How to parent well when your parents weren’t well people | Michelle Dixon

Parenting to end intergenerational trauma

Many clients want to know how to be good parents when they feel that they did not have good parents. They instinctively give their kids the love and safety they didn’t get, but they still have a lingering fear that somehow, the wounds of the past will emerge in their kids’ lives, and continue the intergenerational trauma, despite the very best of intentions.

This is a conversation we need to have, because trauma is not all about you, it did not start with you, and it will not end with you … UNLESS you actively seek it to end.

If you have suffered from early trauma (developmental trauma), you could quickly make up a list of all your family members on both sides going back a few generations and list out all the trauma – addiction, abuse, relationship endings, neglect, abandonment, and autoimmune disorders – and you might see at a glance the truth of my above statement!

One of my driving missions in my work is to support people to end this terrible legacy.

So let’s end this trauma legacy.

Note: this is not a ‘guide to parenting,’ but rather what my experience as a parent and practitioner has shown me.

I have 3 teenagers and 3 stepdaughters, and I understand that there are many parenting styles, many family cultures, and when there is love and presence, much of how you parent matters less than you might think. 

Raising happy kids is really not about whether you homeschool or go private, if you restrict devices or make your kids learn musical instruments, or even if you go for time-out or something different. 

First, it’s vital to meet your childrens’ core needs, and there is a lot of research on this topic (see resources at the end of this blog).

Yet, for adults who survived early trauma, we need to go beyond meeting our kids ‘basic’ core needs.

Some child therapists say that kids have 8 core needs: stability, security, consistency, emotional support, love, education, positive role models, and structure. 

Beyond that, there are other needs kids have that are also important, like having fun with caregivers, having time with adults, feeling heard and validated. So many things! I will give you some links at the end of this blog if you wish to dive deeper into this. 

But hang tight! 

In this blog, I’m specifically addressing parenting your kids when YOU have experienced developmental (childhood) trauma, and therefore lack the positive, nurturing role models for parenting. 

Here’s the rub – when you’ve had developmental trauma, being a parent has more questions than answers. In fact, it probably raises a million questions for you about how, why, and what not to do. 

Or, it may just foster a nagging inner dread, a nameless fear, that maybe you will f*&k this up and your kids will bear the brunt somehow.

Take heart. You can do it. You can spare your kids YOUR pain. I have done it and many I know have done it. The founders of Sydney’s premier mental health rehab centre did it (South Pacific Private). They are sisters who all came from a family ravished by addiction – they have ended their family’s intergenerational patterns of addiction, and have gone on to help many thousands of others.

First, let’s get vulnerable. A bit about me.

I approach all my work directly from an experience of suffering. My experience may not match yours, but it has given me insight and compassion and really informs everything I do, and all the ways in which I work, and therefore, it’s important to me that you know a few things.

However, I can’t blurt everything out, because my children and family members are entitled to privacy! 

To make a long story short, my childhood left scars. I had an absent father, whose ‘rejection’ of me left lasting wounds that I then acted out in devastating and emotionally painful relationships. I was trying alcohol in my early teens, and not in a healthy way. I was in trouble in multiple senses of the word, and I did not feel seen or heard for a very long time. Later in my teenage years, I had a wonderful stepdad and a really committed mother, but still, there was pain, abandonment, and really dysfunctional behaviour on my part early on all around me. 

I came to motherhood with a passionate, even all-consuming desire to be a great mother. My life’s work is all about learning from my own life and that of my clients, and helping others. Lots in my life has gone ‘wrong’. But as for my kids, I am beyond delighted.

My three kids are all in high school. My eldest is on the cusp of adulthood and leaving home soon. I have fantastic relationships with all of them, and I can say honestly that I have had none of those ‘expected’ dramas that you are supposed to have with teenagers. It’s just been fun, although not without challenges, even big ones. We have navigated injuries and surgeries, anxiety, family members with mental health issues, and my own emotional struggles through divorce – all of which, of course, hasn’t been easy for them. 

Yet, we are close; we communicate; there are no dramas; we have fun. There has been no angry rebellion, and my children are by all accounts lovely, thoughtful, compassionate human beings who know themselves and their passions, and are easy to be around. I realize it’s early days, as they have adulthood ahead yet – however – they are far more together than I ever was at their age. They are on a solid path to a good life (and by that, I mean a life free of re-enacting inherited trauma).

In my professional and personal journey, I have also done some family therapy groups and training around how to parent kids whose parents have mental health issues including addictions. 

I do suggest that if you’re interested, you look up the articles I will reference below.

Now, I’m going to distill this complex topic into some key lessons:  4 things you absolutely, without a doubt MUST do in order to have healthy kids who do not continue the pattern of intergenerational trauma you mostly likely suffer from!

1. Do your own healing.

Don’t just hope it goes away. Actively inquire into your suffering, and take steps to release your trauma from your body, mind, and more. This helps end family patterns and means your kids don’t have to take on board the suffering you have. 

[If you want a roadmap for how to get started and what it involves, you can grab my 6 step roadmap to healing holistically HERE].

Trauma is a living being in a very real sense. It can get passed around and is an energy which sits in a space, and taints everything around it. When you work on YOU, this changes the energy in your home, in yourself, and everyone who comes into contact with you benefits.

2. Be curious about your children and what makes them unique.  

As Gibran said, they are not you, though they have some of you in them. In traumatised family systems, with generations of trauma, children are not seen or appreciated for their uniqueness because the dysfunctions create crises interspersed with times of ‘coping’. 

Rarely, in a trauma-bound family system, are there times of ease when there CAN be healthy and loving connections. It’s not a situation in which you had an adult who was genuinely curious about you when YOU were a child, so interested that they sat (metaphorically) at your feet and asked you with eyes lit by joy:  “Who are you, what do you like, tell me about you?” 

This experience is entirely alien to traumatised kids! 

Thus, bringing this attitude to your own children is so healing, and can give them what you did NOT have, and help end the intergenerational trauma!

This attitude of curiosity is like Buddha’s ‘beginner’s mind’ – it is about humility and respect, not presuming you have the answers, and not burdening them with YOUR agenda. 

One day, they will sit across from you and look you in the eyes and ask, “Why did this happen? Who are you? Why did my life go this way?” 

So if from their earliest life, you always approach your children with that curiosity of ‘I want to know who you are, show me, I’m curious,” then they will be held in love. That is the opposite of control, the opposite of you saying “You have to be what I want.”

In this freedom, they will forge their OWN path, and not the one they inherited.

3. Be their ally.

Children from traumatised families generally have no allies, so maybe YOU did not have an ally growing up, a trusted adult, a protector. So you might not understand what this feels like, but this is the energy that is the opposite of developmental trauma, and having that energy of being your child’s ally is therefore healing and helps to end patterns.  

You’re on the same team. 

You are travellers together in this journey of childhood. When your kids feel that ‘you’ve got their back,’ then there is trust, there is closeness, there is a positive alignment.

With this feeling of ‘having an ally in you,’ they will be less likely to ‘rebel’ and act out just to claim their independence from you. Kids who feel supported, seen, and protected will tend to act in their OWN best interests. 

People with a high self-esteem have a strong inner ally, a positive inner voice. Where do you think they get that? From the allies they have in their early life. That’s why those with developmental trauma have a strong inner critic and shame.

So, in becoming your child’s ally, you are giving them the lifelong gift of having a strong inner ally.

4. Talk to your children about your struggles/your past.

This was a massive learning for me, and I can tell you that the collective intergenerational trauma of mine and my kids’ father began to really heal the moment I began to talk openly about family wounding.

Literally, the energy shifted in the home; difficult behaviours disappeared. Attachments strengthened. Boundaries came in. It was the watershed moment.

So, please share yours and your family’s struggles in an age-appropriate manner. Tell them the reasons for the family trauma – that no one stopped to question it, that no one got help, and that, very importantly, it ends now.

I remember saying to my children, “It ends with me. It is no longer your journey, or your kids’ journey. The trauma ends now.”

It’s a powerful statement.

Here’s a final way to comprehend this: when we don’t have a conscious, aware, spoken vision and drive for our lives, we will be driven by unconscious patterns. 

Don’t leave this one to chance – name it, see it, change it.

Practical Steps 

In my own parenting journey, I come back to these 4 points again and again. 

By this, I mean when we have challenges as a family, from physical pains/injuries/illness to anxiety, from emotional ups and downs to school stress, from juggling a blended family life and trying to meet everyone’s needs to figuring out my own needs and setting healthy boundaries. 

Here’s what I ask myself (and what you can do, too):

  1. Is there anything about this challenge or situation that reveals to me that I need to do my own healing work? 

In other words, is it about me and my wounding, and how can I give my own inner child support here? Maybe I need to talk to someone, etc., before I really handle this with my kid.

  1. Am I becoming curious here about what my child wants or needs, or am I projecting my own values, expectations or agenda onto him/her? 

Let’s face it, when your kids enter those years when there is an interest in parties, or when sexuality is now a thing, it can trigger stuff for us. I ask myself, how can I be curious, first, and really LISTEN?

  1. How can I be a better ally in this situation? 

How can I behave and interact so that my child knows that I am on her/his side? That I am someone they can 100% rely on? 

  1. Is there any opportunity here to speak vulnerably about my own struggles, or family struggles, so that there is no hidden family wounding that is ‘driving’ my child’s behaviour? So that I can create some space for my child to be an independent person, rather than to re-enact family patterns?

Commend yourself for the effort!

I have not gone on and on about it here, but know this: I KNOW it’s difficult to stop, take stock, and move forward in healing yourself and your family. It’s a brave thing to do, and I want to acknowledge you for it. I really believe that on a soul level, if you are reading this and you are on this path, you were chosen as the person to end your family suffering.

It’s YOUR journey. YOU have the power to bring healing to your family.

I hope I’ve made it simple for you. Please do reach out if you have questions or comments, or comment here and I will respond as soon as I can!

Resources

On the 8 core needs of children:

https://www.childrenscolorado.org/conditions-and-advice/parenting/parenting-articles/what-children-need/

Positive parenting and meeting your kids needs

I love positive parenting, and suggest you check this out later if you’re interested in more in depth suggestions as to what kids need: https://www.peacefulparent.com/basic-needs-checklist-for-parents/

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