How Trauma Can Impact Your Parenting

Why was I emotional at my daughter's Meet The Teacher Night?

I found myself becoming emotional at my youngest daughter’s meet the teacher night this year. I did not expect to have feelings from the past resurface that night, but there was something that resonated with a deep part of me. I silently observed my daughter’s greetings with her classmates as they reconnected after a summer away from each other. I observed her interactions with her new teacher. I slowed down to greet the parents who were present, finally making it a point to step out of my comfort zone. The night brought me back to memories of what my third grade experience was like and the deep impact that year has had on my life all of these years later.

I have always believed that our experiences shape us. They color the lens of our perspective in life, stir up the raw emotions inside of us that we can’t always express, and influence our approach in every situation that we are faced with. My lens was filtered by some traumatic experiences when I was in third grade. It is interesting to me that this is the year those memories have resurfaced with such clarity. But as I learn more about trauma and unpack what my experience of “normal” was growing up, I have been able to recognize how it relates to the season of parenting that I am in with my youngest daughter. In some ways, I am reconnecting to my third grade experience while I try to help my daughter navigate her own experience at this grade.

I did not know that the word to describe what I experienced at her age was trauma.  I knew that I felt some confusing emotions that I did not have the words for.  I knew that I had to work very hard to try to keep those emotions away from the surface because somehow, when we show our emotions we are considered weak, told to be strong, told to stop crying, told that it’s not okay to be angry, and sometimes the very nature of our tears can cause great discomfort for others.

What is Trauma?

The most basic way to describe trauma is as deeply painful and distressing life circumstances. For me, this was the year that a story started to unfold in my life that was being written for me since I had no control over my life circumstances at the time. I did not have the words to tell my story at that age. In fact, I still wrestle with can can be shared and what has to remain untold.

There is one thing I knew at the time and it is something I have cherished since. My third grade teacher made her classroom a place of refuge and safety. At school, I had to learn how to deal with some mean girls who were my friends one day, and shunned me the next. It was the year that the soles on my gym shoes became undone and it sounded like a clap with each step that I took. I learned to laugh along with the kids who made fun of me in order to hide the embarrassment.

It was also the year that my parent’s separated and later divorced. I had no idea about the depth of pain that this would carry into the rest of my life. I remember listening to the conversations of adults that I shouldn’t have been listening to. I heard pieces of information that I tried to make sense of. Then, a few days later, I woke up to my father sobbing as he sat at the foot of my bed. He was saying good-bye. I remember him crying and then leaving.

My mother did a brave and painful thing. She had enough and decided that we needed to be safe.

I remember feeling so many different emotions that I had no words to describe. Well into my 40s, I now understand that my experiences were traumatic. To me, it was my normal every day experience, being written into my story, without any input from me. I was experiencing the beginning of a lifelong cycle of coping with feelings of abandonment, grief, sadness, anger, loneliness, hopelessness, blame, and shame. Feelings I couldn’t label when I was young.

I was also confused because of the relief that swept over me. Knowing that I did not have to worry about certain things since my father was gone reassured me that it was better this way. The sense of relief was a double edged sword that left a shadow of guilt any time it came up. How can I be relieved about a loss of someone in my life that was so disappointing?

The most stable thing in my life at the time, was my classroom. I don’t know how she did it, my teacher made me feel connected to her and to my classmates. She saw me. She knew me by name and took the time to try to guide my path that year. I felt like I belonged somewhere. I remember when she mediated a conflict between me and the mean girls. She helped us talk things over as she tried to teach me how to have a voice and speak up for my needs. It went against the silence that I had learned to bear in my home setting, and I value her lessons to this day.

Throughout the years I have wondered what she must have seen in me. What would bring her to have such compassion for me that she would visit my home? Sit at the kitchen table with my mother? Have a conversation in which she arranged an after school shopping trip to a local shoe store and use her own money to buy me two pairs of shoes?

I look back at that time in my life and reflect on how it defined me and how it defined my parenting for so many years.
As I walk my youngest daughter through the third grade, I find myself taking a step back and observing her childhood.  I did the same thing with her older sisters.  It seems to be the age and grade  that I find it hardest to connect to, the hardest to relate to.
I have always looked back at my third grade experience through a bittersweet lens.
The bitter part?  It was the year that I lost a lot of my childhood.   When the grief of that loss comes to the surface, I have to consciously put it aside.  I have to bring myself into the moment and become a student again.    But this time, I am a student of my daughter’s childhood.  I study her mannerisms, how she looks at life, and where she is at this stage in her life.  I remind myself that I want her to have a childhood and we figure out what that looks like together.
The sweet part?  The memories of my teacher.  How she valued me as a person, showed me kindness, and taught me lessons that went beyond her classroom walls.  Lessons that still impact me today.

How does one cope with trauma when it resurfaces?

For me, it is a very specific choice. I have decided that I can’t dwell on the hurt from my past. I have accepted that what unfolded in my life when I was in third grade, was beyond my control. For a long time, I was a victim of my circumstances. I was defined by brokenness, even when anger is what surfaced. I am still learning today that there was always a depth of pain underneath.

I have decided not to be that person anymore.  I choose to move forward, walking in acceptance of who I am.  I choose to find ways to connect with my daughter as she walks through her third grade experience.

Past trauma can impact our parenting in many ways because it has colored our lens and impacted all of our relationships, including the relationships we have with our children. We must recognize the cycles that may be repeated if we don’t acknowledge the way that trauma has shaped us.

How can you rewrite your story?

I have chosen to pick up the broken pieces and rearrange them as I redefine who I am in reflection of God’s love for me and in the wholeness and healing that He has for me.  I have chosen to start telling my story because now I realize that it gives me strength and may encourage someone else to see the hope that we can pursue the future with.

Maybe you can relate to a painful childhood experience. It can be hard to recognize how we are impacted by our past experiences. We may not realize how it has created some obstacles in being able to connect to our own children.

Maybe you are a teacher who provides a place of refuge and safety for the students you work with every day. You may not know the stories of each student in your class, but you still have a daily opportunity to impact each person in a valuable way.

You can also be a trusted adult in a different setting, such as a youth group, a community center, or a family friend to someone else who is hurting. You can reach out and be a support to the people you interact with on a daily basis.

My ultimate hope is that you are in a season of redefining yourself by picking up the pieces, and allowing God to restore a new masterpiece in you.  Or you are allowing God to use you in the restoration of someone else.
When trauma is recognized and you acknowledge how it has impacted you, it can be the beginning of your healing process.  You have to recognize the broken pieces around you before you can pick them up and allow them to be restored.  There is hope for you to rewrite your story as you become a new and fully healed person.  In the process, you will be able to rewrite the relationship that you have with your children by being an intentional parent.

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