For adult survivors of childhood abuse and narcissistic parents, being a parent can be incredibly triggering. As your child evokes unwanted memories from your past trauma, feelings of overwhelm and despair can feel too huge to contain. In sharing my own experience growing up with a narcissistic mother and now a mum-of-two, I ask psychotherapist Sarah Lee, how do you process your own pain, while remaining present and positive for your children?
There’s nothing easy about parenting and if anyone claims it is, I would confidently debate that they’re not being honest with themselves. For those who have experienced childhood trauma and grew up with a narcissistic parent, raising children presents an additional set of challenges – how to parent through trauma.
When I became a parent, I was taken aback by what felt like random memories resurfacing that would completely wipe me out emotionally and physically. As I tried to stay present in the moment, I’d experience flashbacks and find myself regularly ‘triggered’. I endured migraines often and fought back tears, which I knew had nothing to do with my little one, only to find myself uncontrollably crying once my daughter was sleeping.Chloe Lovell
It is common for those with childhood trauma and a narcissistic parent to experience triggers, flashbacks, overwhelm, hopelessness and more when they themselves become a parent. As a daughter of a narcissistic mother, I can relate to this experience all too well.
I would always describe my relationship with my mother as ‘complicated’, but it has only been in recent years that I’ve come to understand that the relationship I was describing was severely toxic and that my mother is a narcissist. Before I had children I was able to metaphorically put a lot of my past trauma in a box and bury it deep. As time went on I had convinced myself that I was ‘over it’. I was an adult now, and things were different. Except a lot was not different. My mother continued to excessively critique me, orchestrate arguments, sabotage my happy moments and held me accountable for situations far out of my control. She regularly displayed selfishness over empathy and unconditional love.
“For me, a trigger can sometimes arise when going to a similar place with my children that was traumatic for me as a child; or responding to my children with kindness and then remembering a time I looked to my own mother for love and support and received the exact opposite”.– Chloe Lovell
When I became a parent, I was taken aback by what felt like random memories resurfacing that would completely wipe me out emotionally and physically. As I tried to stay present in the moment, I’d experience flashbacks and find myself regularly ‘triggered’. I endured migraines often and fought back tears, which I knew had nothing to do with my little one, only to find myself uncontrollably crying once my daughter was sleeping. During a triggered state, I deeply hated the rising feeling of rage from within. It left me worried that I was turning into my mother, which was a great fear of mine. I wanted to be the best parent I could and surround my children with love and support – two things I never felt from my own mother.
“Don’t be afraid to ask for help; it doesn’t mean that you’ll be considered a bad mother, which is a common concern.”Psychotherapist Sarah Lee, Specialist in Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (CPTSD) and childhood trauma.
“A trigger is something that reminds a survivor of an upsetting, overwhelming or scary experience. It can be visual, which people are often familiar with from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), but it can also be a feeling which often happens in CPTSD. CPTSD can occur when there are multiple traumatic instances and people with dysfunctional or traumatic childhoods often feel overwhelmed by their feelings or as if their responses are disproportionate to their current situation.”
When triggered, Sarah advises you to first focus on your breathing with the aim to slow your breath down, because when you’re triggered your body sees it as an emergency and that can make it hard to think.
“If it’s safe to do so, you can step away or ask someone else to care for your baby or child”. Doing this will give you the space necessary to regain composure and, if possible, work through your emotions and what triggered you.
From personal experience, I have found it rewarding and helpful to do as Sarah suggests.
Once I’m feeling calmer, I do my best to take some time to understand what triggered me. To help me do that, I will literally ask myself, what memory or feeling just presented itself and what was I doing in the moment? Doing this can help me understand why I’ve been triggered and the link between the past and the present. That said, it’s not always that simple to see the correlation. In either case, I try to name and acknowledge the emotion. This can help me process my feelings, which I’ve come to understand is an important part of healing. It can also help in managing potential triggers in the future.
For me, a trigger can sometimes arise when going to a similar place with my children that was traumatic for me as a child; or responding to my children with kindness and then remembering a time I looked to my own mother for love and support and received the exact opposite. In naming and processing the emotion, I can be very aware that my eyes are welling up or I have an urge to scream. I’ve also experienced feelings of being unable to move, coupled with a powerful panic and confusion. I’m still teaching myself to really feel my emotions, as I do find that challenging and overwhelming, but I can vouch for this method as a useful way to process past trauma.
Sometimes I cry or shout into a pillow, and it’s not uncommon for me to do these things again hours later if I’m still feeling those particular emotions intensely. Afterwards, and especially when I need to carry on about my day, I’ll put on one of my favourite songs. This can often cheer me up or feel like a reset. There’s no right or wrong way to feel your feelings and process them. Over time, and if this resonates with you, I hope that you can find what works for you.
Importantly for me, if my family have experienced me working through a trigger, I make it a priority to apologise to them – because it is not pleasant. It pains me deeply to admit that I’ve cried or shouted when no one in the room was at fault for what was going through my mind. For those times, I’ll be forever sorry. I’m incredibly thankful for the love and forgiveness my children and husband extend to me. I also hope that I’m encouraging my own children to know it’s okay to make mistakes and learn what’s crucial is what we do next – apologise, learn what can be done differently next time, and take that action in the future (or try our best to).
On the topic of processing past trauma and feeling more confident in your own parenting, Sarah adds that there are also some really good books available. “I like Pete Walker’s, From Surviving to Thriving, as a good place to start with childhood trauma. I also recommend Dr Laura Markham, who has an excellent parenting website and a book full of helpful examples of how to cope with being a parent and how to parent kindly.”
For adult survivors of childhood trauma who would like further support and guidance on how to parent, Sarah suggests exploring online and local family support services. “Family Lives for example offers free parenting courses online and supports families with local service.”
For those who can relate to this topic, I am so sorry that this is the case. Experiencing childhood trauma and growing up with a narcissistic parent is a painful experience, to put it mildly. Please be kind to yourself as you parent through trauma. If you feel like you would benefit from support, Sarah advises you can speak to your GP, or health visitor, or seek private therapy if that’s an option for you.
“I would also reassure people who are thinking about their parenting, that they are already breaking the cycle by taking responsibility for their feelings and actions; this is something that narcissistic parents simply don’t do.”
Sarah Lee is a private psychotherapist based in Manchester, who offers therapy online in both the UK and Europe. For more details, visit: https://www.exploreyourmind.co.uk/