Pop psychology may have us believe that something can only be labeled as “trauma” if it was extreme such as physical abuse or witnessing a horrific event. But the true definition of the word trauma is “A deeply distressing or disturbing experience.” Perhaps you have had an experience that fits that description, but because it wasn’t something that most of society calls “true trauma,” you didn’t feel you could talk about it, or give it the importance that you felt it deserved.
When you think about one’s capacity to feel deeply disturbed or distressed, children may come to mind. Children don’t yet have the knowledge, sense of self, or overall psychological fortitude that (some) adults have to experience something disturbing, and not be impacted by it. Children are like sponges, absorbing everything they see, hear, and experience to their cores. It can take decades for that sponge to dry up, and for those traumas to solidify on the surface of someone’s being, affecting the way they handle life as an adult. And, again, if your trauma doesn’t meet the description of commonly-accepted traumatic experiences, you may not even know to look for any side effects of it. We spoke with Melissa Dumaz, MS, LMFT about overlooked types of childhood trauma. Find Dumaz on all socials @UHelpYou.
Nobody else can label your trauma
“Sometimes we have this misconception about what trauma is,” says Dumaz. “We often think of major life events, but trauma can be any adverse life event that has happened for you. Trauma can be individualized. The truth is, yes, there are some common themes that we understand as being traumatic. But we all respond differently to our life events.”
Even simple things have long-lasting effects
Dumaz provided this example of an event that, while it’s seemingly benign, can have long-lasting impacts for some. “Think of a child having an accident and falling off their bike, or falling down the stairs. For some it’s just ‘Yeah I have a scar. No big deal.’ But others may say, ‘To this day, I don’t have a desire to get on a bike’ or ‘I need to hold someone’s hand when I walk down the stairs.’ It’s important to understand that our reaction to adverse events looks different for everyone.”
Additional overlooked trauma
As both a parent and a therapist, Dumaz has come to learn that being bullied can be one overlooked traumatic experience. Another common theme she sees is, “Not having the validation of a parent when they [children] do well. They may grow up to not trust their instinct. Or have this misunderstanding that everything they do is not good enough. They cannot celebrate their wins because they haven’t had the experience of a parent or caretaker celebrating their wins.”
Is it too late now to say sorry?
“I’m a big fan of teaching clients the value of apologizing to their child,” says Dumaz. “If that’s something you hadn’t experienced from your caregiver, that may be something that you’re not offering in your parenting. Say a child growing up had a parent who accused them of things, or made parenting mistakes and weren’t able to apologize…maybe now in a relationship, they don’t recognize when it’s time to apologize. Or don’t know how to receive an apology, because they were never given one as a child.”
A simple rule to live by
Dumaz advises parents of this simple rule; “Do your best to live by the model of ‘Do no harm.’ That means no physical harm, but also no emotional harm. Ask ‘Is there something that I’m doing as a parent that could create harm for my child…that could make my child feel unsafe or neglected?”
Get professional input when you need it
“There are some red flags when it comes to parenting, but there is no one right way to do it,” says Dumaz. “It’s about deciding what works for you in your values and your family system.” She says that, after some parenting decisions, “There are parts of us that know intuitively, that wasn’t right. So speak to a therapist about it. Say, ‘I did this thing to my child. What are your thoughts on it? What are the long term possible implications of that?’”
Parent with the long-term future in mind
“Remember with children, we’re planting seeds. When we’re thinking of planting these seeds and watering them, some of them, we will see the fruits of that labor. And some of them we may not…However, when we think about how we’re parenting, it’s important to ask the question, ‘How will this look in five years? 10 years?”
What kind of partner are you raising?
Dumaz says one of her mentors told her when making parenting decisions to ask herself, when the child grows up, “What will this look like in a marriage?” It’s a valuable question since parents want their kids to have satisfying and healthy romantic relationships as adults. When thinking of behaviors you’re training the kid to do now, Dumaz says to ask, “Is the seed that I’m planting something that I want to grow and flourish in my child’s life?”
Heal your childhood trauma, for your children
If you have childhood trauma, Dumaz says, “It’s so important to be able to heal from those things. Sometimes, time heals. Sometimes you need professional help. The way that we were parented definitely colored the way that we will parent moving forward. We might say ‘I do or don’t want to do what my caregiver did.’ But if we don’t have insight into our own wounds and how they’re impacting us, we may find ourselves in a position where we are re-wounding our children.”
Talking to your parents about the past
We asked Dumaz how adults can talk to their parents about how their childhoods impact them today. “It’s about the timing. The holidays are often a time when a lot of adults get retriggered. They suffer things they experienced in childhood because they’re visiting family they haven’t seen in a while.”
Be at peace before speaking your piece
In deciding when to talk to your parents about how they impacted you, Dumaz says, “An optimal time –though it can’t always happen – is when we’ve done our own work, and when we are in a place of peace, and of forgiving ourselves, and forgiving the caregiver. That doesn’t necessarily have to mean that what the caregiver did wasn’t wrong or harmful. But now we are no longer blaming.”
Preparing for your visit home
If you do still feel the urge to point fingers, Dumaz reminds us, “Playing the blame game can mean we find ourselves being re-wounded again. Especially if the parent hasn’t done their personal work. If you’re in therapy now, before seeing family for the holidays, talk to your therapist about this conversation you’ll have with family. Ask, ‘What does it look like if parents don’t have the lightbulb moment you’re hoping for. Or…if they do?’”