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"Invisible" Trauma: How intergenerational and historical trauma has affected parenting.

This is Part TWO in a four part trauma series. You can view Part ONE here.

"When caregivers consistently attune to a baby’s needs, neural networks are built in the brain that support the development of communication and social skills. When there is consistent misattunement, a baby lives in a state of constant stress due to unmet needs creating significant emotional and physiological issues. This is why I believe misattunement is an invisible ACE (Adverse Childhood Experience).” - Suzie Gruber

Next year I will be celebrating 20 years in Early Childhood Education.

Looking back on my teaching career I can count on one hand the amount of times I have felt emotionally overwhelmed by a child - that’s not very many. As a new teacher there were definitely a few occasions where I felt completely out of my depth, but those moments were more due to a lack of support, large child numbers, and unrealistic expectations rather than a specific child or behaviour. I would pride myself in my ability to stay calm and connected while supporting each child, no matter what challenges they were facing.

Then I became a parent. Those feelings of being out of my depth shifted from a few moments in my past, to something I was experiencing nearly everyday. How could I find one child, my child, more challenging than a large group of others? I wanted to be the best possible parent I could be, the best version of myself, but something was getting in the way and I didn’t know what it was.

In my mind, what I did know was the sort of parent I wanted to be. I envisioned the perfect relationship. I was the calm and present parent. My children and I would have a beautiful partnership and our lives would be filled with happy days and all good things. I intended on being a gentle parent, a calm parent, an empathetic parent, an understanding parent, a RESPONSIVE parent. But instead I found myself reacting. Sometimes to the littlest things. I just couldn’t comprehend why I could be everything I wanted to be with every other child except my own. Why was being a parent so much harder than being a teacher?

Before I became a parent I had built this picture in my head. Then once I had children that picture seemed to fade and in it’s place I was watching a re-run of my own childhood. In those moments when I felt overwhelmed I found myself considering things I never thought would have even crossed my mind. It was like all those years of teacher training had vanished and I had reverting back to the ways the adults in my life had reacted to me as a child. An odd feeling of being stuck between two worlds - the past and the future. I was stuck between what I had experienced and where I wanted us to be.

When I stood back I could see a need for control and obedience that just wasn’t me. Impatience, dominance, demands and disrespect bubbled to the surface and it made me cringe. But if it wasn’t me then who was it, what was going on and where did all this come from?

To find the answers I thought I needed to look back into the past. I reflected on my childhood, the adults in my life and their parenting or teaching styles. I searched books, explored the internet and even re-watched some old movies.

The strange thing is, I loved my childhood, my parents were amazing and as kids we had everything we needed. We had family support, a comfortable income and lived in a safe community. Thinking back though the parenting style of my parents is very different to my own. In fact the parenting style of my grandparents, and my great grandparents was too. But as a child all the adults that I knew approached children in the same way - my friends parents were the same, my teachers and even adults I didn't know. I grew up in a very authoritarian culture but for that time period it was seen as “normal”.

To this day it still puzzles me how nearly every person on the planet grows up to be a parent,

yet no one is taught HOW to be a parent.

What I have come to realise is that every parent wants to do the very best for their children and this often means turning to friends, family and even “professionals” for advice and in some cases you end up receiving advice that you don’t even want. Unfortunately though, over the years well meaning people have passed on some pretty poor advice.

The History of Poor Advice

There is a long history of bad advice and poor practice that dates back to ancient times. I journeyed through the evolution of parenting and the insanities of early parenting books, from cold baths, washing your baby with lard and brandy head washes to scheduling bowl movements, potty training almost immediately after birth, hanging children outside apartment windows in small cages, ignoring cries and not kissing or hugging. Popular advice for the time, which promoted emotional and physical neglect, isolation, abuse and the withdrawal of affection ultimately leading to inevitable trauma.

There weren’t very many parenting tips on offer back in the 1800's or before. Religion took care of moral values and wealthy parents hired staff to look after their children, while poor parents sent their children off to work. Parents were advised that women who were immoral, bad-tempered would produce bad breastmilk and in a 1877 book, Advice to a Wife, mothers were informed not to nurse for too long because once the baby was past 9 months of age, nursing could cause "brain disease" in babies and blindness in mothers.

In the early 1900’s new mothers were told to ignore their most fundamental instincts and avoid holding their infant at all unless they were feeding their baby, changing a diaper, or otherwise providing the very basic care. Behaviourist John Watson wrote the book Psychological Care of Infant and Child in 1928 and warned against the inevitable dangers of a mother providing too much love and affection, stating that holding babies too much would spoil them and instructed parents to "never hug and kiss them or let them sit on your lap”. Although Watson wrote extensively on "child-rearing" in many popular magazines and in his book, he later regretted what he had written, saying that he "did not know enough" to do a good job. Yet Watson's views gained alot of attention, were accepted as valuable and his words have rippled through time with some still believing that it is possible to "spoil a baby".

Unfortunately this kind of parenting advice is not limited to the early 1900’s. Many early books speak of children not as humans but as objects or possessions capable of manipulation. As “things” that we should avoid giving any kind of attention to, “things” that need to be scheduled, controlled and punished.

Lena and William Sadler co-authored a book The Mother and her Child, published in 1916 which states that "Babies, especially new-born babies, need just four things: warmth, food, water, and sleep" and suggests that parents "handle the baby as little as possible. Turn it occasionally from side to side, feed it, change it, keep it warm, and let it alone; crying is absolutely essential to the development of good strong lungs. A baby should cry vigorously several times each day”. It also explains that babies sometimes cry so hard that they get black in the face and may even have a convulsion or rupture a small blood vessel. In this situation they advise parent to "turn it over and administer a sound spanking".

Sir Frederic Truby King, generally known as Truby King, was a New Zealand health reformer and Director of Child Welfare. He is best known as the founder of the Plunket Society which was established in 1907. King's methods to teach mothers domestic hygiene and childcare were strongly promoted through his first book Feeding and Care of Baby, and via a network of specially trained Karitane Nurses and a widely syndicated newspaper column. King was the spokesman for so called enforcement parenting which excited controversy during his efforts to export his methods to Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom. These methods specifically emphasised scheduled feeding, sleeping and bowel movements and a generally strict regimen which was supposed to build character through leaving children outside in the garden to toughen them up, and avoiding or capping cuddling and giving attention to only 10 minutes.

Gary Ezzo and Robert Bucknams book On Becoming Baby Wise: Giving Your Infant the Gift of Nighttime Sleep is a Christianity-based infant management book published in 1993. The American Academy of Pediatrics warned against the book, stating that its advice surrounding schedules could result in infant development problems such as dehydration, poor weight gain, slow growth, delayed development and failure to thrive, as well as lack of milk supply in the new mother and involuntary weaning of the infant. The book implies that newborns are manipulative and not deserving of attention and responsiveness. Yet this book went on to be republished in 1995 and further editions of the book were published in 1998, 2001 and 2007.

Michael and Debi Pearl published To Train Up A Child in 1994. The book advises parents use objects like a quarter-inch plumbing tube to spank children in order to "break their will”, after which the tubing is to be worn around the parents neck as a reminder. It also mentions withholding food and putting children under a cold garden hose. This book advocates the use of severe corporal punishment and even starvation as a means of training children to be wholly submissive. As a result the deaths of three children have been attributed to use of the Pearls’ book. Michael Pearl claims that his book (which advocates child abuse) has sold more than 670,000 copies. There was a petition asking Amazon to stop selling To Train Up A Child and similar books such as Shepherding a Child's Heart by Tedd Tripp; and Don't Make Me Count to Three by Ginger Hubbard that advocate corporal punishment but sadly the book is still available for purchase and is commonly given out in some churches and sent for free to military families in the US.

In Shepherding A Childs Heart (1995), Tripp encourages parents to force their children to submit and obey through spanking. Parents are viewed as the authority in charge of the child’s life and hold no ownership over their actions because it is Gods will that they do so. Tripp believes that a “properly administered spanking is not abusive” but because society believes otherwise it should be administer in the privacy of the home. Tripp writes that “the rod demonstrates parental love” and recommends his methods for all ages even young babies struggling against a diaper change.

Gina Hubbard (formally Plowman) published her book Don't Make Me Count to Three in 2003. A reviewer for Hubbard's book Stephanie Sheafferbrings brings our attention to the cover of Don't Make Me Count To Three which pictures a little girl with her arms crossed stubbornly. Her mother is leaning over her intimidatingly with a spoon and a bottle of laxative, as if to say that she is going to administer it to her daughter if she refuses to comply. As a parental recommendation like Tripp, Hubbard "ffers spanking as the premier and sole discipline strategy for babies and children. She writes, “To say, ‘I don’t believe in spanking’ is to say that God’s ordained methods for child training are wrong. It is to reject God’s word. It is to say you are wiser than God himself.” When asked how old a child should be to be spanked, she states, “I’ve had moms ask me when it is okay to slap their baby’s hand for disobeying and touching something that is off-limits. The answer should be obvious. When they disobey and touch something that is off limits. If they are old enough to disobey, then they are old enough to be trained to obey.” She advises parents to, “use an instrument with a little flex so that it stings without bruising.” Sadly there are 266 pages of reviews for this book on and a majority of them are 5 star.

In John Rosemond's 1994 book To Spank Or Not To Spank he writes “If a child is old enough to defy you, then he’s old enough to be spanked” and speaks of spanking, taking away privileges, sending children to bed early, confining them in isolation and banishing children to their rooms for the rest of the day. Rosemond received criticism as his advice was inaccurate and contradicted other parenting experts' recommendations as well as official evidence-based policy yet having authored 15 books on parenting and featuring in 225 newspapers his ideas on authoritarian parenting were wide spread.

Then we have Tizzie Hall’s book Save Our Sleep first published in 2006. With nearly 40,000 followers on facebook and a “Save our Sleep” support group of just over 3,000 members implementing the Save our Sleep recommendations and advice. I have read countless reviews of this book and it’s promotion of strict schedules, not responding to baby’s needs, and viewing children as manipulative. This book recommends that if your baby is screaming for you so much in the night that he/she ends up vomiting from stress you should not respond or comfort your child instead you need to “vomit-proof” the bed so that you can remove the bedding without making eye-contact. This advice extends into toddlerhood. In one review it states that the recommendation provided for a toddler who vomited and soiled himself from getting so upset, was to change the sheets then let him fall asleep crying in his soiled nappy so he didn’t learn to have a bowel motion in order to get attention from the parent.

These books are just a few of the horrendous publications that have been educating parents around the world and I haven’t even begun to mention content found in other media such as movies, the advice given by hospitals (see image below) or common practice in early schools. Although some of these teachings and messages may have been subtle or not completely agreed with, they have influenced our beliefs in regards to children and the role of the parent. Published parenting advice that is widely distributed not only influences individual beliefs but shapes societies “normal”.

Instructions For Mothers 1968 - Micala Gabrielle Henson

Even as late as 2016 there was controversy over whether or not parents should be kissing their children on the lips after a photo of Victoria Beckham kissing her daughter went viral. The debate led to child psychologist Dr. Charlotte Reznick giving her professional opinion about the picture stating “If you start kissing your kids on the lips, when do you stop?” She believes that parents shouldn’t start kissing their children’s lips because it can become sexually confusing. Thankfully other psychologists put forth their disagreement.

Our parents, our parents-parents and our parents-parents-parents all tried to do their absolute best for us. But they were taught that to be good parents they had to have power and control over their children. It’s easy enough for us to look back at the ridiculous advice given and think we would have never done or not done that but for those challenging the current “normal” in order to follow their hearts, walking our own path and doing things our own way becomes an act of rebellion.

Parenting styles vary by historical time period, culture, race/ethnicity, social class, and income. However, parenting is evolving; People are waking up, times, cultural practices, social norms, and traditions are changing.

Many individuals are working hard to heal from adverse childhood experiences and as more and more people discover that they have symptoms of trauma that they can’t explain we have to ask ourselves; How is it possible that experiences that we don’t remember can have an effect on us? How is it possible that individuals can experience the symptoms of trauma without the knowledge of experiencing a traumatic experience itself? Or without experiencing it directly in their lifetime?

Researchers have discovered evidence that children are affected by early trauma that they are not consciously aware of and also by their parents exposure to trauma occurring before their birth, possibly even prior to their conception. It is all due to the astounding capabilities of our incredible minds and amazing bodies.

Memory; What happens in childhood, doesn't stay in childhood!

Some people describe memory as a library filled with books. Each book contains our own personal experiences. Others explain memory like video recordings or a jigsaw puzzle with all our experiences and memories linked together to make up who we are.

I envision the mind more like a computer with millions of files or memories stored within it. Our present experience triggers us to recall or “search” for associations or traces of past experiences in order to determine our best course of action.

“The human brain is an amazing organ which acts to sense, process, perceive, store (create memories) and act on information from the internal and external environment to promote survival.” - Bruce D. Perry

All of our experiences going all the way back to conception are encoded and stored in the brain. We can think of it like a massive hard drive filled with memories, some of which we have no conscious awareness of - and those memories influence our behaviour.

“No other biological system has developed a more sophisticated capacity to make and store internal representations of the external world – and the internal world – than the human central nervous system, the human brain. All nerve cells ‘store’ information…The ability to carry elements of previous experience forward in time is the basis of the immune, the neuromuscular, and neuroendocrine systems. Through complex physiological processes, elements of experience can even be carried across generations. Elements of the collective experience of the species are reflected in the genome, while the experience of the individual is reflected in the expression of that genome.” Bruce D. Perry

It is the experiences of early childhood that create the foundational organisation of neural systems that will be used for a lifetime. When we become parents our brains “replay” a pattern of neural activity that was originally generated in response to a particular childhood event, echoing the brain’s perception of the real event. These echos trigger thoughts, feelings, sensations and memories within us that (without conscious effort) we can struggle to control. This is why we can intend to BE one way, but find ourselves saying and doing something else.

We repeat what we don’t repair.

Choosing to be a gentle parent is not as simple as many people think. It takes alot of time and patience to raise our awareness and to consciously choose everyday, in every moment to do things differently. But in the end it will be worth it. The pain and trauma caused through fear based parenting styles will continue, until each of us is ready to heal it within ourselves. It's not easy breaking generational patterns, but it does get easier. Layer by layer you strip away the hurt until all that's left is love, and underneath all those layers you'll find yourself once again.

Be the person who breaks the cycle!

Continue reading Part THREE - Healing

About the author

Jen has been an educator for nearly 2 decades.

She holds a Bachelors Degree in Applied Social Science and Early Childhood Education.

She is a Mental Health First Aider and certified Mindfulness Instructor.

Jen is the founder of LovePedagogy. A platform established to support, guide and inspire heart centred parents and educators.

LovePedagogy is the philosophy that we teach children more through who we are, than through what we do, so it is our role to be the best adults we can be. The foundations of this are love, personal growth, healing, mindfulness, reflective practice, listening to your inner voice and self-care.


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