Making Sense of Your Past and the Six Risk Factors

Why It Matters

What you bring to the parent-child relationship matters.

I thought my past would automatically help me empathize and understand my kids from hard places. It was a book I could keep safely on the shelf. I could just say, “Been there. Done that.” As if that would cover it all.

There was one huge problem with that sort of thinking. My triggers and their triggers were often the same. I struggled with being the adult in the situation when all chaos broke loose. I wanted the right to react. Plus, I often didn’t know what my triggers were, and they didn’t know what theirs were. It was a recipe for disaster. Knowing all the scientific facts in the world couldn’t bring peace in that situation.

“Don’t change yourselves to be like the people of this world, but let God change you inside with a new way of thinking. Then you will be able to understand and accept what God wants for you. You will be able to know what is good and pleasing to him and what is perfect.” (Romans 12:2)

Just to be clear, we can’t make peace with our past in a day, or a month, or even year. What we can do is examine it and see where we had trauma. We can start paying attention to our reactions and then start reacting differently. 

When we have had trauma, we often take things personally. When our kids behave badly, we automatically think they are doing it on purpose. When we get trapped in this sort of thinking, it’s an us-against-them mentality. 

Once you begin to make sense of your past, then you can learn and apply the science. When we can look at the science with a new perspective, we can see our kiddos’ behaviors for what they are: needs, however inappropriately expressed.

The great thing about this particular article is the built-in dual purpose. You may even want to go over the material twice. Once with you in mind, and then again with your kiddos in mind. You’ll see what I mean in a moment.

As we say on The Whole House podcast, “Are you ready?”

Six Risk Factors

In an article for Psychology Today, Andrea Brandht, Ph.d., wrote, “Whether you witnessed or experienced violence as a child or your caretakers emotionally or physically neglected you, when you grow up in a traumatizing environment you are likely to still show signs of that trauma as an adult.” 

There are six types of early trauma that make children more likely to experience behavioral issues, mental health problems, and physical issues, such as cancer, depression, obesity, diabetes, heart disease, stroke, COPD, and more (see npr.org for more info). They are:

  •  Prenatal stress and harm.
  • Difficult labor or birth.
  •  Early medical trauma.
  •  Trauma.
  • Neglect.
  •  Abuse.

As you read the list, did you start thinking about your childhood? Good. Can you think of a specific story or incident about any of these risk factors? Good. Take a moment to reflect.  Maybe write it down or talk to someone about it. Maybe you never thought about these as being risk factors. Below, we’ll go over each risk factor individually.

Again, I recommend going through this material twice. Think about yourself and your childhood first, then your kid/kiddos. In the next chapter, we’ll go deeper into the effects of your child’s past. So, don’t stress about getting it all down pat right now. 

Prenatal Stress and Harm

Over 80% of children adopted/foster care have been exposed to drugs or alcohol. Cortisol crosses the placenta alters the structure of the brain and damages the immune system. Remember:

“We are all shaped by our genetic birthright and by the environment in which we live. To a developing fetus, the mother’s womb is an entire universe. If the mother has a healthful lifestyle, her uterus will share that with the growing child. But if the mom suffers from chronic stress, consumes such toxins such as alcohol and drugs, or doesn’t eat properly, the fetus is exposed to those dangers right along with the mother. An infant’s neurochemistry reflects his or her very first home-the uterus.” – The Connected Child

Difficult Labor or Birth

Modern medicine is a marvel. It can save babies who would have been lost fifty years ago. I went into preterm labor at 28 weeks with one of my pregnancies, and with medication and bedrest, the birth was held off until he was only a month early. C-sections, preeclampsia, prolonged labor, breech position, and other complications are trauma — not only for the mother, but for the baby.

Early Medical Trauma 

We usually associate medical treatment with healing instead of hurting. Medical professionals are trained and skilled in saving lives. This is probably why it has taken us so long to understand that interventions and interactions with medical professionals are traumatic in the scientific sense.  Now social workers, researchers, and other health care professionals are saying medical treatments can result in post traumatic stress.

“According to Barbara Ganzel, PhD, MSW, of the Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research at Cornell University, “Medical traumas are psychological traumas that result from medical diagnosis and/or medical intervention. Threat of serious injury or threat to life due to illness is now encompassed within the DSM definition of psychological trauma. This means that medical patients can be evaluated as having illness-related trauma disorders.” – Socialworktoday.com

I’ve seen this firsthand in my kiddos. When my four came “home” from Poland, the sight of a white lab coat would send them into a severe meltdown. It wasn’t until a few years after they joined the family that we understood how severely they had been affected by the prolonged hospital stays they had each experienced.

I didn’t know of my early medical trauma until I was in high school and asked about my birth. Maybe you don’t know yours or haven’t thought about the trauma side of it. If so, that’s something you can do right now: Ask about your story.

Trauma

According to the “Early Childhood Mental Health” website put together by the Missouri Department of Mental Health, there are three main types of trauma:  acute, chronic, or complex.

  • Acute trauma is the result of a single incident, such as a car accident or house fire.
  • Chronic trauma is prolonged and repeated. Neglect and abuse fall in this category.
  • Complex trauma involves exposure to multiple, varied traumatic events. Often, the trauma is relational and therefore more invasive in nature.

Neglect

Neglect is one of the worst sorts of trauma. Almost all victims of neglect are children or invalids. The reason is simple: in order to be a victim of neglect, you must be dependent on a parent or caregiver for your physical and emotional wellbeing. 

Neglect can be a precursor to PSTD and other trauma later in life. 

Abuse

Although the consequences of neglect are far more devastating long-term, abuse has its own set of consequences. Living in an abusive environment sends a mixed message to the brain. One moment, a parent is loving, apologetic, and showering a kiddo with gifts. The next moment, the kiddo is being thrown across the room. This makes it difficult for the brain to form cohesive neural pathways. Abuse or maltreatment of any kind shapes the way we develop. Trauma affects how we interact with, perceive, and attach to others. Abuse interrupts the attachment cycle, causing breaks in attachment.

“It’s important to remember that abuse fosters the belief ‘I don’t deserve to exist.’ When you grow up with that belief, it will affect your relationships with your children. You may suffer from low self-esteem, depression, PTSD, learning disabilities, an eating disorder, suicide attempts or any number of issues.”- www.psychologytoday.com

Change Begins With Us

The change we desire for our children must begin with us.

“If we’re willing to piece together our stories and see the relationship between what happened then and what’s happening now, we get to make choices about what happens next.”- Tell Me a Story

It’s difficult to make choices in the heat of the moment. This is why it is important to take some time and revisit our past, make sense of it, and begin healing. 

While we are healing, we can put some proactive responses into place. In other words, you can decide how you are going to respond ahead of time. If you know that when your child steals candy out of the secret stash, it triggers a memory in you of your Aunt Verna whipping you with a switch until your behind was raw, develop a pre-planned, go-to response. 

Separate yourself from the situation. Avoid saying things like, “If I had done that, my mother would have…” Instead, tend to the situation at hand logically. The child took the candy; therefore, he can’t have any after dinner — or whatever you decide is a natural consequence. 

As Andy Stanley writes in Deep & Wide, “the past is only the past for a time. It has a way of clawing its way into our future. And if you don’t recognize it for what it is, the results can be devastating.” If we don’t recognize our past and its overwhelming power to invade our “now,” we will remain stuck. If we come to terms with our past and work through it, we can gain a new outlook on it.

Your Past Can Be a Gift

I honestly never thought I would view the trauma in my past as a gift. I had years of anger, bitterness, and a reoccuring theme of “Why me?” 

I don’t feel that way anymore. I realized a long time ago that empathy is a superpower that is only earned by going through trauma. Sympathy can only reaches the boundaries of understanding someone else’s pain. Empathy feels that pain. 

I’m not saying you should be grateful that someone molested you or did horrible things to you. But you can be grateful for the gift of empathy.

“We are assured and know that [God being a partner in their labor] all things work together and are [fitting into a plan] for good to and for those who love God and are called according to [His] design and purpose.” (Romans 8:28)

God takes our pain, our past, and our experiences and fits them into a plan to help others. I’ve spoken with a multitude of adoptive/foster parents over the years. They all seem to have a common denominator: at least one half of the couple experienced early trauma. 

I’ve talked to foster parents who spent years in and out of group homes, were raised in a foster home, were raised by alcoholics or drug addicts, or had moms who worked as prostitutes. I’m not mentioning these things to shame their past or their parents, but to let you know that if you experienced early trauma, you are not alone.

Maybe you identify. Maybe you didn’t have the greatest childhood. Maybe this whole chapter has been excruciatingly painful for you. I get it. So let’s not end on the trauma — let’s end on the gift it has given to you.

*This is an excerpt from How to Have Peace When Your Kids are in Chaos.

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