Parenting Children with Trauma

All parents, when they bring their daughter to Sunrise Residential Treatment Center, go through their own journey, along with their daughter. Watching a child hit rock bottom—to go through excruciating pain—is a new level of heartache. When your daughter has experienced trauma, this journey can be an especially difficult one.

When Sarah shared her trauma story with her parents, everyone’s emotions were palpable in our session. Richard immediately went into “fix it” mode. Fueled by his rage, he sought justice and revenge—convinced that if her attacker were in jail, this would finally bring Sarah peace. Laura was overcome by the sadness and pain of knowing what her daughter had been through. This soon turned into intense shame and guilt—she became paralyzed by the thoughts of what she could have done differently as a mom.

These thoughts and emotions intensified throughout Sarah’s journey for both Richard and Laura. As Sarah began her own trauma work, she had her ups and downs. She would push away at times; fall back into old unhealthy relationship patterns and ways to cope. As her parents watched this, at times, they felt hopeless. They came to the realization quickly that they had to do their own emotional work along with Sarah, if their family was going to truly be able to heal.

Richard and Laura’s experience is not uncommon. Every Sunrise parent, regardless of their daughter’s treatment concerns, goes through their own emotional journey along with their daughter. These are a few tips and skills from our work with DBT and shame resiliency that can also help as you work on your own healing alongside your daughter’s.

“The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.” –Carl Rogers

One of the most difficult, yet most profound, DBT skills is radical acceptance. This is exemplified in the Carl Rogers quote above. As we begin to accept ourselves AND our situation as they are, then we are able to grow and change. The first step towards healing and growth is learning to radically accept your situation as it is.

When I was a sophomore in high school, one of my best friends lost her dad to a battle with cancer. I was only fifteen at the time, and I was struck by how completely and totally unfair this whole situation was. And worst of all, I had NO idea what I was supposed to say or do to help my friend. I wanted to take away her pain. I wanted to bring her dad back. Yet, nothing I could do could change the situation we were in.

This was one of my earliest and most profound experiences with radical acceptance (though I didn’t know this was a DBT skill at the time). While I was fighting my situation, I felt helpless and hopeless. There was nothing I could do to help my friend. When I finally accepted that this was our situation, and there was nothing I could do to change it, I could move away from being stuck. I was angry, sad, and confused! And this was okay. But, perhaps, the biggest thing that changed by radically accepting was that I was able to connect with my friend who was hurting. When I stopped trying to fix things, I could actually love and support her—and it was that connection that actually helped in the healing process.

“The truth is, rarely can a response make something better. What makes something better is connection.”—Brene Brown

This weekend we recently finished our Sunrise family weekend, where parents and other family members join their daughter in the therapeutic process at Sunrise. In one group, we spent some time with one girl and her parents. We talked about her parents’ desire to buy excessive things for their daughter, in an effort to help ease her pain and depression. I was struck by the emotions of this girls’ father, when, discussing the matter, he said, “I would take any small chance to help make my daughter happy, even if I know it probably won’t help. When presented with even a tiny chance, I’m like ‘Where do I sign?’”

Like this Dad, many parents are looking to “fix it.” You want more than anything to find anything that will help your daughter to heal. The reality is, however, that sometimes, despite our best intentions, we can’t take away the pain. Your daughter will struggle throughout her journey, and you will not be able to take away the pain. You will likely say the wrong thing sometimes. “The truth is, rarely can a response make something better. What makes something better is connection.” The best thing you can do is to be there with your daughter as she works on her own healing journey. Love her. Cry with her. Use empathy and validate, but don’t try to fix it. Healing is a process, and she will learn how to “fix” herself throughout her Sunrise journey.

“Happiness is a direction, not a place.” –Sydney J. Harris

The lie we begin to tell ourselves, to believe with intensity, is that changing our circumstances will make us happy. I will be happy when my daughter is back home with me. I will be happy when my daughter can cope with her depression. I will be happy when my daughter just stops using drugs. As counterintuitive as it seems, happiness is not a destination, nor is it dependent on your daughter’s well-being. The research shows that if I knew everything about your external circumstances (your job, your relationships, etc.), I could only predict your level of happiness with 10% accuracy—meaning the majority of one’s happiness is determined not by their circumstances, but their internal ability to cope and find joy. There are things you can do RIGHT NOW to bring happiness, joy and peace. Notice things that you are grateful for. Take 5-10 minutes to stop and breathe. Do something you enjoy. Take up art or yoga or join a gym or whatever it is that you love doing. Healing does not occur at the same rate as your daughter; you can take the steps towards your own healing while your daughter is still on her own.

Conclusion

One of the most poignant healing moments in Sarah’s journey came towards the end of their time at Sunrise. As Sarah was getting close to graduating the program, we planned an aftercare visit where I came to their home in order to plan for her transition back. Part of the schedule was to do some of Sarah’s trauma work by visiting locations that had been very triggering to her at home. Sarah took us and her parents to the location where she had been assaulted. Naturally, it brought up a lot of emotions for Sarah and her parents— anger, sadness, hurt and eventually peace. Sarah was able to talk about her journey towards peace—to sit in that place and talk about how she knew she was enough and loved—and to share that with her parents. That moment of strength, healing and ultimately connection came as they all did their own work to heal and to grow.