Expert Advice

My Partner’s Childhood Trauma Affects Their Parenting. How Can I Help Them Heal?

Spoiler: Compassion plays a huge role in the process.

Originally Published: 
A family sits on the couch with their young kids.
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We know childhood trauma affects how we live, impacting everything from our physical health to relationships. And if you have a partner who had a traumatic upbringing, you might realize that it also affects their parenting.

"One of the most important relationships includes that of child to parent, as the formation of our beliefs and perception of the world begins with our earliest attachment, most commonly mother to baby or other primary caregivers," Dr. Amelia Kelley, a trauma-informed therapist and co-author of What I Wish I Knew: Surviving and Thriving After an Abusive Relationship, tells Scary Mommy. "As a result, there are a number of common cognitive and behavioral patterns that occur when a traumatized individual becomes a parent."

Of course, if you know your partner has childhood trauma and suspect it's surfacing in the way they parent, you obviously want to help. Here's how to spot these patterns and facilitate your partner working through them.

How does childhood trauma play out in parenting?

According to Kelley, "preoccupied parenting" is a common example of how a person's traumatic upbringing can affect the way they interact with their own children.

What is it, you ask? Essentially, it's when the parent remains in a stress state that often appears as fight, flight, or freeze. "These parents may struggle to engage in relaxed, mindful play and may also tend to be especially hard on themselves about their inability to do so," she explains.

Childhood trauma resurfacing can also look like overprotectiveness.

"Another common outcome can be parenting from a state of fear, where the parent may tend towards more controlling patterns in order to protect their child from perceived threats," explains Kelley. "This can result in issues with anxiety, compulsiveness, or dysregulation in both the parent and child."

How can you help your partner heal from childhood trauma?

First and foremost, says Kelley, you should recognize your partner's past experience with compassion. (Compassion goes a long way in most situations!) But you should also encourage them to learn the tools for self-care and self-regulation that were likely not modeled for them in their traumatic childhood. Therapy is an ideal starting place for this.

Kelley says there are five key steps to help facilitate this positive change and growth in a parent who has experienced childhood trauma.

1. Prepare for parenthood.

When possible, Kelley advises exploring how their trauma impacted them as they prepare to become a parent.

"Encourage self-help, therapy, and open dialogue about their past experience," she says. "Be mindful not to push or force their journey, as it is theirs alone. But as the partner and co-parent, you can request they make this a priority in whatever way they feel comfortable, as parenting through generational trauma can make an already challenging experience much more difficult."

2. Encourage structure and safety in the home.

Kelley recommends removing unnecessary clutter, chaos, or excess when possible. "Explore with your partner what helps them feel most at peace and create a culture together where you both can take the time you need for yourselves," she says. "Make an effort not to use sarcasm or guilt with each other when someone requests time for themselves."

3. Practice emotional regulation as a team.

"Similarly to a safe space in the home, work to establish safe space in the body," Kelley says. "Establish a code word or rule for how you will handle dysregulation during arguments (such as agreeing to a 30-minute break if either person requests it) and honor that request." If being together is helpful, Kelley suggests practicing deep breathing, a long walk, or a soothing touch if requested.

4. Normalize the difficulties of parenting.

Let's be real: Parenting can be challenging even without having experienced childhood trauma. As the non-traumatized partner, Kelley recommends taking the time to recognize when you may feel stress and share this with your partner (in a non-accusatory way) to normalize that you both have your shortcomings at times.

5. Practice boundaries, empathy, and compassionate parenting.

"Creating a game plan together of your preferred parenting style can help when times become stressful, especially for the traumatized parent who may have experienced a great deal of," Kelley says.

How can you best communicate these things to your partner in a positive way?

When speaking to your partner about their trauma and these five key steps, Kelley says to do so with empathy and a non-judgmental tone. "Try also not to confront your partner in the moment they are feeling triggered, but rather wait for a time when they are feeling calm and regulated," she advises. Also, as difficult as it might be, try to remember that their behavior is not a reflection of you or your relationship.

Rather, it is their nervous system, brain, and cognitions responding to a potential threat that is not there. Allow for their own healing but remain present for when they need you."

What are some things you should not do in this situation?

It can be trying to deal with a traumatized partner, especially when they're activated. Even so, Kelley says it's vital not to be critical or stonewall (ignore) your partner, as these behaviors may be reminiscent of how they were treated as a child.

"Being critical when encouraging change will likely trigger a trauma response, making it more likely their parenting will suffer," she says. "Furthermore, be clear and honest instead of cryptic and sarcastic, as it is always best to remove the unknown when it comes to communication and allow for the potentially triggered individual to establish safety when trying to identify what their partner wants and needs."

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