Maternal Mental Health Day: Parenting Through Trauma

It’s Maternal Mental Health Day and I happen to be both a mom and a nerd for mental health. Having just survived two years of prenatal and postpartum depression/anxiety and as a professional, it’s a cause close to my heart.  But I want to share about another facet of maternal mental health because I’ve seen many a mama struggle with issues like depression, anxiety, PTSD, dissociative disorders, etc., without understanding why.  

Maternal Mental Health Day: Parenting Through Trauma

They feel like there is something wrong with them, rather than examining what may have happened to them.  The medical/psychiatric community has historically thrown a pill at an issue and called it a day. This leaves people feeling alone in their suffering and not really touching what may be the root of such psychiatric issues, in some cases. It’s like putting a band-aid on a gunshot wound; healing is impossible without healing the wound itself. Have I lost you yet?

What I’m talking about is trauma. Bear with me, I’m going to get nerdy on you:

Up until the last 20 years, the medical and psychiatric communities have treated mental health issues and psychiatric disorders as strictly “medical” diagnoses. When you have a medical diagnosis in 20th century medicine? You throw a pill at it and follow up in 2 months. But this was not working. The medical community was seeing shockingly increased rates of morbid (and preventable) diseases and early death in those patients with a diagnosed mental illness.

Kaiser Permanente began studies in 1995 and 1997 which followed these patients long-term. They began asking questions about the patients’ histories. What they discovered was a correlation between those patients who experienced adverse experiences (i.e. trauma) in their younger years and chronic health issues leading to early death (sometimes by as much as 20 years). This study was called the ACE (Adverse Childhood Experiences) Study. The CDC has continued the work and it is revolutionizing the way we look at mental health, physical health, and it’s link to trauma. If you’d like to read more about the ACES Study, you can here.

If you’re looking for a Cliff’s Notes version of the study, I’m going to skim over the major points:

Trauma damages the brain. The earlier the trauma, the more devastating the damage. Trauma changes a person’s DNA; trauma in a person’s ancestry/lineage changes an entire line’s DNA so future generations are born with inherently higher levels of stress hormones and a person is indeed born with some sort of ingrained trauma. This is called “epigenetic.”

The ACES Study outlined 10 types of common (but not exhaustive) adverse experiences happening in early childhood. The basic gist is, the higher the ACE score, the higher risk a person has of developing, not only illnesses like depression and anxiety, but illnesses such as COPD, diabetes, and heart disease. All which contribute to an early death. It’s a cycle that has continued generation after generation.  (If you’d like more information on this, Dr. Nadine Burke Harris offers a great TED Talk on the science of these conditions).

So mamas, what does this mean for us, our kids, our relationships, and our life?

It means that if you have been a survivor of trauma, it may be time to deal with it. A qualified mental health professional is a good place to start. Healing from the trauma not only creates a better life for you, but a different legacy for your children.  This is a hard, yet incredibly freeing process (been there, t-shirt and all).

Coming to a place of healing sets the stage for the leaving-a-different-legacy part. If you’ve been both a survivor and a parent for more than 45 minutes, you know that our kids can sometimes trigger our own trauma. It can be an age they reach, a smell they emit (So many smells. Ugh), or a behavior they have. If we aren’t careful and take the time to learn how to do things differently we project our own hurts and violations onto our children without ever knowing it and continuing the cycle.  

For me, I have to consciously parent differently.

For example, there is just one tone of voice that grates on my nerves like nails on a chalkboard. When my kids whine that whine I have to stop myself from parenting out of my own junk. Don’t get me wrong, I really want that sound to stop, but not as badly as I want my kids to know they are safe and loved. If I’m leaving a different legacy, my reaction has to be controlled rather than swinging my flip-flop around trying to connect with the kid making that awful noise. I have to gently, yet firmly, tell said screeching child to throw their fit in their room and once they’re calm and ready to talk, I’m here. I don’t excuse the behavior, nor do I beat the tar out of them for acting like kids. And that, my friends, takes a lot of practice. And practice.

So much practice.

Did I mention practice?

I could go on for days about the myriad of ways trauma impacts a person’s life; not only because I live it but I also walk with others through it. But I will say this: healing is worth it.

Even on our worst day, the choice to think, speak, and do things differently is worth it. One of the best gifts we can give our children is being healthy ourselves, which takes a lot of practice.

If you read this and it hits a nerve, it may be time to get help. Take it from a mama who walks this every day: there is hope. It does get better. 

Below is a list of resources in Linn County that can help start you on your own journey to a place of healing:

This site is a hub for information and resources related to ACES.

The Crisis Center (formerly Crisis Center of Johnson County) 24/7 Crisis Line: 1-855-325-4296

211 Iowa contains listings for crisis services as well as several mental health/counseling agencies in the area

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