Why Kids Trigger Parents with PTSD and What to Do About It
Wednesday, November 8 2017 Elizabeth Brico
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