I’d like to believe that I have been a good mom to my kids. Like any parent will tell you, raising children is not easy. However, when you’re an adult survivor of child abuse, there’s an added layer of difficulty to being the kind of parent you know your kids need versus the kind that was modeled to you.
I worked really hard to leave the trauma of abuse behind me, but undoubtedly, my parenting ability (and therefore my kids) suffered from my lack of a healthy adult role model. The following seven areas are where, no matter how hard I tried, I managed to bring my fucked-up past into my children’s present. I've also shared what I've learned over the past 18 years — through loads of therapy and parenting classes — to help me stop the cycle of dysfunction for good.
When you’re raised by parents who don’t understand boundaries, it’s easy to misunderstand what’s age-appropriate and healthy for your own children. Looking back, I realize that my sons learned about adult subjects like sex, drugs and death far too early because I couldn’t effectively gauge their mental readiness.
What I’ve learned is that children aren’t prepared to know everything an adult does and that oversharing can really harm them since they don’t have the maturity and wisdom to help them process the information.
2. Emotional honesty
Like many victims of child abuse, emotional vulnerability is difficult to navigate. In my house, crying or expressing anger was not tolerated and could lead to further abuse, both verbal and physical. This translated into my struggling to be emotionally honest as an adult with my children. As a parent, I failed to set an example of someone dealing with pain or anger in healthy, productive ways for many years, which undoubtedly taught them the same dysfunctional behavior.
What I’ve learned is that kids need to see how healthy adults deal with real-life emotions so they can feel safe doing the same. Kids ultimately repeat what they see, and if adults lash out, kids will too.
I learned as a child that trusting others would always lead to disappointment, and that belief stayed with me long into adulthood. It made me assume my children were lying when they weren’t, it made me distrust my husband for no reason, and sadly, I often failed to trust myself. As a parent, I taught my sons that I had no faith in them, which was damaging to our relationship as well as to their self-esteem and took years to repair.
What I’ve learned is that kids need to feel trusted in order to develop their own sense of honesty. If they feel their parents expect them to lie, they will.
There were no “natural consequences” for me as a child. If I did something my parents didn’t like, I was hit, screamed at, made fun of, grounded or even ignored for long periods of time. When I became a parent, I knew I didn’t want to hurt my children, but learning appropriate discipline styles didn’t come naturally. I struggled to maintain my composure when my children misbehaved and to use each experience as an opportunity for my children to learn.
What I’ve learned is that discipline is really about teaching our children why they should behave differently. It’s also important that children feel safe at home, and punishment that is abusive ultimately violates their sense of security, meaning they’re likely to take fewer risks and to be less honest about their mistakes.
Researchers have correlated child abuse with health problems later in life, and my experience is no different. I was diagnosed years ago with PTSD, long before military veterans made the disorder a household name. Along with symptoms of PTSD, I have issues sleeping since I am hyperalert and never fully in REM sleep. I also struggle with chronic headaches, reproductive illnesses, pain and fatigue, all which are shown to be common ailments of adult survivors of child abuse. This has led to my having more downtime than a healthy parent has, and that has taken away from time I should have spent with my children.
What I’ve learned is that I have to take time to nurture and care for myself in order to be present and available in my children’s lives. Having an active, healthy parent is vital to a child’s sense of togetherness and family.
As a child, punishments were often violent, followed by solitary confinement to my room for weeks. I learned to feel the safest when I was alone in my room, and that became a coping mechanism for me as an adult. Whenever life got too hard or too stressful, I would retreat to my bed and stay there, avoiding my responsibilities and life. My kids often missed out on having a mom who could weather the hard days and be a source of support.
What I’ve learned is that things that feel comforting aren’t always the best for us. I didn’t know that I had anxiety for a long time, and by learning to deal with my anxiety in ways that didn’t involve cutting out the rest of the world, I was able to change how my children saw me. Now they know that it’s OK to feel overwhelmed and that there are better ways (like walking, talking, listening to music, etc.) to get through those moments.
When your parents point out your flaws, you believe them. For as long as I can remember, I’ve hated my body and felt insecure about my personality because I was told constantly that I was ugly, fat, stupid and difficult to deal with. Those words transformed me. I avoided friendships, outings and events so that I wouldn’t have to deal with others judging me, but in the end, I robbed my children of experiences in the world that are fun and healthy.
What I’ve learned is that negative self-talk can be reprogrammed, and it is possible to feel confident if we truly want it. Confidence is such a powerful model for our children. The world is already hard — we don’t have to teach them to be hard on themselves as well.
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