By Kim Barthel, Occupational Therapist
Abuse by a caregiver has been shown in research to damage the right side of a child’s growing brain, interfering with how they regulate their emotions, communicate socially, solve problems and learn. There is a tendency for dissociation – a process in which normally integrated thinking can become disjointed and disorganized.
Parents who repeatedly rage at their young children may create a state of alarm in the child’s brains that lead to disorganized and disordered attachment strategies that can negatively and significantly effect the relationships their kids form throughout their lives. This often occurs unintentionally in parents who they themselves have experienced trauma or who are caught in addictions that alter their capacity to be present to their child.
So why would parents treat their children like this? Research shows us that a parent who has unresolved trauma and loss themselves have a higher likelihood of acting out behaviours that terrify and traumatize their children. These caregivers have abrupt shifts in their state of mind that alarms the child. Some caregivers who have unresolved trauma and loss will they themselves space out when their child is distressed, or become suddenly enraged and threatening to the child for no apparent reason to the child. Having a history of trauma or loss does not by itself predispose a caregiver to acting out; it is the lack of resolution of that caregiver’s issues that become the concerning factor in their parenting.
Adults who experience their parents with alarm or terror often grow up very disorganized in their own states of mind. They may freeze when they are stressed, and may not always recognize danger until it is too late.
It is never too late to move forward in making sense of and healing your past. A nurturing relationship with someone along the way in your life where you feel safe, understood and valued provides a source of resilience and strength supporting change in your thoughts, feelings and behaviour. Just as some young children in challenging homes gravitate towards safe people and turn out okay, so it is with adults who are still hurting. Allowing yourself to connect with those around you who are emotionally safe and nurturing is recommended, at all ages.
It is important not to take this information to the place of blaming of your parents for messing you up. They were doing the best they could with what they had. Understanding brings about compassion, and is movement towards healing.
If you happen to be a new parent, please be mindful that the relationship you are just beginning to form with your baby has the potential to model all the relationships your kid will have in his or her life, including that of his/her own babies one day. No pressure…and remember, when it doesn’t go perfectly between you and your child and it won’t: until you stop breathing it’s never too late for repair.
For further information about attachment theory, I recommend “Parenting from the Inside Out” by Daniel Siegel and Mary Hartzell and “Raising Parents” by Patricia Crittenden.