How to parent when you have complex PTSD

parent complex PTSD
Photo by Heike Mintel on Unsplash

I’ve received countless questions about the challenges of being a parent with complex PTSD. How do you avoid making the same mistakes your parents did?

In my experience, I’ve witnessed some common difficulties among parents with complex PTSD (including myself). I outline five of these stumbling blocks below and follow up with some solutions.

5 challenges for the parent with complex ptsd

You don’t have a model for parenting

If you grew up with abusive or neglectful parents, you have no model for how to parent effectively. Even if you want to do the right thing for your children, you may struggle to know what that is.

When you are a parent with complex PTSD, you puzzle over what constitutes too much attention or not enough. With no experience receiving praise or guidance, you struggle to give that to your own children.

It’s not that you’re withholding these things. But because they weren’t modeled, you may not have access to them like other parents do.

You believe good parenting means perfect parenting

As a parent with complex PTSD, you are likely harder on yourself than other parents. This is in part because you were conditioned in childhood to believe you had to be perfect to be okay.

As a parent with complex PTSD, you are likely harder on yourself than other parents. Click To Tweet

You are also harder on yourself in general because this is how you coped with the abuse or neglect in your childhood. It gave you a sense of control to believe that striving for perfection would win you love and acceptance.

You do the opposite of what your parents did

I’ve heard many a parent with complex PTSD say their policy is to do the opposite of what their parents did.

While this may sound like a solid strategy, it comes from a place of unhealed pain. By keeping the focus on your parents, you still allow them to take up space in your head.

And, if it’s true that what we focus on expands, this plan may backfire. Drawing attention to what your parents did, even when your intention is to do the opposite, can make you behave exactly like them.

Repeating harmful patterns

You do what was done to you

Have you felt shocked to hear yourself sound just like your abusive parent? Or to watch yourself reacting in a way that’s reminiscent of the pain you endured in childhood?

It’s natural for any parent to repeat the mistakes of their own. However, for the parent with complex PTSD, reactionary outbursts can result from feeling triggered.

For example, your child may say or do something that makes you feel dismissed or disrespected as you were in childhood. This leads to an overreaction to a relatively small event and the feelings of guilt and shame that follow.

You feel jealous of your children

This one is hard to write and even harder to admit. If you’re a parent with complex PTSD, you may feel some resentment over the love and attention your children receive.

If you're a parent with complex PTSD, you may feel resentment over the love and attention your children receive. Click To Tweet

You give them so much more than you ever received and they seem to take it for granted. The truth is, children who have their needs met DO take love and attention for granted and that’s a good thing!

As a result of you meeting their needs the best you can, they will go out into the world expecting and receiving that care and support in their adult relationships.

4 solutions for the parent with complex PTSD

parent complex PTSD

Self care and lots of it

One major challenge of parenting with complex PTSD: you’re not receiving the support from family that others enjoy. Most parents get their proverbial cup filled by their own loving and attentive parents, whether now or in the past.

Not only do they have a trove of memories of fulfilled needs to draw upon. They also likely have those same parents continue to support them as they learn to parent their own children.

They also have the advantage of supportive relationships which they’ve been primed to seek out. Those with good parents tend to have a secure attachment style which helps them receive the love and attention they know they deserve.

If even these lucky people need self care to help them parent well, think how much more you need it. And your self care will be deeper and more consistent than the typical spa days or girls’ weekend.

For instance, you may want to take time out for yourself when you feel triggered to react. And check in with yourself periodically to tune into your body and what it’s trying to tell you.

Realize good parenting is not perfect parenting

In the 1950s, psychologist Donald Winnicott developed the concept of the good enough parent. He told us it’s what we do on a consistent basis that matters to a child, not the minority of times we get it wrong.

He even went so far as to say your parenting setbacks can create resilience in your child by helping them overcome challenges. As long as they are not too detrimental and don’t represent a pattern of behavior.

It’s okay to share

Talk to your children

As a parent with complex PTSD, you may avoid talking to your children about your past trauma. If you’re like me, you fear parentifying and burdening your child the way your parents did with you.

But you can share with your children without centering your needs at the expense of theirs. It helps them understand it’s not their fault if you react imperfectly.

Sharing your truth helps them see the value of vulnerability and emotional honesty. It shows them you respect them enough to let them see your struggles.

Heal your past trauma

Working with a trauma-informed professional can help you come to terms with the complex PTSD that makes parenting difficult.

When we stuff down or avoid dealing with our past trauma, we end up repeating harmful patterns. These can lead to our children developing complex PTSD, despite our best efforts to do things differently than our parents.

Facing and resolving your past trauma is the most important thing you can do as a parent with complex PTSD. It is the greatest gift you will ever give to yourself and your children and the generations to come.

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  1. Sharon

    As usual, your insightful and helpful discussion opens up more questions and reflections 🌺

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