Like flu, trauma can be highly contagious for parents and carers living and dealing with traumatised children.
Just like a person with flu can sneeze and spread the virus throughout the room, children with trauma can spread it into the entire family system. This can cause secondary trauma and is hardest on the parents who deal daily with their child’s trauma. Strong emotions are contagious, and we know how stressful it can be for parents dealing with them.
With an airplane oxygen mask, you are told to first put on your own mask before your child’s. Why? If you pass out, then both you and your child are at risk. Same thing with trauma, You must take care of Yourself, before you deal with your child. If you do not protect yourself, you are both at risk.
Parents need to understand emotional contagion can be controlled if they have enough information and understanding. Too often, we see parents suffer from sleeping and eating issues because of their pre-occupation with their child’s trauma. They often cannot see it’s becoming theirs as well. This happens through mirroring, a parallel process where the parent soaks up the anxiety of their child. The child, in turn, worries about something bad happening with this parent as it did before. The parent is worried the school, or another parent will call them with the next manifestation of their child’s trauma. The higher the parent’s anxiety, this then affects the child’s anxiety, and it becomes a highly negative cycle.
Too often, we see parents suffer from sleeping and eating issues because of their pre-occupation with their child’s trauma. They often cannot see it’s becoming theirs as well.
We explain this to the parent and help them understand this is a normal reaction to living with a traumatised child. Parents beat themselves up thinking they are horrible. They often feel blamed by their family offering ‘helpful’ tips on how to change behaviours, “just do this or do that” and… best of all, “they are just going through a phase” (when they have no idea what serious trauma is or does).
Because they are good, caring parents, they inadvertently soak up some of their child’s pain and trauma. The higher their level of empathy, the more they become at risk of experiencing this secondary trauma.
And the real reason? Parenting a traumatised child is difficult.
The overall effect of encountering their child’s big feelings and emotions can be shocking and problematic. If their child externalises these behaviours, the parent picks up the emotions and also might feel anxious and/or angry. Parents can try to block it, but it is part of the process of living with a traumatised child.
We help them see their traumatised child needs ‘over and above’ parenting. They need therapeutic parenting. And it is really, really tough.
We help parents take care of themselves and understand it’s not their fault. They are not alone. We help them understand how mirror neurons in their child’s brain work and how to protect themselves first… which then ultimately better protects their child.