Why Kids Trigger Parents with PTSD and What to Do About It
Whether or not a person chooses to have kids is highly personal, and the fact that kids can trigger parents with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) doesn't take away from a person's ability to be a good parent. Becoming a parent is life-changing--in ways that are both uniquely rewarding and highly stressful. Each of us should be allowed to make that decision individually, regardless of our trauma history. People with PTSD can make wonderful parents, just like anyone else. Something that many people with PTSD may not consider, however, is that once they become parents, their kids could trigger their PTSD.
How Kids Trigger Parents with PTSD Unintentionally
It's strange to think about a parent being triggered by her child. After all, nobody is abused by an infant, right? But many behaviors displayed by children are similar to the actions of abusers, even if the intentions are completely different. A toddler, for example, might scream and throw objects against the wall if he doesn't get his way. A pre-teen might yell, "I hate you!" and slam her door because you take away her phone privileges.
Of course, kids aren't behaving like abusers; abusers are behaving childishly. When you have a trauma history, though, that distinction doesn't always matter. The problem isn't who triggers the PTSD, it's about what triggers it. So, women with sexual assault histories face special challenges when becoming mothers.
Childbirth Triggers Some Rape Survivors
For some women, living with PTSD during pregnancy causes many problems. For example, labor and birthing pains might trigger body memories of forcible penetration. When this happens, the loss of bodily control that takes place during labor mirrors the loss of bodily autonomy that accompanies rape.
Because accounts of this are mostly anecdotal--the little data that exists on the phenomenon also relies on personal accounts--few labor and delivery professionals make accommodations to help rape survivors while giving birth. 1 This is unfortunate because women who experience the phenomenon report having difficulty bonding with their newborns. 2 Clearly, we need to become better as a society at believing women's personal experiences even without a preponderance of scientific data confirming them.
For Me, Motherhood Itself Is the PTSD Trigger
My labor did not trigger trauma memories of sexual abuse, but the duties of motherhood sometimes do. The most triggering responsibility? Breastfeeding.
I loved breastfeeding my kids. Breastfeeding is a beautiful experience. I've enjoyed those private moments between mama and baby when it's time to cuddle together and put her to my breast. But as my youngest daughter grew older and continued to breastfeed, it became triggering.
Older babies and toddlers are known to be aggressive about what they want. In this case, what my daughter wanted were my breasts. If I said "no" when she wanted to nurse, she tried to forcibly pull down my shirt or grab at my breasts. It's not easy to teach a very young child about space and privacy, especially when she is trained to view my body as her best source of food and comfort. I found myself being triggered by her aggressive attempts to access my breasts--even though I knew she was just a baby.
PTSD Stigma Also Colors My Motherhood
There is a stereotype that people with posttraumatic stress disorder are abusive. Many people think that if someone was sexually assaulted during her youth, like I was, she will grow up to be a pedophile. Sometimes this happens, but the incidence appears to be fairly low (interestingly, it may be even lower in women than men). 3 This means it's unlikely for a sexual abuse survivor to develop sexually abusive behaviors. Since I inhabit my own mind and body, I also know for a fact that I am among the majority who did not inherit these tendencies.
But feeling that others think I'm guilty is a trigger for me--probably because my abuser often beat me after falsely accusing me of cheating on him. In the case of parenting, I sometimes fear that someone will think I'm hurting my children when I'm simply doing what I should be doing as a mother: changing diapers, applying rash cream, bathing them, clothing them, etc. I never know who it is I think is accusing me; it could be someone glancing through the window, but often it feels more like a nebulous, non-existent figure. It's mostly a paranoid feeling. A very uncomfortable paranoid feeling that feeds on a widespread stigma repeatedly perpetuated in the media.
How Can We Help Parents Whose Kids Trigger Their PTSD?
If we stop spreading false ideas that PTSD and mental illness are common precursors to violent behavior, then it will be easier for those of us living with these disorders not to internalize negative ideas of ourselves. Until that happens, we'll just have to take it into our own hands (Change the Stigma Around PTSD by Changing Self-Perception). I'll continue to remind myself what I know to be true, and I hope you'll join me by doing the same for yourself: I'm a good person. I have never and will never intentionally harm my kids. It doesn't matter if ignorant people think my PTSD makes me violent; that doesn't make it true.
When it comes to physical PTSD triggers like breastfeeding, we have to treat those as we do other triggers, by giving ourselves a necessary measure of space and understanding when it comes to those activities. Others can help by supporting us. For example, if you see your partner becoming agitated by your baby's attempts to breastfeed, pick up the baby and distract her while your partner calms down.
Parenting with posttraumatic stress disorder comes with a unique set of challenges, but that shouldn't stop you from having kids. Because I'm a mother, I focused this article on issues related to mothering with PTSD. If you're a father with PTSD, I'm very interested in hearing about your experiences. Please leave a comment and tell me what specific issues arise for you as a father with PTSD.
1 Influence of childhood sexual abuse on pregnancy, delivery, and the early postpartum period in adult women. (2006, July 29). Retrieved November 08, 2017, from ScienceDirect.com
2 Amara, P. (2016, June 10). Pregnancy and birth can be dangerously traumatic for rape victims. Now I've found a way to help. Retrieved November 08, 2017, from Independent.co.uk
3 Cycle of child sexual abuse: links between being a victim and becoming a perpetrator. Retrieved November 08, 2017, from bjp.rcpsych.org
Brico, E. (2017, November 8). Why Kids Trigger Parents with PTSD and What to Do About It, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2019, September 16 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/traumaptsdblog/2017/11/kids-trigger-ptsd
Author: Elizabeth Brico
I go through all of these.
I'm crying with relief inside.
I'm so glad you wrote what you wrote. You changed my life because now I'll react better knowing I'm not 'a freak'- im a survivor. This is okay. I am fine.
Yes, parenting is a tough job, but there is also a lot of joy that can come from it. I completely understand your fears, as I had those same fears and dreams after being molested. I was able to work through a lot of it in therapy and I took parenting classes before I had kids. I think it says a lot about you that you are concerned for your future children. Many parents aren't even concerned about their present children. Having kids is definitely a personal choice, but I hope that you can work through your feelings and make a decision based on what you truly want for your life.
I just want to say thank you for being brave and writing and exposing and taking away stigma . I can so relate to feeling triggered and trying to fight thru the intense emotions and terror inside and then feel guilty for having them like I am bad parent . This article helps validate my feelings as well as make me feel less alone as I already am a single parent and few very alone at times. Thank you and Namaste ❤️
I'll make my response to "JR" short, lest I "feed the troll" as they say.
As I state in the beginning of this article, people with PTSD (myself included) can be good parents...being triggered doesn't make you a terrible person, and I think the fact that you reacted as you did shows you carry some intensely wrong misconceptions about PTSD and triggers. Secondly, not everyone reacts the same way to everything--neither my experience nor your experience signifies any singular truth about PTSD, however I do know other people to whom this has happened and will refer you also to this article on The Establishment, which I relate to greatly: https://theestablishment.co/when-your-child-is-your-ptsd-trigger-2f9e0c4562fd
Finally, it takes a lot of courage and vulnerability to express something like this in a public forum. I am, as you said, just some writer putting my experience down to paper (or in this case screen) and somehow getting it published--most everything that is not a medical paper is that--but I hope that if you ever find the courage to be as honest and vulnerable as I have been that you are celebrated, not attacked for it. Those of us with PTSD need to bring each other up, not down. If you're frightened by what I've written here, I suggest exploring it with your support team. It's going to be OK.
I read all of your posts (here and a few at Vice) and I think they are all very thoughtful and well put together. I think RJ had a visceral response to the content of this piece and turned to using the ad hominem fallacy in his/her reply to you. (Hee hee - I just learned 'ad hominem' over in the Verbal Abuse in Relationships post, and I already get to use it!)
I, for one, learn something new from you and other bloggers on HealthyPlace almost every day. I appreciate the knowledge you share. Don't let the haters get to you. You're brilliant! :)
I think you are doing a great job, and I appreciate your ability to focus on abuse in ANY relationship. I've heard it at work, between siblings, and, as you said, "all the time!"