Traumatic Childhood and Parenting: How to Overcome Your Past

My father had a father who was very strict, exacting, and rigid. My grandfather was a good man mashaAllah, but he was a very reserved, distant, almost cold, father to his sons, the eldest of whom was my father. When my father grew up and became a father himself, he still remembered his deep hurt that his father had never been close with him, never really opened up to him even when he’d reached adulthood, never been easygoing or jovial.

When he became a father to me and my siblings, my father did the opposite: he talked to us endlessly, laughed with us, joked and told stories and bonded with us emotionally. He was emotionally available. He gave us what he had never gotten from his own father, what he had always wished he could have. He was a different father from his own father.

In many ways, I am a different mother from my own mother or mothers I had interacted with as a child.

A lot of what I’ve learned to do as a parent is the opposite of what I’d seen around me growing up. Stuff that I, as a child, had seen other parents do badly with disastrous effects that I vowed as I grew older that I would never do if I ever became a parent. Their parenting mistakes taught me what *not* to do.

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And some of what I do now as a parent is a mimicking of what I, as a child, would see good parents do. Some of what I do to raise my kids now is directly copying what my own father did in raising me and my siblings. His parenting successes taught me what to do.

Either way, good or bad, our parenting style is often a reflection of our own previous life experiences. Sometimes we parent the way we ourselves were parented by our parents. Other times, if we’ve had the time and opportunity to ponder the past and process it with its old traumas and long-ago emotions, we choose the opposite route and become better parents.

Nobody has a perfect childhood. Whether you had a stable and carefree childhood or a difficult childhood filled with hurt feelings, unmet needs, or deep trauma–becoming a parent yourself will force you to confront those old feelings. Those old experiences don’t control you and do not shape the kind of life you go on to have or the kind of parent you will be–unless you don’t process or reflect on them at all.

Without processing or self-reflection, sometimes parents recreate their own troubled childhood all over again. Sometimes parents who lack self-awareness turn into their own parents, whom they had vowed never to turn into. Sometimes such parents inadvertently make their children into who they themselves used to be as children, perpetuating the old cycle of pain or trauma. History repeats itself across generations.

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What is the solution?

The solution is to confront the past and make sense of it. To remember its events, take them out and dust them off from the old shelves in the mind, hold them up to the light of day, and then put them in their proper places. To look at the old incidents from our childhood through the eyes of an adult, instead of the bewildered eyes of the child we used to be. Once we revisit our own childhood and assess its events and understand the reasons why certain things happened, we can finally get some closure and feel at peace with the past.

The past, once it has been pondered and fully processed, has no hold on us, no power over us. We, and our children, are free from its grip. We can then move on as parents to be sensitive, attentive parents to our own children, with no baggage left over, no old traumas lurking in the depths of our psyche, no unresolved issues casting their shadow over us and our own innocent sons and daughters. Without burdening our children with our own old burdens.

Here is an excerpt from a book called Parenting From the Inside Out: How a Deeper Self-Understanding Can Help You Raise Children Who Thrive, by Daniel Siegel and Mary Hartzell:

“When we become parents, we are given an incredible opportunity to grow as individuals because we ourselves are put back into an intimate parent-child relationship, this time in a different role. So many times, parents have said, “I never thought I’d do or say the very things to my children that felt harmful to me when I was a child. And yet I find myself doing exactly that.” Parents can feel stuck in repetitive, unproductive patterns that don’t support the loving, nurturing relationships they envisioned when they began their roles as parents. Making sense of life can free parents from patterns of the past that have imprisoned them in the present…

“How does making sense of our lives help our children? By freeing ourselves from the constraints of our past, we can offer our children the spontaneous and connecting relationships that enable them to thrive. By deepening our ability to understand our own emotional experience, we are better able to relate empathetically to our children and promote their self-understanding and healthy development.

“In the absence of self-reflection, history often repeats itself, and parents are vulnerable to passing on to their children unhealthy patterns from the past. Understanding our lives can free us from the otherwise predictable situation in which we recreate the damage done to our children that was done to us in our own childhoods. Research has clearly demonstrated that our children’s attachment to us will be influenced by what happened to us when we were young if we do not come to process and understand those experiences.” (p. 4)

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