WORDS: CARLA CARUSO
KIDDO writer Carla Caruso spoke to NSW research psychologist and trauma specialist Dr Sarah Woodhouse about her new title, You’re Not Broken, and how ‘little’ traumas can affect our parenting.
Dr Woodhouse takes us through what constitutes trauma, how it can affect parenting approaches and, in turn, how our parenting approaches can inform resilience in our children.
Hi, Dr Woodhouse. As you say, studies show that about 70 to 80 per cent of women experience a traumatic event at least once in their life. What constitutes a trauma exactly? Can they be big or little?
The truth is, we’ve all experienced a traumatic reaction—it’s part of being human. And in one way or another, we all carry trauma. I don’t tell people this to frighten them; I say it to destigmatise trauma and to gently encourage people to learn how trauma shows up in all our lives, so we can move past it.
A trauma is a reaction to an experience that makes us feel overwhelmed, threatened and out of control. Big severe experiences like bushfires, floods and assaults, can provoke this reaction in us. But common, everyday experiences can also lead to us feeling overwhelmed, threatened and powerless.
Here, I’m talking about the kinds of experience we often consider ‘just part of life.’ Like slips and falls, painful relationship dynamics, feeling unseen and unheard as a child, routine medical procedures, school bullying, and divorce.
We wrongly expect people to quickly move on from these kinds of events when, really, we should help people pause and acknowledge their feelings.
How might trauma manifest in a person—and how could it affect their approach to parenting?
Trauma can manifest in so many ways. It can present as very obvious symptoms like the flashbacks that characterise post-traumatic stress disorder. But more often, the signs and symptoms are much more subtle and insidious.
Anxiety, frequently feeling shame, anger or fear, low self-worth, often feeling emotionally overwhelmed, reacting strongly to the same type of situations (triggers), being easily startled or often feeling unsafe, and relying on unhelpful ways of coping (e.g. compulsive eating, people-pleasing, perfectionism, compulsive busyness, avoiding our feelings, avoiding people) are all common signs of unresolved trauma.
Parenting is an unresolved trauma minefield because we encounter so many subconscious reminders of our own childhood. This is fine if our childhood was all unicorns and rainbows, but for those of us who didn’t grow up in this kind of utopia, the subconscious reminders can be very painful. Often without us even realising, the reminders can set off our unresolved trauma, and pull us back into old ways of reacting, being, thinking, and feeling.
These subconscious reminders can be anything at all: a situation, a tone of voice, a smell, a conflict, anything. A common trigger within parenting is our children’s age. If you carry unresolved trauma from the age of five, say, you’ll find that you’re very often triggered by your own child when they’re five. If you’re finding yourself consistently (over-)reacting to your child, it’s highly likely that something from your own past is being triggered.
Can you briefly explain the core concepts of trauma?
I believe we all move away from the subject of trauma because it’s often spoken about in a really inaccessible, heavy way. One of the main reasons I wrote You’re Not Broken was to address the way we’re all talking about trauma. The book is accessible, hopeful, and relatable.
To help you navigate the trauma lingo, let me explain two of the key terms here!
Fight, flight, freeze
When we sense a threat, our nervous system floods our body with arousal hormones to help us deal with the threat. The hormones affect our body in a way that would help us fight, flee, or hide—that’s where the name comes from. So, for example, the adrenaline pumping around our body would help us run if we needed to. The ‘fight, flight, freeze’ hormones contribute to us feeling overwhelmed, threatened and out of control.
Traumatic reaction can stay with us over the long-term because our memory of the experience wasn’t properly processed. At the time of the traumatic experience, all those ‘fight, flight, freeze’ hormones prevented our memory from working the way it usually does.
This means the experience isn’t stored in our long-term memory banks. Instead our trauma memories exist as a kind of cluster of unprocessed pieces. This is why they’re so easily triggered as we go about our day.
Please give us a few tips for breaking the cycle of old patterns and negative thoughts, caused by trauma.
Trauma disconnects us from our feelings, our body, our true self, and the present moment. To break free and heal, we need to reconnect.
A simple way to begin to do this is to pause, acknowledge, notice and allow your uncomfortable feelings and reactions, and then reconnect to your body. This intervenes in the cycle of reactions and allows our prefrontal cortex to take charge again.
First, you simply acknowledge the triggered reaction and your feelings: ‘I’m triggered and reacting because one of the kids said they hate me … I feel angry and ashamed.’
Then notice where the uncomfortable feelings show up in your body. Perhaps you notice that your jaw is tense, that your chest feels heavy or that your heart is pounding. Perhaps as you do this, you notice different emotions as well. Just notice what’s going on. And allow them to be as they are. By this I mean, don’t try to change what you’re experiencing. Just let it be.
Next, reconnect to your body. Use slow, calming polyvagal breathing (inhale for the count of four, exhale for the count of eight), feel your feet on the floor, or slowly notice and name things you can see (I can see the red bathmat, I can see the toys on the floor etc). These are simple ways to reconnect to your body to the present moment. Simple but powerful.
When it comes to parenting styles—from helicopter to tiger parenting—what do you believe makes kids most resilient?
True resilience develops when children’s feelings are consistently validated. Quite simply, this means we acknowledge and accept our children’s feelings and experiences without trying to change them.
If they’re crying, simply say: ‘You’re really upset right now.’ If they’re angry, simply say: ‘You’re really angry, I get it.’ If they come home from school explaining that ‘Zac is a mean idiot-head … he grabbed my ball and I hate him’, simply say, ‘OK, I get it, you’re really mad with Zac.’
This may sound simple, but psychologically, you are doing some very powerful things. You’re accepting your child’s feelings, which means your child will learn to accept their feelings, and ultimately, accept and love every part of themselves.
Children who do not experience this kind of acceptance and validation push their feelings away, and push parts of themselves away. Over time this leads to low self-worth. Resilience is only possible if we accept and love ourselves. So over and above any specific parenting strategy, this needs to be central to all our parenting.
Finally, what compelled you to write about trauma?
I see the widespread pain that trauma causes in our relationships, families, and communities. Trauma is causing chaos, but it doesn’t have to. If we learn what trauma is, how is shows up in our lives and the lives of our loved ones, and how to intervene in the reaction, we can break free. This is why I write and speak and create—to help us collectively grow past our past.
You’re Not Broken: Break free from trauma and reclaim your life by Sarah Woodhouse is published by Penguin
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