We are living in an extraordinary time. As COVID-19 ravages much of our world, so many of us are hunkered down inside of our homes and feeling palpable anxiety. Millions of children have been forced out of their schools and back into the arms of parents who may or may not feel up to the challenge of caring for them full-time. We are all wondering when this will end, how it will affect each of us, and who we can lean on for support.
As a parent living with complex PTSD, the triggers around me at home these days are endless. I have a fiery, energetic four-year-old and a vulnerable 16-month-old who are constantly needing my help and guidance. I have a husband who’s about to embark on a strenuous full-time job from inside of our house, and my own part-time work hours will be significantly cut due to our totally diminished childcare options. It’s easy for me to lose my cool with my kids and completely fall to pieces in front of them as my complex PTSD symptoms pop up in unexpected moments.
I’m also in a state of constant worry now for every single child who depended on school as their only safe space to exist. I ache for all the individuals who are living in abusive households and cannot immediately leave as state-wide lockdowns are being exponentially mandated. The only silver lining can I find in my pain is remembering that we always have the ability to make choices, however limited they may presently seem. As someone who experienced childhood abuse at home, I can assure you that this is not the time to be enacting harsh, violent discipline on our kids or family members. Our children and loved ones need our empathy, our support, and our willingness to show up now more than ever before.
I am also taking this time to remember why I have decided not to spank or otherwise physically discipline my own kids. The childhood memories break my heart, but they are also necessary for helping me reaffirm my lifelong commitment to consciously, empathetically, and responsively parenting my own children.
When I was six years old, I was told to wait for my grandmother to pick me up from school. By the time my first grade class had been dismissed and the bell rang, I totally forgot who would be taking me home. I went outside to find my parents and didn’t see them. Growing nervous, I looked around for any friend who might be able to help me. One of my classmate’s dads saw me in a state of panic, and to my great relief, offered to drive me home.
I walked through my front door with a huge smile on my face, thinking I had saved the day with this genius solution to my problem. But that smile quickly faded when I was met with a lot of screaming and chased upstairs by a shaking hand waving a giant wooden spoon at me. I became hysterical as I desperately tried to hide from what I knew was coming.
I was about to get the shit beaten out of me for not remembering to go home with my grandmother.
This wasn’t the first time I was violently disciplined as a child. I’ve been dragged by my hair through paint I accidentally spilled on the floor, roughly yanked and thrown out of a bathtub for saying a “vulgar” word, and hit more times than I can count. While there were certainly days in my home that felt like the average childhood, there were also a bunch of times when I feared for my life. Shame-inducing words were constantly spit out at me in anger. I felt terrified to make any kind of mistake. These harsh consequences taught me one thing and one thing only – I had better stay in line, or I’d regret it.
The long-term effects of being physically abused were beyond detrimental. As a teen, I developed an eating disorder and an addiction to diet pills. I self-harmed regularly. After I grew up and had kids, I began experiencing crippling panic attacks and somatic muscle spasms that left me feeling scared and hopeless. At the end of 2018, I was diagnosed with complex PTSD from ongoing childhood trauma. And at the end of last year, I received a psychiatric screening at an ER for self-harm and suicidal ideation.
Beyond these struggles, my self-esteem was totally shattered by the abuse. I felt inherently unlovable, because I always managed to gravely upset the caregivers I trusted with my whole heart when I least expected it. Accidental slip-ups resulted in scary consequences that I learned to avoid by doing what was expected of me. Little did I know that one of my parents was living with an undiagnosed, untreated mental health disorder that directly led to me developing complex PTSD.
As children, when our parents hurt and shame us, we don’t lose love for them. The heartbreaking truth is that abuse of any kind causes young kids to stop loving themselves. Our kid brains are quite impressive in their ability to compartmentalize trauma. We are biologically hardwired to depend on the adults who care for us. So when they violate our sense of safety, we blame ourselves for it.
And what’s worse, we suffer greatly as we grow into adults and become parents ourselves.
In 2018, the American Psychological Association joined a growing list of health organizations, which includes the American Academy of Pediatrics, that are urging our country to create a nationwide ban on spanking. The growing information around physical punishment is enough for any parent to wake up to their actions if they are resorting to spanking as a way of teaching their kids how to behave.
What I have to say to anyone who resorts to this kind of violence may come as a surprise, especially since I had more than my fair share of spankings as a child. I implore you to stick around and pay close attention to my words.
To anyone struggling to stop violently disciplining your kids, I want you to know that I understand why you do what you do. I empathize wholeheartedly with you. Parenting is so hard if you grew up without a roadmap for how to lovingly do it. I am holding so much compassion for you here, and I need you to remember that you can choose a new way of existing at any point. Your children will only learn to fear you as a result of hurting them for any reason. They will learn that love comes at a violent cost. They will learn to blame themselves for why you are violating them. You have the chance right now to start healing your relationship with your kids, and I hope you will take it.
One of the most poignant things my therapist has taught me is that the “repair” is often as important, sometimes more so, than the “tear.” This basically means that when I stumble as a parent, I have the ability to make it right. I can apologize for being unnecessarily rough with them through my words or actions. I can change how I guide and love them. Children are incredibly resilient, which is something we need to stop taking for granted and started respecting. We don’t want them to become so resilient that they lack the basic skills of self-compassion, trust of others, and an unwavering belief in themselves.
Our kids are begging for us to shape their world with care and support. Please choose this for them at a time when so much is out of their control.
If you or anyone you know is encountering abuse of any kind right now, there are resources currently available to you. The Alliance Against Family Violence has a 24-Hour Crisis Hotline, so please call 1-800-273-7713 if you need emergency support. For anyone enduring domestic violence, call or text the National Domestic Violence Crisis Hotline at 1-800-799-7233.