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WILLIAM GUMEDE | Be careful not to transfer trauma of your upbringing to your kids

Strike a balance, overprotection can lead to anxiety-prone and untrusting children too

Chronic trauma, according to research, may turn the body into a state of persistent high alert, seeing threats or dangers in every situation.
Chronic trauma, according to research, may turn the body into a state of persistent high alert, seeing threats or dangers in every situation.
Image: 123RF

SA needs a sustained effort to inculcate mindful approaches to parenting among the black community, because mass trauma, directly or indirectly related to apartheid as well as new post-apartheid trauma, whether because of chronic poverty, unemployment, dysfunctional homes, violence, sexual abuse, physical and emotional abuse, has left many broken parents with harmful parenting styles resulting in traumatised children.  

Trauma can be transmitted to children by traumatised parents. Chronic trauma, according to research may turn the body into a  state of persistent high alert, seeing threats or dangers in every situation.

Parenting is intense: physically, emotionally, intellectually, mentally and financially. Parents have to be present, give their full attention and care. From attending to their homework, hearing their teachers pointing out problems and watching them on the sports grounds.

The intensity of parenting may trigger the parents’ own past trauma. A child’s normal crying may for example trigger panic, fear and anxiety in a parent, as it may remind them  of the terrors of their own childhood – and elicit an exaggerated response.

Trauma victims are unable to trust others, are on high alert for threats, are irritable and are susceptible to addiction.

Parents who experienced trauma are inclined to overprotect their children, to prevent them from being harmed as they were. They are hypervigilant.

The overprotection means that children cannot learn how to take on healthy risks, are anxiety-prone and untrusting. Parents who suffered from trauma are not only controlling, they may parent their children with iron discipline. 

Those who experienced trauma are often indecisive, procrastinate and fear failure and rejection. Chronic indecisiveness is passed on to children who as adults will struggle similarly. 

Children of parents who experienced trauma may, therefore, suffer from severe dependency on their parents, insecurity when their parents are not around, or they may do the opposite, actively oppose their parents.

Victims of trauma may be emotionally distant. They struggle to show vulnerability. They often also do not listen to their children expressing emotions, desires or opinions. Trauma victims often avoid their feelings, numb them or use substances to suppress them.

Children of such parents may feel they are not seen, not valued and not important.

Victims of trauma often struggle with expressing and dealing with their own anger. Outburst of anger undermine the emotional well-being of children. Parents suffering from unprocessed trauma can become so emotionally inadequate, anxious and mentally insecure that children often step in to look after their emotional health. This means children of such parents do not have the space to foster their own emotional health.

What are some of the mindful approaches parents who suffer from trauma should use in their parenting style?

It is important parents listen actively, consciously and fully to children when they talk. Do not compare your child to others, humiliate your child in front of others and state or imply your child is the reason for your unhappiness. Balance criticism with acknowledgement of the good, and with praise. Not providing correction, where children do wrong is also not healthy.

Parents should not hold grudges for things their children did ages ago. Neither should they withhold love from their children to punish them. .

Parents must tell their children their anger is aimed at something specific, not at them as children and that it will be short-lived. Apologise quickly when you are wrong. Correct wrong behaviour.

It is crucial that parents learn how to master their emotions. Find ways to manage these emotions, either by taking time out, doing breathing exercises, meditating or another physical activity. Learn to know when to ignore and when to express your emotions.

Parents must be available, present and create an open environment for children to be able to talk to them. Play with your children. Read to them.

Parents who suffered trauma often also worry that they are not giving their children the same tools they had to successfully navigate life. Importantly, giving one’s best is enough. Don’t try to be perfect.

Prof Gumede has been involved in governing bodies of schools for over two decades and is a former trustee of the Ridge School, Westcliff, Johannesburg, and author of the bestselling Restless Nation: Making Sense of Troubled Times (Tafelberg)

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