Why Kids Trigger Parents with PTSD and What to Do About It
Whether or not a person chooses to have kids is highly personal, and the fact that kids can trigger parents with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) doesn't take away from a person's ability to be a good parent. Becoming a parent is life-changing--in ways that are both uniquely rewarding and highly stressful. Each of us should be allowed to make that decision individually, regardless of our trauma history. People with PTSD can make wonderful parents, just like anyone else. Something that many people with PTSD may not consider, however, is that once they become parents, their kids could trigger their PTSD.
How Kids Trigger Parents with PTSD Unintentionally
It's strange to think about a parent being triggered by her child. After all, nobody is abused by an infant, right? But many behaviors displayed by children are similar to the actions of abusers, even if the intentions are completely different. A toddler, for example, might scream and throw objects against the wall if he doesn't get his way. A pre-teen might yell, "I hate you!" and slam her door because you take away her phone privileges.
Of course, kids aren't behaving like abusers; abusers are behaving childishly. When you have a trauma history, though, that distinction doesn't always matter. The problem isn't who triggers the PTSD, it's about what triggers it. So, women with sexual assault histories face special challenges when becoming mothers.
Childbirth Triggers Some Rape Survivors
For some women, living with PTSD during pregnancy causes many problems. For example, labor and birthing pains might trigger body memories of forcible penetration. When this happens, the loss of bodily control that takes place during labor mirrors the loss of bodily autonomy that accompanies rape.
Because accounts of this are mostly anecdotal--the little data that exists on the phenomenon also relies on personal accounts--few labor and delivery professionals make accommodations to help rape survivors while giving birth. 1 This is unfortunate because women who experience the phenomenon report having difficulty bonding with their newborns. 2 Clearly, we need to become better as a society at believing women's personal experiences even without a preponderance of scientific data confirming them.
For Me, Motherhood Itself Is the PTSD Trigger
My labor did not trigger trauma memories of sexual abuse, but the duties of motherhood sometimes do. The most triggering responsibility? Breastfeeding.
I loved breastfeeding my kids. Breastfeeding is a beautiful experience. I've enjoyed those private moments between mama and baby when it's time to cuddle together and put her to my breast. But as my youngest daughter grew older and continued to breastfeed, it became triggering.
Older babies and toddlers are known to be aggressive about what they want. In this case, what my daughter wanted were my breasts. If I said "no" when she wanted to nurse, she tried to forcibly pull down my shirt or grab at my breasts. It's not easy to teach a very young child about space and privacy, especially when she is trained to view my body as her best source of food and comfort. I found myself being triggered by her aggressive attempts to access my breasts--even though I knew she was just a baby.
PTSD Stigma Also Colors My Motherhood
There is a stereotype that people with posttraumatic stress disorder are abusive. Many people think that if someone was sexually assaulted during her youth, like I was, she will grow up to be a pedophile. Sometimes this happens, but the incidence appears to be fairly low (interestingly, it may be even lower in women than men). 3 This means it's unlikely for a sexual abuse survivor to develop sexually abusive behaviors. Since I inhabit my own mind and body, I also know for a fact that I am among the majority who did not inherit these tendencies.
But feeling that others think I'm guilty is a trigger for me--probably because my abuser often beat me after falsely accusing me of cheating on him. In the case of parenting, I sometimes fear that someone will think I'm hurting my children when I'm simply doing what I should be doing as a mother: changing diapers, applying rash cream, bathing them, clothing them, etc. I never know who it is I think is accusing me; it could be someone glancing through the window, but often it feels more like a nebulous, non-existent figure. It's mostly a paranoid feeling. A very uncomfortable paranoid feeling that feeds on a widespread stigma repeatedly perpetuated in the media.
How Can We Help Parents Whose Kids Trigger Their PTSD?
If we stop spreading false ideas that PTSD and mental illness are common precursors to violent behavior, then it will be easier for those of us living with these disorders not to internalize negative ideas of ourselves. Until that happens, we'll just have to take it into our own hands (Change the Stigma Around PTSD by Changing Self-Perception). I'll continue to remind myself what I know to be true, and I hope you'll join me by doing the same for yourself: I'm a good person. I have never and will never intentionally harm my kids. It doesn't matter if ignorant people think my PTSD makes me violent; that doesn't make it true.
When it comes to physical PTSD triggers like breastfeeding, we have to treat those as we do other triggers, by giving ourselves a necessary measure of space and understanding when it comes to those activities. Others can help by supporting us. For example, if you see your partner becoming agitated by your baby's attempts to breastfeed, pick up the baby and distract her while your partner calms down.
Parenting with posttraumatic stress disorder comes with a unique set of challenges, but that shouldn't stop you from having kids. Because I'm a mother, I focused this article on issues related to mothering with PTSD. If you're a father with PTSD, I'm very interested in hearing about your experiences. Please leave a comment and tell me what specific issues arise for you as a father with PTSD.
1 Influence of childhood sexual abuse on pregnancy, delivery, and the early postpartum period in adult women. (2006, July 29). Retrieved November 08, 2017, from ScienceDirect.com
2 Amara, P. (2016, June 10). Pregnancy and birth can be dangerously traumatic for rape victims. Now I've found a way to help. Retrieved November 08, 2017, from Independent.co.uk
3 Cycle of child sexual abuse: links between being a victim and becoming a perpetrator. Retrieved November 08, 2017, from bjp.rcpsych.org
Brico, E. (2017, November 8). Why Kids Trigger Parents with PTSD and What to Do About It, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2020, October 21 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/traumaptsdblog/2017/11/kids-trigger-ptsd
Author: Elizabeth Brico
I have been searching for other people dealing with things like this. I am a step-parent, no biological children. My step-son, 16, is in a psychiatric facility for mental illness/ attempting to molest his sister, now 12. The 12 year old has been home now for a year, alone, without contact from the brother nor the terrible birth mother who abandoned them. Their bad behaviors trigger my PTSD from my first husband, who was abusive, as well as my teaching job I left because of the abuse public educators deal with. We are dealing with extreme rage and outbursts from the 12 year old that just started to happen in the last month. Otherwise, she has been even keel. Or appeared so. Her unpredictability triggers my PTSD because my 1st husband would fly into rages. It's been sudden and so out of character. I've been depressed and trying so hard to try and stay for my husband, who is wonderful and supports me 100%. I cant't stand these children and they have been down right abusive to my husband and I, due to their own trauma, and I can hardly tell anyone that because of the "evil step mother" bit. It's maddening. I hate having to be further victimized and having to "take it" just because they have trauma. Not my fault. Not my circus. Not my monkeys. Parenting is hard. But it's not supposed to make you want to die.
Thank you for your post. I never realized how these "normal" life experiences could take us back to dark places.
I was physically and sexually abused during childhood and then survived 16 years of mental, physical and sexual abuse by my now ex-husband-- which culminated in him trying to murder me as well as our 1 year old daughter.
Now I'm a nanny, and when the young child hits me in the face intentionally, it triggers me. Only when he hits me in the face; hitting me on my body doesn't trigger me. I'm enraged by the whole life history. I know it's impulse control for a young child, but I get so furious. It's not like I can walk away because it's my job.
I feel like pushing him away from me and screaming. All I am allowed to do is give him a time out and tell him "No hitting" and he apologizes but I'm still seething.
And I feel weak and helpless like I'm letting yet another petson to use me as a punching bag. And that pisses me off even more.
I'm on meds, have been to CBT and did some really intense trauma therapy, but I still can't deal with it. I'm flooded with cortisol and rage and shame and anger and self-loathing for hours. I know it's totally a disproportionate response, but I can't get past it.
I can seem to find any help on this specific issue. And it's not like I can tell his parents or I'll get fired.
I’m 22 years old and I suffer from PTSD as well as bi-polar 2 and I have 2 kids which I’m still trying to figure out who I am as a person. I never really had a father and from the little time I got to know him he would molest me and now that I think about now I can’t understand why he would do such a thing and to follow up some more my mother was abusive and I witnessed my sister who tried committing suicide on the 3rd floor of our apartments. After a couple years my eldest sister had also tried to attempt suicide by an OD. There’s more but I could go forever, anyways I’ve found healthy coping mechanisms to all this trauma but whenever my kids act out because they’re just kids I get so worked that I have to walk away or isolate myself from them, I try my hardest to be patient and understanding but for some reason it feels like the most difficult and challenging task to do while trying to keep your cool and not make a scene. These are just a couple examples but it’s nice to know there’s a community who can talk about this and break the stigma about mental illnesses, thank you for listening.
I go through all of these.
I'm crying with relief inside.
I'm so glad you wrote what you wrote. You changed my life because now I'll react better knowing I'm not 'a freak'- im a survivor. This is okay. I am fine.
Thank you for writing this and sharing your experience. I'm not a parent yet but my husband wants a kid eventually (I'm in my early 30s so it's on my mind a lot). I'm also paranoid about some imaginary observer thinking I'm abusing my theoretical baby by caring for them. I was molested as a child by my teenaged step brother. I'm also terrified of someone molesting my theoretical child. I don't know how to address these fears. I have a therapist but I still feel lost. I'm also terrified of pregnancy and childbirth. My fears are so strong that I can't even disentangle my feelings about becoming a parent - I don't know if I want to be one or if I can handle it even if I wanted to. I sort of feel like my life has been hard enough that I shouldn't force myself to become a parent, a really tough job, because it would be so much harder for me.
Yes, parenting is a tough job, but there is also a lot of joy that can come from it. I completely understand your fears, as I had those same fears and dreams after being molested. I was able to work through a lot of it in therapy and I took parenting classes before I had kids. I think it says a lot about you that you are concerned for your future children. Many parents aren't even concerned about their present children. Having kids is definitely a personal choice, but I hope that you can work through your feelings and make a decision based on what you truly want for your life.
It's comforting to know I'm not the only mother out there triggered by her kids. I have cPTSD from childhood neglect and abuse. It's hard for me to play with my kids as play wasn't something I was able to do growing up. It makes me both happy and sad and angry at the same time to see my children have such a better childhood than I did. I commend you for being brave and vulnerable enough to write this ☺️
I just want to say thank you for being brave and writing and exposing and taking away stigma . I can so relate to feeling triggered and trying to fight thru the intense emotions and terror inside and then feel guilty for having them like I am bad parent . This article helps validate my feelings as well as make me feel less alone as I already am a single parent and few very alone at times. Thank you and Namaste ❤️
Oops Hello.. I was balling my eyes out as I was typing this so I messed it up ..
I have PTSD and I am a parent and I find that your article does not have any validity. It is clearly just put together and got published somehow. Also, think of several races of people who were abused and it did not affect their mothering or parent skills. Surely they would have triggers, etc.
Actually I completely understand where the author is coming from on this. Just because you have PTSD and don't have any triggers from your kids doesn't mean that other people don't. Also, I can't even understand your point about races of people who were abused. Unless you are an anthropologist specializing in historic trauma or something. I think you might just feel threatened by someone suggesting that it's possible. I can see how it would upset people who worried it could happen.
Thanks Gail, I appreciate you leaving this comment in my defense. The nastiness this person expressed is certainly not new to my life, but having someone--much less a stranger--stand up for me is ver new and means a lot. Thank you.
I'll make my response to "JR" short, lest I "feed the troll" as they say.
As I state in the beginning of this article, people with PTSD (myself included) can be good parents...being triggered doesn't make you a terrible person, and I think the fact that you reacted as you did shows you carry some intensely wrong misconceptions about PTSD and triggers. Secondly, not everyone reacts the same way to everything--neither my experience nor your experience signifies any singular truth about PTSD, however I do know other people to whom this has happened and will refer you also to this article on The Establishment, which I relate to greatly: https://theestablishment.co/when-your-child-is-your-ptsd-trigger-2f9e0c4562fd
Finally, it takes a lot of courage and vulnerability to express something like this in a public forum. I am, as you said, just some writer putting my experience down to paper (or in this case screen) and somehow getting it published--most everything that is not a medical paper is that--but I hope that if you ever find the courage to be as honest and vulnerable as I have been that you are celebrated, not attacked for it. Those of us with PTSD need to bring each other up, not down. If you're frightened by what I've written here, I suggest exploring it with your support team. It's going to be OK.
I read all of your posts (here and a few at Vice) and I think they are all very thoughtful and well put together. I think RJ had a visceral response to the content of this piece and turned to using the ad hominem fallacy in his/her reply to you. (Hee hee - I just learned 'ad hominem' over in the Verbal Abuse in Relationships post, and I already get to use it!)
I, for one, learn something new from you and other bloggers on HealthyPlace almost every day. I appreciate the knowledge you share. Don't let the haters get to you. You're brilliant! :)
Kellie, I just read this comment and was super excited to see you reference the ad hominem fallacy. There are even more subtypes and I think I may eventually go in and add them because I swear once you read about it, you're like "Yes! I see this all the time!"
Hi Emily -- I hope you do that. I know about the types of verbal abuse, and the ad hominem fallacy reminds me of diverting/blocking and accusing/blaming, discounting and judging. It's nice to have one word (phrase) to sum up how illogical verbal abuse can be. Unfortunately, when it's happening to you, it's hard to see past the immediate frustration! But knowledge goes a long way toward being able to hear the lies beneath the insults and detach yourself from that messy ... crap.
I think you are doing a great job, and I appreciate your ability to focus on abuse in ANY relationship. I've heard it at work, between siblings, and, as you said, "all the time!"
Kellie, Okay, I just went in and added two more! Guilt by association is my favorite one, maybe I'm a nerd but I think they're really fun to learn about and be able to spot. Thanks again! -Emily
I'm just seeing this now so I apologize for not responding sooner. There is something odd about our commenting system right now that's making us see them a little late. But anyway, THANK YOU so much. Reading comments like this means a lot--truly, truly a lot. If you're interested in reading other writing, I have a new author's page that was just added to my social links at the bottom of the posts too :) <3 <3