Powerlessness is one of the most damaging emotions coming from a childhood of complex trauma. It is the foundation of depression. It keeps us paralyzed.
And if we don’t recognize it for what it is, it can lead to suicidal ideation and even suicide attempts. The message behind powerlessness is simple. “What’s the point? The world is against me. Nothing I could ever do will make a difference.” And while the message is simple, the effect is not. It is a complex web of challenges which most people never fully unravel.
There is no place in life where powerlessness can affect us more than parenting. Why? Traumatic powerlessness is triggered when bad things happen. And bad things happen all the time in life. But in parenting, bad things happen ALL the time. What do I mean by bad things? To a parent with complex trauma, that can be almost anything. A child gets sick. You get sick. You both get sick simultaneously. They bring home a bad grade. They have a fight with their best friend. They hate what you made for dinner. When we are grounded, we can agree these are just things that happen. Almost all parents experience these bad things. But to our traumatized inner parts, it triggers the following conversation:
“These things must be happening because I am not good enough. These things are my fault. I should have tried harder. I didn’t do enough to stop it. I am failing as a parent. No matter what I do, I won’t be able to stop the bad things. I am being victimized by the universe. My kids are doomed to live a horrible life. I might as well not be here.”
Does this sound familiar? I am writing this after a trip to KidMed (emergency room for kids) for my son’s hurt foot (not broken) and a night wondering when the first of my two kids was going to throw up (finally happened in the morning). And during the night, I spent at least an hour blaming myself for my children falling behind in violin class. So honestly, the conversation above is very fresh. It is exactly what ran through my mind at various points throughout the night.
But we don’t have to live in this place of powerlessness as parents. As a matter of a fact, we can’t. Our children are looking to us to show resilience in the face of bad things. That is how they learn to cope with them. So we have to counter the conversation with a different perspective. Let me give you some examples.
- It’s my fault. My first thought when my son hurt his foot was self-blame. My son has a tendency to put shoes on the wrong feet. He does it very infrequently now, but he did it all the time as a toddler. He would fight me on it. He would tell me it felt better that way. I decided a long time ago I wouldn’t fight him on it. It was one of the first battles I stopped fighting. He needed to control something, anything, and I could give it to him. But it isn’t okay when he is playing sports. And he almost never does it at this point. I could still hear myself blaming the injury on my leniency. But I know something else. If I had pushed him on the shoe thing when he was younger, he would have done it more. This was a fairly isolated incident, but if I had pushed, it would still be his norm.
- I am being punished. I have a trip planned for Universal in less than two weeks. I had many inner battles when planning this trip, but one of the broken record messages was about how I am not allowed to do fun things, especially when they cost money. While I was sitting at KidMed, I could not help but think of us trying to walk through Universal with a kid on crutches. I heard that message from within. “This is because I tried to do something fun.” But I know something else. I am allowed to have fun. My kids are allowed to have fun. It doesn’t matter what the abusers told me. I can live a full life. His foot is not broken and will be fine in two weeks. But even if it wasn’t, it would not be punishment.
- My kids are going to be messed up like me. The violin situation has really spurred this one. They are falling behind because I am not paying attention. They are falling behind because I can’t read music. They are falling behind because they have some anxiety and don’t always focus. And that anxiety came from me. “No matter how hard I work to get well and parent well, they are going to be messed up.” But I know something else. Being a kid is hard and all kids aren’t good at all things. That said, I can increase my attention to their practice and they will cut less corners as all kids do when parents are listening. And every kid on the planet is anxious to some degree. Let’s face it. Being a kid is hard and scary even with good parents. And they all show it differently. I know my kids are fine.
Powerlessness in parenting can lead us down some dark roads in the mind. There is nothing like children to trigger these thoughts. But we can bring awareness to these thoughts. We can allow ourselves to consider other realities. We can remind ourselves that we aren’t powerless like we were as children in traumatic environments. We can make changes that make a difference. It might not be the huge immediate difference we want, but it will make a difference. Every child on the planet is here to overcome something. They will feel pain on their journey. They will experience bad things. And they are generally not your fault. But if they see you handle bad things in an empowered way, they will learn from your example and they will flourish.
** If you are looking for guidance about how to shift your parenting out of powerlessness, take a look at my parenting offerings and let me guide you.
Written By Elisabeth Corey, MSW