put upon them. The later is an opportunity for needed change. Think about the times when you couldn’t live up to someone’s expectations…it probably didn’t do much for your sense of confidence.
As it’s been defined before in this website, a traumatic event is defined as “sudden and unexpected, and perceived as dangerous. It may involve a threat of physical harm or actual harm, leading to intense fear. It overwhelms our immediate ability to cope. Traumatic experiences have several key components: intense feelings of helplessness, terror and lack of control, threat to one’s physical or mental well-being through violence or threat of violence, and catastrophic responses.” (Bassuk, Konnath & Volk, 2006). This can include abuse (physical, emotional, sexual), neglect, loss, domestic violence and/or the witnessing of violence, or disasters. Complex trauma, which has to do with trauma as it relates to our personal relationships with caregivers, is trauma that occurs over multiple events or over a longer time. Complex trauma causes changes in the way our brain works and develops.
It’s important to note this: It is the individual’s experience of the event, not necessarily the event itself, that is traumatizing. What seems to cause a traumatic impact on one person may not cause a traumatic impact for someone else.
If you are a parent who has survived traumatic experiences like those listed above, you might find this article helpful. Did you watch your own parent as they were involved in domestic violence? Did you experience something that was difficult to cope with or that you never figured out how to cope with? Was someone violent or abusive toward you in a way that left you feeling helpless and afraid? These are just a few situations that you may consider traumatic.
Not to make light of this topic, but family, friends and even professionals sometimes have something less ‘real’ in mind when they imagine what it looks like to be a parent. These words come to mind: kind, patient, responsible, caring, sensitive, helpful, encouraging, and nurturing. For sure, all are wonderful, and necessary, qualities in a parent. But generally speaking, people tend to have expectations of us that are often impossible to achieve 100% of the time. Family, friends and professionals involved with parents who are trying hard to manage lives impacted by trauma might have the expectation that the parent must do “better.”
But how do we do ‘better’ when the real vision of parenting, while surviving the impacts of trauma, looks more like this: parent juggles three cute kittens without letting them fall to the floor while two teenagers run through the house yelling and crying because they got grounded from their game system while your boss just called to say you need to work an extra shift ‘tonight,’ but you don’t have a babysitter and the text you are reading while juggling cute kittens is from your mom/dad who keeps telling you that you need to do a better job of ‘getting your children under control’…and all the while, you are not sleeping well and have not had a chance, or the money, to get that prescription for depression filled, probably because you had to spend your money on kitty litter and overtime babysitters!
So, maybe the kittens were a stretch? But this description feels like a more ‘real’ vision of what parenting can look like when the long term impacts of trauma have left their marks on us. Parents with traumatic experiences in their past might be trying to manage impacts that include the following:
- Having trouble controlling or regulating their emotions or feelings
- Feeling like it’s difficult to trust others or feel really safe in relationships
- Feeling like things are really disorganized and like life is really chaotic, or maybe it is really hard to concentrate
- Feeling like they are struggling with issues of self-esteem or confidence
- Finding themselves always stressed out or feeling anxious or on edge much of the time
- Having the experience of not feeling healed from things that have happened in the past, maybe feeling like it’s difficult to move forward
- Maybe even struggling with self-destructive behaviors, addiction, or mental health issues
- Feeling like they don’t have a sense of ‘self’…maybe asking themselves, “Who am I, really?”
A humble approach is probably the best approach when trying to write about parenting. I like the following quote by my friend, Sarah Jane Russell: “I don’t know more. I don’t know less. I just have something different to offer.” It’s helpful to be mindful of this in my work with parents who need support for a job that can be really challenging, particularly when the parent or child has had traumatic experiences. As a parent myself, I think it’s safe to say that we all make mistakes. (I’m guessing my own kids would agree…actually, I just called them and they said they definitely agree that our house was not mistake free.) My hope is that parents be able to help each other along by sharing information, supporting each other when times are tough, and by encouraging each other in non-shaming, non-judgmental ways.
So here’s the deal. You may be struggling as a parent, but that doesn’t mean that others have the right to impose inappropriate expectations on you. It just stresses us out even more when we can’t stand up to the pressure.
There are some things we can do though, and things we can ask for, that just might help us get the kind of support we need and improve or begin to repair our relationships with our children.
First off, if you are a parent who is struggling and overwhelmed and you know that you have had traumatic experiences, you can reach out for help from professionals who have special expertise in trauma and Trauma Informed Care. Be the squeaky wheel and ask for a professional that has seasoned experience in this area. When dealing with these issues, you have the right to Choice. A good fit between you and a therapeutic provider is critical when you need services around trauma…because feelings of trust and safety are such huge components for your success. Interview professionals and ask them what kind of success they have had with issues such as yours. You don’t have to simply take the first person that had an open spot if that person doesn’t feel like a good fit. If you need help or support in reaching out in this way, find an advocate who is able to support you in finding the resource you need. Area service providers or care coordinators who work for your insurance company can help you find the right professional to help you.
Second, know that there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to helping you improve your parenting and taking good care of yourself. Each person deserves to have their situation be treated as unique because you, yourself, have unique situations and strengths.
Also, find a way to be patient with yourself. Healing and change takes time. And, parenting is a relationship process, which always takes time.
You can also help others, and yourself, to see your challenges, behaviors, and difficulties, not as “bad behaviors” or as if you, yourself, have problems with motivation, manipulation and other typically negative labels. Think of these “behaviors,” for lack of a better word, as areas where skills have not been developed. Ross W. Greene & J. Stuart Ablon, in their book, Treating Explosive Kids: The Collaborative Problem Solving Approach (2006), write that there are five ‘pathways’ where a lack of skills can lead to unhealthy coping skills and unhealthy behaviors, in adults and children:
Executive Skills are those cognitive (thinking) skills that involve our memory, organization, flexibility and impulse control. They note that aggression rarely occurs outside the context of inattention and poor impulse control.
Language Processing Skills are those that help us label and categorize our emotions, communicate our feelings and needs, sort our response options, and get feedback about the appropriateness of our actions.
Emotion Regulation Skills are those that, not surprisingly, help us monitor and control our emotions so that we have appropriate emotions and so that we don’t have so much emotion that we can’t function in healthy ways.
Cognitive Flexibility Skills are those that help us moderate our ability to be flexible during situational occurrences. These focus on how concrete we are in our thinking, how literal and rigid are we in our thinking and whether or not we are black-and-white thinkers as well as do we experience significant frustration in “circumstances of unpredictability.”
Social Skills are those that help us with social problem solving, understanding the impacts on others of our behaviors, understanding how we come across or attend to social cues and social nuances, in the ways we share, interact in groups or relationships, in conversation, in tone of voice and eye contact, and in pacifying ourselves.
Look for professionals who can help you grow these skills and stretch yourself. These skills can help you move from being reactive toward being able to be more responsive.
If you know your child has experienced trauma, be their best advocate. Look at these steps as a way to help them too. As their parent, you will always be their best advocate.
Remember, empathy goes a long way in building loving relationships. The impacts of trauma can feel heavy and overwhelming, if not causing us to feel hopeless at times. Be kind to yourself and to your children. We are, in fact, human.
And last but not least, know that YOU MATTER. You aren’t invisible or insignificant or unworthy. Surround yourself with people that help you see just how much you do matter.