by Frances Rae
In the five and a half years that she’s been alive, I’ve been saying that the older my daughter gets, the easier it is to parent her. She’s constantly developing more cognitive abilities to rationalize and socialize and become more independent. Aside from things like the fact that now she can fix herself a snack or a simple meal, dress herself, and play alone for short periods of time, we can also have much more calm and respectful conversations when we disagree on things like bedtime, how much candy to eat, how long we can stay at the park, etc.
Naturally, with her being five, we still encounter our share of unresolvable disagreements and strong emotions. Hell, I think those are fair things to expect from people of any age. But since she is five, she doesn’t have all the skills yet to deal with those things constructively, and my job as her parent is to help her learn those skills, both by modelling them and responding to her in healthy ways. As any parent does, I often struggle to remain calm during those moments and try my best to be compassionate and understanding.
The most difficult thing for me in those situations is how much my daughter’s response to anger and frustration and disappointment mirrors the behaviour of adults* with whom I have been in abusive relationships in the past. We were having a pleasant conversation and then suddenly they’re angry. Suddenly they’re screaming at me. Suddenly they’re throwing things at me and hitting me. Suddenly everything is my fault and I’m a bad person for allowing this to happen… to THEM.
(*adults she has never met, to be clear)
What I’m concerned with is how it can be not just difficult but actually retraumatizing for a parent who has experienced trauma and abuse to be in a position of having to care for and be responsible for a person who is not respecting your boundaries.
We have a rule in our house (which I personally think should be universal for people of all ages and relationships because it’s literally just basic consent) that you’re not allowed to touch someone without asking first, they’re always allowed to say no, and you have to stop when they say stop. When a child is having a tantrum, obviously any sense of rules and acceptable behaviour can fly out the window pretty quickly, and this is absolutely par for the course and entirely not their fault. Unfortunately, this often triggers flashbacks for me of times when the person acting that way was not a child who has yet to learn how to reign in their anger, but another adult whom I loved and wanted to please, who controlled my access to affection and stability, and also of whom I was afraid and from whom I wanted to escape. When an adult is abusive toward a romantic partner, often they are expressing the uncontrolled anger similar to a child having a tantrum, but are in the position of power similar to a parent.
It is so frightening to be the parent, where all of those vulnerabilities in another person are my responsibility, and feeling the memories of trauma telling me that I’m the one who is vulnerable in this moment. My mind is telling me I need to hide or leave, but I also need to ensure that my daughter is safe. This is another thing that eerily mirrors abusive partnerships: feeling like I am responsible for another person’s feelings and having to be the one to take care of them, cater to them and tiptoe around them until I’m sure they’re calm again.
I’m definitely not saying my daughter is abusive. She’s five, and acts like every five year old I’ve ever encountered, including the five year old I remember being. Tantrums are never easy, but as she’s gotten older they’ve gotten more difficult for me because I feel like I should have found a way by now to have taught her better or reason them out of her, much like I always felt I should have learned better how to not trigger my partners’ anger in ways that made them lash out at me.
I don’t have any answers yet, and I don’t know if I ever will. I just try to keep reminding myself that it’s not my fault. I’m not a bad parent, just like I wasn’t a bad partner. My daughter will grow up and learn at her own pace how to deal with big emotions. I also try to remind myself that she feels comfortable expressing her anger at me because she knows I am a safe and stable part of her life. I’m glad she’s not afraid of me and she knows I will love her no matter how she treats me at any given moment.
I also just wanted to acknowledge out loud that this is a real thing, a difficult thing, and a thing it seems to be pretty hard to find anyone talking about. I tried to find resources for parents dealing with trauma, but everything I came across was for parenting a child who has experienced trauma. I want to remind myself that I am important, too. Saying something like “parenting is kind of like being in an abusive relationship” is probably not a super popular sentiment, but it’s undeniable that parenting is a relationship, and relationships are about more than one person. I’m here, too.