Faces of PTSD · The Voices Of & For Parenting Surivors

Why Aren’t Trauma Survivors Warned That Parenthood May Be a PTSD Trigger?

For many survivors of childhood abuse, symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) may re-occur, or never arise, until they become a parent. A significant number of parenting survivors do not recognize the increased depression, anxiety, or onset of flashbacks as symptoms of PTSD, weaving in and out their journey to raise a family. Instead, many will internalize debilitating shame and question  their ability, and even their right to parent.

According to the National Center for Victims of Crimes, 1 in 5 girls and 1 in 20 boys will be a victim of sexual abuse. The abused children all have one thing in common – they eventually become adults. Naturally, most of these adults become parents, many whom have never spoke about what happened to them, leaving trauma symptoms to lie dormant, festering, until acts of Parenting 101 expose them to triggers which send them spiraling. Most suffer silently, alone, and confused. It doesn’t have to be that way. And in fact, it shouldn’t be.

One night, as a new mom, I walked into my daughter’s bedroom to kiss her goodnight before heading to bed myself. As I went to my daughter’s bed, I was halted by a physical reaction to what I was doing. I had this sudden, unexplainable sickness in my stomach and felt panicked. I had this thought that I was violating her personal space by being in her room while she slept. I felt repulsed by the idea of kissing her on her cheek. In that moment, I was able to recognize my thoughts and physical symptoms as irrational and was able to kiss my baby girl goodnight; however, I had yet to understand where this was all coming from.

Following that episode, I started to recognize that same mental and physical pattern while performing basic acts of care with my children. The sickness and panic was there when I changed diapers, bathed them, gave affection, when affection was requested, when I breastfed, when I disciplined either of them – it became the norm for me to feel “off” anytime I was in the role of Mom. But who do you turn to with this kind of revelation? How does one ask for help because her children are making her physically and mentally sick? I often asked myself, “What the hell is wrong with me that I feel like this?”

This is the PTSD I have had to learn to cope with as I raise my children, because I was sexually abused as a child. I’m now able to recognize that panicked physical reaction I experience stems from the eight years my abuser walked into my room at night, and the lack of protection I had from others in my life. I was told “I love you” by my abuser, every time he abused me. I believe that is the reason that I felt ill when I went to kiss my daughter goodnight and tell her that I love her.

Becoming a mother added a whole new, difficult layer to my recovery. I became triggered by things that I did with, around, and for my children. I was triggered by certain people around my children. I was triggered by their sheer existence, in that I now could see how innocent of a child I was, at the time my abuse began.

I have worked in the field of mental health for the past 10 years and invested a significant amount of time working through my trauma before becoming a mother. Even with professional and personal experiences in recovery work, I was unable to recognize what I was experiencing as PTSD, nor was I ever forewarned this may happen.

With research such as the Adverse Childhood Experiences study (ACEs) beginning to come to the surface, we are learning that there is science behind how survivors of childhood abuse experience adulthood and parenting. Prolonged abuse and the toxic stress that follows distorts connections in the brain that associate things correctly, like love and fear. Also, a survivor’s nervous system develops in an abnormal manner, leaving the survivor with a faulty fight/flight/freeze response.

It wasn’t until I connected with other parenting survivors of childhood abuse online that I shed the belief that I was broken and not worthy of being a parent. Through sharing my experiences, I learned how common this is for parenting survivors. Once I was able to break through the shame, I was able to re-enter therapy and talk truthfully about what I was experiencing. At that point, I began learning about PTSD and triggers. Even though the process of acknowledging my reality as a mom was brutal, it finally started to make sense.

It isn’t always a choice for an abuse survivor to associate “normal” feelings with “normal” things. For example, a parenting survivor may experience a desire to push her child away when the child asks to snuggle and watch a movie, despite wanting to participate in the loving act. Intellectually, she may understand that this is a normal way of showing affection; however, her body recognizes that kind of touching as stressful, unpleasant, or even harmful.

Bessel A. van der Kolk, in his book The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, teaches us that “Trauma victims cannot recover until they become familiar with and befriend the sensations in their bodies.” He further states, “The mind needs to be reeducated to feel physical sensations, and the body needs to be helped to tolerate and enjoy the comforts of touch. Individuals who lack emotional awareness are able, with practice, to connect their physical sensations to psychological events. Then they can slowly reconnect with themselves.”

That’s what makes being a parenting survivor so difficult. Survivors do not often experience parenthood as their peers do and often feel alone because of this. This can add one more layer of fear, frustration and shame to their day to day experiences, especially when they have never heard anyone speak about parenting as they are experiencing it.

It takes an incredible amount of energy and conviction to weave through PTSD while raising children. For many, the child is the trigger, meaning you can’t avoid it.

One has to be willing and able to work through the incongruent feelings she experiences while parenting, and choose to analyze and process her reactions at a later time in order to continue healing. That is incredibly difficult to do when already experiencing sleep deprivation and other exhausting demands of parenthood.

I think most parents feel like they are winging it, but growing up in dysfunctional families often leave a person without a visual of what a “good” parent looks like. Add trying to understand PTSD symptoms to that process when no one ever talks about this and it is a recipe for the cycle of dysfunction to continue.

A parenting survivor has to commit to raising her children, while at the same time re-raising herself. Often times, this is done with little to no support.

There are so many missed opportunities for providers to prepare new parents for what may occur. First and foremost, Ask! Looking back, I was never asked by my primary care physician if my childhood abuse was affecting me as an adult or parent. The lactation specialist never asked if I had experience with childhood sexual abuse when I struggled to breastfeed my child. My previous therapist never warned me that this may be one more thing I may need to learn to navigate when we discussed my plan to start a family.

I remain shocked that with all that is written about and for survivors, and about and for parents, no one has recognized and addressed parents who are survivors. As an advocate for parenting survivors, I am continuously amazed at the response I get when I speak on the topic, by both professionals and parents in the communities. The most common responses I get is “I’ve never heard anyone talk about this before” or “I didn’t know this happens to other parents.” It’s a shame.

Understanding what triggers are and why they occur has saved my life, and allowed me to parent in a break-the-cycle fashion. It has allowed me to use the triggers to assist in my recovery, and no longer hinder it.

It is my goal to increase awareness on the topic of parenting as a survivor by educating community medical, mental health and human service providers on the role childhood trauma has in becoming a parent.

The good news, as Bessel A. van der Kolk and other leading trauma and forward thinking experts like Peter Levine (Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma), Judith Herman (Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence–From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror) and Brene Brown (Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead) are proving that there is hope, if you are willing to do the work. And believe me, it is work!

With trauma-informed care becoming a buzzword of sorts, and with the ACEs study adding science-based evidence to validate the actions and reactions of abuse survivors, I can only hope that the 1 in 5 girls and the 1 in 20 boys will be more prepared for the role PTSD may have in their lives, as they become new moms and dads.

**photo credit

Join the parenting survivors community on Facebook

Get your copy of the Trigger Points Anthology and hear other child abuse survivors experiences of parenting. Available on Amazon.

Survivors Empowering Survivors

I Spoke About Parenting as a Survivor, Because I Was Asked.

cissy whiteEven though I’m a socially awkward introvert with post-traumatic stress, I gave a talk on parenting after trauma last month. Why? Because I was asked.

Someone read the Trigger Points Anthology and wanted a keynote speaker who is a trauma survivor and a parent. Let me say it again. I spoke because I was asked. That never happens.

My experiences were treated as though they are useful, valuable and important. As though they matter. As though survivors matter. As though I matter. I didn’t have to scream or beg or fight to be heard. I was asked.

I joked with one friend, “The only time I ever get to talk about my childhood is in therapy, and I have to pay someone to listen. This time, I’m being paid.”

As a teenager, when I told my mother I was abused, she didn’t believe me. Not being believed almost ended me. And I can’t speak articulately about that yet or recovering from that. I can say that being asked to talk about my childhood and how it has impacted my parenting was medicinal. It was also liberating, terrifying and healing.

The opportunity for us to have conversations about life and trauma and parenting as peers, sharing the experiences we had as children and the way we live with them as adults and parents now, is very rare. It’s very different than our conversations as patients or clients. So often our lived experiences, opinions, insights and expertise are rarely heard, valued or sought. That silence and shame stuff is still pervasive.

So I said yes when invited to speak because it’s so radical to be asked. Just like I said, “yes, please” when asked to write about my experiences for the Trigger Points Anthology.

Because we need to hear each other to feel less alone. Being asked is powerful and life-changing. 

I made very conscious decisions about which parts of my life and experiences I would speak about. I talked mostly about the present and how the past impacts the present all of the time. I did not speak in detail about the abuse I survived.

Sexual abuse isn’t my story. Sexual abuse is the story of those who abuse. Being an adult child of an alcoholic isn’t my story. That’s the story of the person who drank. Having a homeless father doesn’t tell you a bit about who I am or how I parent.

These things all shaped me. They did and do impact me and how I parent, and sometimes explain why parenting is challenging. They contribute to my post-traumatic stress and contribute to my high ACE score. They are some of the reasons I do advocacy work, but they aren’t my story.

Nope. No way.

My story is about me and the choices I make. My story is about how I use, express, make sense of and recover from all of my experiences. My story is about how I learn to parent, to love, to trust and care about myself and my daughter. My story is about how I learn to inhabit my body and attempt to show up and be present without shame or apology or numbness.

The only story I sign, autograph and own is my own. I reject the notion that what was done to me, by others, is my story.

When I joined the Trigger Points community a few years ago it was the first and only one I’d ever heard of with, for and by survivors. I was jumping up and down, elated to find others craving, creating and needing community and conversations. Not clinical talk, therapy or processing, but just sharing life and stories about day to day.

Photo Credit: Margaret Bellafiore
Photo Credit: Margaret Bellafiore

So I said yes and spoke at the Partnering for Excellence conference, even though I was afraid. I said yes because I was asked by people creating trauma-informed and collaborative approaches to the mental health system, to children and families in the foster care system and to the wider community as well.

At this conference, the Trigger Points Anthology was shared with staff in order to help professionals working to improve the lives of children better understand the challenges parenting survivors face. Professionals referenced our words, our experiences and the stories we chose to share. Our experiences mattered to others.

It's not trauma informed if it's not informed by trauma survivors is what I say. 

I chose to focus on how trauma in childhood was less an event and more an environment. How it was less a crack in the foundation and more the way the foundation was never poured. I was trying to explain how it feels as a child to live with trauma; as a child who has no adult concepts, words and language; as a child who might grow up to become a parent.

I spoke about how kids don’t realize, “This is trauma I’m living.” Especially young kids.

We don’t think:

I’m being flooded with toxic stress. My ACE score is rising by the second. I will probably need a lot of evidence based therapy.

Those are adult thoughts.

Kids think things like this:

I like animals. People suck. Get me the hell out of here. Here being the body, family or world.

Kid’s don’t have language or context or perspective. We don’t know what we are living would be easier without trauma. We don’t know that there’s an opposite of trauma to be had. As kids, it’s just life we’re living.

It's not so much that trauma and adversity are being minimized by us or our family members, it's that trauma is normalized. 

It’s the norm for us, and maybe for our parents too. It’s maybe been “traumatic” for months and years and decades. For generations. Day in. Day out. For many families, trauma and childhood might be synonyms. But I didn’t grow up thinking I was living with trauma. I thought I was just too sensitive or lousy at life. How we learn to live in a traumatic environment as a child is hard to unlearn as an adult when it’s your baseline.

Everyone brings the experience of being parented as a child to the forefront when becoming a parent yourself. And it’s hard to learn to parent differently when we didn’t experience a healthier and safe home and childhood. And when, as adults, it’s easier to find books on gluten free recipes than break-the-cycle parenting.

For so long, I’ve been in a fight, warring with shame and silence and what can seem like an indifferent world. Sometimes it can be futile and exhausting to volunteer or work hard to make social change, not knowing if we are making any difference.

Sometimes having not been believed as a child still stings my soul, leaving me feeling invisible and afraid to speak.

But here we are. We are here and we are hearing and seeing and supporting each other.

I know I'm not alone and feel it in my bones. 

We are supporting ourselves too and making the way easier for others who become parents after surviving childhood trauma.

And that’s my story, the one I author, autograph, share and tell again and again. For myself. For the kid I once was who had no words or language or support. And with the strength of this entire community I’m grateful to be a part of.

Bio: Christine Cissy White is a writer who believes it’s possible to live, love and parent well after being raised in hell. Possible, but not easy. She founded www.healwritenow.com and writes, speaks and consults about trauma-informed care from a survivor’s perspective. She develops Writing for Wellness programs and educates about the need for portable and affordable ways to heal traumatic stress at the Heal Write Now Center: Creating Hope, Health and Happiness in Massachusetts. She’s been published in Ms. Magazine online, Spirituality & Health, The Boston Globe and is a columnist at Elephant Journal. She’s writing a book with Nancy Slonim Aronie entitled: Your Childhood is Making You Fat, Sick & Dead: Write to Heal.





The Voices Of & For Parenting Surivors

Trigger Points to Present Fathering as a Survivor Interview Series

Our intention with the upcoming Fathering as a Survivor interview series is to give male survivors the opportunity to explore the effects childhood abuse has on them now as parents. We want to help fathers educate our society on what their particular triggers and struggles are, as they work to break the cycle of abuse.

When we set out to raise awareness on the challenges abuse survivors face as  parents, we absolutely intended to address the point of view of mothers and fathers. Hearing from fathers has proven to be much more difficult than we imagined. It has made us even more determined to extend the opportunity for father-survivors to be heard.

male survivors
Photo Courtesy of http://www.oprah.com: 200 brave survivors stand with pictures of their younger selves, working to lift the veil of shame.

Because of the few brave fathers who have written for us, we know that male survivors transitioning into and experiencing fatherhood have their own unique challenges and triggers. We want to help bring these challenges to the surface, so that male survivors who want to become fathers, or already are fathers can have the information and support necessary to address this particular part of their healing. We want to offer a platform to speak from that offers safety, support and the option of anonymity.

So what are we looking for and what you need to know…

  • It is absolutely acceptable to remain anonymous. Please make this decision very clear us so that we can respect your choice.
  • This series will be an interview format that will run through out the month of June, in honor of Father’s day.
  • Each participant will be answering the same questions, but will be free to elaborate on the questions as you understand them. Every question will need to be answered in order for your submission to be considered.
  • While we cannot accept every submission, we will work hard to allow every voice to be heard.
  • We reserve the right to edit for clarity and brevity.
  • We will be monitoring comments to ensure a non-threatening, safe environment.
  • The deadline for submissions is May 15, 2016.
  • Please copy and paste the questions (see below) in to the body of an email or word document. Please send finalized submissions to Triggerpointsanthology@gmail.com, with submission for interview series in the subject line.
  • If you do not wish to remain anonymous, please include a brief (3-5 lines) bio with your submission. Please include a head shot and any other images that you would like to add, if you are comfortable doing so.
  • Although we regretfully cannot offer financial compensation at this time, we will be offering a free PDF copy of the Trigger Points Anthology to those whose submissions are included in the series.

Here are the questions we are looking for responses to…

  1. Before becoming a father, did you look forward to becoming a parent?
  2. How did you feel when you first learned you were going to be a father? Did you have any specific fears and/or joys?
  3. Were there any triggers that came up for you while your partner was pregnant?
  4. What has surprised you most about parenthood?
  5. What acts of parenting have led you to be triggered? Examples could be disciplining, bathing, showing affection/touching, etc. Have you learned anything from these triggers about your own fears, or the parts of you that still need healing?
  6. What is the greatest lesson you have learned from your child(ren)?
  7. What would you tell another survivor father who is expecting their first child?

Please feel free to reach out to us with any questions or concerns you may have. This can be done either with a post/message on the Trigger Points Facebook page or via email at triggerpointsanthology@gmail.com.

trigger points cover

The Trigger Points Anthology is now available for Kindle and paperback. Click the link to get your copy today!!

Trigger Points Anthology paperback

Trigger Points Anthology for Kindle

Become a member of the supportive Trigger Points community on Facebook and Twitter to connect with other parenting survivors.


The Voices Of & For Parenting Surivors

Anthology submissions update

So our initial deadline has passed, and we want to thank everyone who has sent in their submissions for your bravery and your trust in us. Dawn and I have been looking through the submissions, and we have been talking about our vision for this project as a whole. We have decided on a few changes that we want to make, so here is what we are thinking at this point:

1. We are extending the deadline for submissions to May 31

We are still looking for more diversity in our submissions, and especially would like to see some submissions from Dads. So we are going to keep working to spread the word, and if you can help us with that, please let us know.For those who submitted by the Jan 31 deadline, we will still be getting back to you by March 31 to let you know if your submission will be included.

2. We are widening our criteria for submissions

Initially we had specified that we were looking for survivors of childhood abuse. While that will still remain the main focus, we are now opening the submission process to any parent who is an abuse survivor. Rape and domestic abuse survivors have the same experience of working through triggers while parenting as those who survived childhood abuse, and we believe that their stories are an important part of this project as well.

3. We are now accepting submissions of poetry as well as essays. If you have already submitted an essay, but would like to submit a poem as well, you are more than welcome to do that.

4. We are specifying more details about what we do and do not want in submissions

Our focus for this anthology is on healing from abuse. Our triggers are windows into those places inside us that still need our loving attention. As such, we want the focus to be on the here and now, the issues that come up for you as you parent  your kids. We do not want to focus on any specific details of the abuse itself unless it is directly related to one of those triggers, and is necessary to tell that story.

How can one raise a child without incorporating the ideas that she/he was taught and saw as a child? We all want to break the cycle of abuse, but if we don’t pay attention to the triggers, we miss the clues on how to do that.

What are your triggers?
How do they come up?
What part of you is still hurting, that the trigger is bringing attention to?
How have you or are you healing through parenting?

Thank you to everyone who has been following along as this project develops. It is a big learning curve for both Dawn and I, but then again, we are doing something groundbreaking, so that is bound to be the case. Keep on joining in the conversation, and keep on sharing as much as possible about Trigger Points.

Our Stories Matter.


The Voices Of & For Parenting Surivors

A Mother Comes Undone

Post by Dawn Daum

Becoming a parent can unravel a survivor’s recovery. It’s important women and men know that as they become parents, triggers may arise that could effect their mental, physical and emotional health. Without that knowledge, he or she will not recognize what they are experiencing as symptoms of trauma, but instead may conclude that the experience is one of personal fault, like I did.

Motherhood pushed open a door that I thought I had managed to close for the last time. I, like most I believe, thought that a baby would be placed in my arms and I would be filled with so much love that the pieces of my broken heart, pieces I worked so hard to glue back together, would finally solidify. I didn’t expect new cracks to form. When they did, I was ashamed at what I was feeling. I was so angry at myself because I perceived these symptoms to be a sign that I wasn’t capable or healthy enough to be a mother, and my children would suffer because of that. My anger turned to despair. I started to rationalize that my children would be better off without a mom than one who was as broken, with edges so jagged as mine. I fought daily with the idea that my sheer existence was damaging them.

In order to survive, I downplayed my thoughts and feelings, telling myself to just suck it up. I was determined to not let the intrusive thoughts of what was done to me wreak havoc on my life all over again. I told no one about constantly being triggered by things that “normal” mothers ooh and ahh over like co-sleeping and skin to skin contact. I hid the fact that I was overwhelmed with anxiety when my husband helped my daughter dress, shower or showed affection towards her. I never let on to the feeling of sheer panic I felt while breastfeeding my son. Not because it was sexual to me, but because of the exposure and vulnerability that came with it. I remained a secret keeper for fear of how I would be judged if I admitted to the unwelcomed triggers. I buried it, having no idea the damage I was doing to my own spirit. In numbing myself, I denied myself the right to feel love and give love in return.

Something had to give. I knew I had to stop denying how I was feeling and the role my history of sexual abuse was playing in my ability to parent. I started writing about it. I never intended to publish anything on the topic. I was too fearful of how I would be perceived as a mother. That changed when I went looking for what others had written on the topic, and found nothing. It’s like Oprah says, “listen to the whispers.” I began feeling like I had to start this conversation. It became bigger than me. I wasn’t thinking about exposure for my writing but only about sending the message that experiencing motherhood as a survivor can be different from those who have not endured trauma.

Survivors have had to learn to cope with life differently than most, in the case of safety, trust, love, anger, healthy boundaries and the list goes on and on. Why then, do we not acknowledge that learning how to parent as a survivor is just as important. I believe it is paramount to raising healthy, safe and confident children. The idea that a person will have the ability to “get over it” once they become a parent is dangerous. Yes, we have to put little people ahead of our own wants and needs, but this piece of us that has worked so hard to recover from what was done to us has to be fostered, or else it will come undone.

We can’t leave survivors to figure this out on their own. We have to encourage each other to speak up and educate each other. Hopefully if we talk loud enough, those in a place responsible for caring for women through the stages of pregnancy and maintaining their health afterwards, will also see how vital their role in all of this has to be.