Parents who support a traumatised child
Self-care for parents who support a traumatised child and the challenge of supporting a traumatised child.
Living with a child who experienced trauma is both emotional and challenging. Your child might act out and display difficult behaviours, become withdrawn and isolate themselves. You might feel like they turned into a completely different person.
Just like your child, you might struggle with negative emotions such as anger, shame and guilt. You might feel like you should have done more to protect them. You might want to focus all your energy on helping them get better. However, before you can take care of your child, you have to take care of yourself.
A supportive parental figure is a crucial part of a child’s recovery, giving them space to fully process their thoughts and emotions. If you’re not coping well, you put both yourself and your child at risk. While your child is your priority, don’t forget to make time to practise self-care.
What can you do to help yourself?
Give up total control. When you’re aware of your child suffering, it’s natural to automatically go into protection mode. You might be afraid of not thinking about your child every minute of the day in case something bad happens to them again. You might feel tempted to accompany your child everywhere, track their every move and dictate their activities.
Before you know it, you might become obsessed with their wellbeing and forget about your own needs. This kind of control might temporarily help you deal with fear for your child’s safety but will quickly become overwhelming for both of you. You might find yourself living in a state of chronic stress that might eventually affect your parenting and lead to mental difficulties.
What can you do to step back? Acknowledge that your child’s healing is a slow process that should be encouraged, not pushed. Write down your thoughts every day to keep a track of your mood and recognise when stress becomes too much. Give yourself breathing space by redirecting a bit of your energy to other family members and activities.
Acknowledge reality by practising radical acceptance. Radical acceptance is about embracing thoughts that appear in our consciousness and acknowledging painful memories even if we believe they weren’t fair. It might be difficult to accept that your child went through something horrific. It might feel like it’s synonymous with approval. However, while you might think negative emotions are justified, they won’t change the past and might turn into lifelong suffering.
One way to practise radical acceptance is to make a list of behaviours you would engage in if you accepted the past, and try to commit to them. Maybe you would still be attending your favourite yoga class if you weren’t overwhelmed by your current situation. Maybe you would sing while getting ready for work. It’s important to encourage yourself to come back to your old routine.
Another way is to identify where you feel negative emotions in your body and practise relaxation techniques focusing on those parts (for example, breathing).
Lastly, when you find yourself fighting reality (“It shouldn’t be this way”), try to challenge that mindset by engaging in self-talk. Tell yourself that things are the way they are and life is still worth living.
Practise positive affirmation. Affirmations are statements that help exercise your mind and make positive changes in both your thought process and life. You can either listen to guided positive affirmations or create a list of your own and repeat them daily. It could be anything, for example, “I deserve to be happy” or “Good things will come my way”.
Don’t forget simple pleasures. Self-care might seem like a foreign, even ridiculous concept when you care for a child who experienced trauma. However, spending time with yourself is important to manage high levels of stress. You could start from something simple like eating a favourite meal every day or awarding yourself a relaxing bath every evening. You could choose a feel-good show to watch or make sure you speak to your trusted friend – the key is to find an enjoyable activity and make it a part of your routine. It’s not only a great way to boost your mood but also a great first step to help you reconnect with the person you were before your child’s trauma.
Consider therapy. Supporting a traumatised child might be an isolating experience. Your friends might not be able to relate to what you’re going through and your partner might not be as supportive as you want them to be. If the reality becomes too much to handle and you feel like things won’t get better, it might be a good idea to ask for professional support.