Parenting While Living with Complex PTSD

March 21, 2019 Traci Powell

Successful parenting while living with complex PTSD can be challenging, but not impossible. Learn how to be the best parent you can be at HealthyPlace.

Parenting is tough in general, but when you are raising children while living with complex posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), sometimes parenting seems impossible. Often trauma survivors hold themselves to a higher standard when it comes to parenting in an attempt to avoid repeating the abusive patterns of prior generations, or the opposite may happen. When you are stressed as a parent, you may overreact and be unfairly harsh with your children. As trauma survivors, it's important to stay mindful in order to avoid passing your traumas on to your kids. 

How Trauma and Complex PTSD Affects Parenting

For many years, decades even, I did my best to avoid dealing with the traumas I had endured. All I knew was I wasn't going to allow the same things to happen to my kids, so I watched them like a hawk. Fear controlled my parenting for a long time. No sleepovers with friends, because I was worried someone in the house might hurt my child. I was the parent who drove them to and from everywhere, despite other parents offers to help. I closely monitored everything they did. It wasn't until my daughter very bravely told me one day that she felt like she couldn't breathe or make a move without worrying me that I realized I was suffocating my children. I started to give my daughter some space and let go a little.

She got a boyfriend and one day I was angry about the way he was treating her. I completely flipped out on her, cursing and screaming at the top of my lungs. I was so uncontrollable with my anger that the only thing that finally stopped me was seeing my young son out of the corner of my eye staring at me with terrified eyes filled with tears. It was the first time I had ever done anything like that. After I stopped my tirade, I knew I had to get help, because it was very clear to me that my anger was about way more than the antics of my daughter's boyfriend. There was a nine-year-old little girl inside of me who had been triggered into lashing out her anger onto my daughter and I was not going to let that happen again. 

When your trauma is still unresolved, you can parent from a place of constant fear, without even realizing it. Your fear will either cause you to become much too over-protective of your children or irrationally lash out at them in a manner unfitting the situation. Either way, the end result is a child who becomes psychologically stressed and can ultimately end up with their own complex PTSD, so it's important that you learn to manage your stress to avoid taking it out on your children. 

Knowing Yourself Can Help You Parent Successfully Even with Complex PTSD

Living with complex PTSD is hard, but it's not an excuse to hurt those around you, especially your children. It's important you hold yourself accountable for your actions and know when to take a breath. Tightly controlling your kids to protect yourself from the fear something will happen to them can be just as harmful as lashing out at them. Kids need to form a sense of identity and learn to manage their own lives. If you are too overbearing, they don't have space and room to grow into the independent, secure adults they need to be, just as your abuse prevented it from happening to you. 

How to Parent While Living with Complex PTSD

All parents make mistakes and later regret them, but you need to be aware of when your actions may become abusive or too controlling. The following tips may help you  if you're concerned your complex PTSD is affecting your parenting:

  1. Take a step back to consider if your reaction fits the situation. If your child spilled milk and you are berating him and screaming at the top of your lungs, chances are the traumatized, stressed part of you has taken over. This is very common, especially if, as a child, you were never allowed to make mistakes. Now, as an adult, you may flash back to the fears that you felt as during these times, resulting in an overreaction today. When you feel ready to boil over, rather than choose to overreact, step away from the situation to allow your traumatized brain to relax, so that you think through what happened and respond appropriately.
  2. Communicate with your kids. Be willing to apologize, but understand that a true apology comes with change. As a childhood trauma survivor, you may have heard many apologies as a kid, yet your parents turned around and did the same horrible things again, only to once again apologize. It's important that you talk to your kids and help them understand what it feels like to like with complex PTSD and how it can sometimes affect that way that you react. This will help them learn your reactions are not about them, but you also need to take responsibility to control the way you react when your kids make mistakes to prevent your child from being the recipient of your childhood pain. 
  3. If you feel you simply cannot stop overreacting or let go of constantly controlling your child's every move, it's time to seek professional help. Overcoming childhood trauma can be very difficult on your own. A trauma-informed professional can help you understand how your own childhood is affecting your parenting, as well as how to manage your complex PTSD to prevent continuing the cycle of trauma in your family. Addressing your trauma can be life-changing, not just for your children, but for you as well.
  4. Allow yourself to be human. As a childhood trauma survivor, you may be determined to never make your kids feel bad like you did when you were a child. This can result in you constantly trying to keep your kids happy. It may feel good to know they are never sad, but life's challenges are what help kids to build resilience and learn to overcome struggles. It's ok to not be the perfect parent, in fact, it's important for your child development. What children need more is to know that you are a safe place to come to when they need support, love, and encouragement. 
  5. Consider taking parenting classes. As a childhood trauma survivor, you likely were not properly parented yourself, so you had no good example of how to parent your own children. Parenting classes can help you understand how to meet your child's developmental needs and cope with challenging parenting situations.

While parenting while living with complex PTSD can be a challenge, your early experiences don't have to prevent you from being a loving, capable parent. By taking accountability for your actions and seeking the help you need, you can become the parent your children deserve through learning to manage your complex PTSD and eventually spilled milk will just be spilled milk.

APA Reference
Powell, T. (2019, March 21). Parenting While Living with Complex PTSD, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 25 from

Author: Traci Powell

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December, 5 2023 at 4:01 am

How do we not traumatize our children like we were traumatized? How do we stop the cycle of abuse? This is nearly impossible if you have never been parented properly. My parents were hopeless, an autistic and traumatized father who was lashing out at my family every day and created true hell in the house and constantly depressed, fearful and dark mother who looked the other way. How do you fix yourself without any help when this happened to you and now boiler breaks down in the middle of winter and you get fired from work, which is what happened to me? I lashed out at my kids last night. They are unruly and messy and just being kids and of course this is not a reason to freak out like I did. Every time this happens it breaks my heart but I am powerless to stop it. We don't have money for trauma therapist. My childhood was hell, I was on drugs from depression since age 12 or so, the last 35 years, I had to find an own dr as a kid because my parents could not care less. I fist tried to commit suicide at age 14 or so and they just said that I needed to get a hobby. My friends mother was an MD and she saw me for free and gave me drugs, the old type of antidepressants, but they did not help. Since then I have had diagnoses of BPD and depression all my life and have been on Zoloft every day. My brain is probably already damaged beyond repair from 35 years of taking Zoloft. Never had a chance to do therapy. I am now 48. We lost all our lifetime savings on a buying a house for our kids that is unsellable now and don't know where to start fixing it without money for therapy.

Kathryn Kjersem
July, 16 2022 at 6:46 am

Wow this article is incredible. I know I'm a amazing mom but living with CPTSD has me thinking I'm horrible mom! I can relate to this entire article and am currently looking for free parenting classes and trauma therapy. I wish there was more help out there for low income single parents.

Needs help
July, 20 2021 at 1:47 pm

How does one get around to #3? Not that I don't want to, but I cannot afford a Dr, we're practically homeless as is, we don't have the money for help. I can't drive and I live in a rural area where the nearest non- religious therapist is over an hour away. What can be done for people like me?

July, 18 2021 at 3:59 am

What kind of therapist are you supposed to visit for cptsd?

Ken Adams
January, 19 2021 at 6:55 am

I am a father of 3 small children. I have CPTSD which I only acknowledged 12 months ago through EMDR therapy. I work in a prison which is trauma filled on a daily basis which I struggle to manage.
With parenting any slight incident I can feel my blood start to boil, my children now shout at one another and at me which in turn makes me more angry. I left the family home last year as I thought they would be better off without me but I moved back in due to corona virus, also I fully believed I could cope after having 12 sessions of EMDR.
I am now finding myself depressed, unmotivated, sad, angry, hopeless and existing. I feel like a terrible parent living here but don't want to cause my children further trauma.
Everyday is a struggle.

May, 9 2022 at 11:38 am

This sounds like my words.
I’m so sorry you’re going through this

Margaret Cloud
January, 10 2021 at 5:34 pm

I did not realize that I had PTSD from all of the things that happened as a child, teen, and adult. I have always known that I did not and continue to not think normally. I was able to work on myself for years and to keep things in bottles and cans with tight lids but then my home burned to the ground and my cats were killed. I sat there at the neighbor's house crying and told my boyfriend that I just could not fix it this time because it was too big and not just the fire. It has been 19 months and when I went for help I did not receive trauma informed therapy but substance abuse talk therapy because the mental health clinic is supposed to provide community mental health services but only has substance abuse counselors. I did not know this and nobody there even attempted to provide trauma informed therapy or tell me that was what I needed. I finally began a rapid backsliding after about 14 months and today, right now, I am sitting in the Behavioral Health ward of a hospital. I started trying to find help for myself Thanksgiving week and that is when I learned that I should have had trauma intensive therapy just because of the fire. I think I started sliding backwards because the therapist started talking about exploring why I think as I do about many things. I have never felt safe or willing to discuss everything because that gives someone too much power. I have had eating issues, anorexia, since I was 12 but had things under control for a long time. By the time I was in my late 30's I was gaining weight and my sense of self began to diminish. I did manage to loose weight while I lived alone with my father-in-law after my father died but I gained it back and then more. Since the fire I have had a steady weight gain no matter what I did. About 6 weeks ago I started restricting my intake. I spoke with my psychiatrist about it and when asked I told him that it was the only thing in my life that I could control. The program where I am is only short term stabilization and I cannot find any way to get into a real program for help. Taking medications will not change what is in my brain and telling me to eat only angers me and makes me want to eat less. I told my psychiatrist that I want to become so small that nobody notices when I just disappear. Anyway, it is Sunday afternoon and I was admitted on Friday afternoon. They confiscated my clothes and I have to wear purple scrubs. I have not bothered to shower or even change scrubs since I arrived. I brush my teeth and wash my face morning and night but that is it. I have not even combed my hair. I really don't care anymore and last night I was trying to breath as slowly as possible, imagining how I might be able to make myself stop breathing so that I could die. Nobody here wants to listen to me when I tell them what I need: I need to talk to someone about everything that has happened and for someone to just listen to me and let me cry and cry and cry.
A few weeks ago I happened to read a word that I had not seen before and looked for what it means: anhedonia. One website states: "There is an established relationship between having experienced trauma as a child and suffering from anhedonia (the inability to experience feelings of pleasure) as an adult." This says everything that I have been trying to explain. I no longer believe that I will ever get the help I need.

June, 13 2021 at 7:38 am

Stay strong Margaret,
I know it's tough, but you do need to start looking after yourself. Maybe just start with the basics, brush hair, brush teeth, shower.
I have struggled with EDs for a while, so I understand the feeling of wanting to just disappear. When you feel you can, have some fruit or a nutritionally complete shake, you can slowly refeed yourself.
If you're struggling with weight, try going vegan for a little while, binging on vegetables is nowhere near as damaging as binging on cheese and meats.
Again, when you can, go outside for a walk.
By feeding and moving your body, you will feel a bit better.
Then with a clear head, you can decide how to address your CPTSD.
You've expressed that you just want to talk about everything, and for somebody to listen.
That's not an impossible feat!
You may have to go through 10 therapists until you find the one that you really like, but once you do, you can heal even faster.
I have major trust issues too, if you really want, you can have two therapists and speak to them about separate issues - that way you can feel safe knowing neither of them has total control - you do.
Margaret, I care about you, not just because we have excellent names ;) , but also because I feel your pain, I struggle with the same issues, and I know you and I can get better.
Stay strong, keep up the good fight, cherish every breath. I know you can do this!
Sending my love and big hugs,

August, 8 2022 at 2:23 pm

Hi Margaret,
I hope u see this again i read a book Complex ptsd by Paul walker and it has so much info from a man who actually has this as well. He teaches how this all comes to be and how to ease the symptoms we ge. They are flashbacks and how to calm ourselves when we feel them . He also gives you alot of resources to help ourselves when we can't fund a therapist thst understands this. I don't have insurance so I been doing alot of research. There's not alot out there which is messed up but he does say we need support from somebody. I have nobody. I went no contact with my toxic family. I had just those type of people around me being physically abused and I hate how I can't control the thoughts in my head but slowly this book is helping there's steps to take and we have to nature our inner child and stop our inner critic. I found a friend who I met when I was 16 I'm 42 now, he taught me a little about Buddhism and he lives in India now. He is coming to visit me for a few days but I think I'm getting a little better now since I came in contact with him .I hope you see this and you are doing better. I will think of u in my prayers to all of us out there as well.

Kathryn Morris
August, 3 2020 at 5:13 pm

Thank you Traci for writing this. I am dealing with CPTSD and this has made me feel less alone, understood and so much better. Thank you.

June, 13 2020 at 6:24 pm

This article made such a difference to me. I was wondering about my parenting. My recent cptsd from my kid's dad. My my coexisting bipolar
I have raged at my poor little girl before
I can't stop crying. I always want to make her happy and this article is me to the T
I can now see that it could be childhood trauma because there's so much of my childhood I don't remember. My dad had bipolar and my first memory was domestic violence and hiding under a table. My folks deny anything ever happened but it was probably their fighting.
I am set to give my kid a childhood to remember but I am likely making it unmemorable.
This gave me insight on what to address with my therapist

January, 6 2020 at 2:58 pm

Thank you for this article.

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