Dear Other Dad –
I’ve been wondering about how parents can safely share their own histories of trauma/abuse without harming their kids. I’m grappling with how my mother shared her history of sexual abuse with me when I was 13, which resulted in me experiencing some trauma as well, especially since it was being shared as a way for me to help her carry the burden of her own unresolved trauma.
How can parents share their difficult pasts without passing on the trauma and responsibility to their kids?
(Photo Credit: Külli Kittus)
The starting point of your question is so loving: You’re trying to think through a difficult situation from the perspective of how best to keep your child healthy, instead of foregrounding your own comfort. You’re beginning with the understanding that when you assume responsibility for a child’s life, your needs don’t always come first. It’s a mature approach to the situation, one which it doesn’t necessarily sound like your mom was able to offer, even as she was loving in her own way.
I reached out to Patrick Teehan, LICSW, a private practice childhood trauma specialist and creator of a YouTube series on toxic family systems. He too appreciates that you’re seeking counsel before diving in. “First, the nature of the question is wonderfully healthy and progressive. Often the generations before us did not do their own reflecting and personal work to even question if boundaries are crossed between parent and child in such discussions. It’s a gift to have parents that are conscious.”
His first suggestion is to not share your trauma story with your child “until they are developmentally age appropriate enough to handle the knowledge that a parent was abused.” You know how traumatizing it was to you to be given knowledge of sexual violence within your family when you were still an early teen; even a child who knows that bad things happen in the world may be affected more deeply by details of specific, close-to-home trauma.
What qualifies as a developmentally - appropriate age? Teehan says 18 is a benchmark for a lot of subjects but urges caution even then with what he terms as “family legacy knowledge” of traumatic subjects. If you have an exceptionally emotionally grounded and intuitive teen, 18 might seem fine or even late; if you have one of those kids whose emotional maturity comes later, perhaps well into their 20’s, 18 might be too soon. While the specific nature of the trauma and your child’s personality will both help you determine a good age for them, certainly young children — preschoolers or those in elementary or middle school — can and should live without carrying the weight of others’ painful pasts.
That’s the issue that you note: Once you tell the story to your child, the burden doesn’t disappear; it simply has a new carrier. Teehan says, “I think we need to reflect on the goal or purpose of sharing our stories. A healthy parent is the teacher and a guide.” If your goal is to educate your child about bodily safety, emotional health, and how to recognize or prevent harm, that can eventually be really valuable.
However, if you’re telling your child so you feel better, ask yourself why they must be your confidante. Therapists, friends, other adult family members — all of these make better repositories for painful information. Perhaps subconsciously, your motivation is more selfish. As Teehan points out, “Dysfunctional parents often share to manipulate by gaining sympathy or loyalty, and to reverse the role, so the child becomes the parent/helper.” You shouldn’t use trauma as a way to bond your child to you or, worse, to make your child take care of you — it’s not their job.
Teehan and I both are childhood trauma survivors and we’re similarly careful to dole out only the practical information about this. My daughter is almost 16; she knows that my dad is an alcoholic (now sober) and that is why I didn’t see him for many years. But she doesn’t know what that looked like in practice when I was a kid; she simply doesn’t need to hear the worst stories. Teehan’s son is ten and Teehan says, “he is aware that he doesn’t see one of his grandparents due to that grandparent not being an emotionally healthy person, but he doesn’t know the details about them nor my own abuse history.”
Consider the details of trauma to be like toxins. When used correctly by a medical professional with an eye toward maximal benefit and minimal harm, poisonous substances can be incredibly valuable and are used to treat everything from cancer to hypertension. But that doesn’t make them safe for casual consumption by a layperson. I’m guessing you’d never carelessly ingest a poison or feed one to your child, because you can too well imagine the terrible results. The same applies here: limiting your child’s exposure to toxicity is one of your tasks as a parent.
When your child is older, they may press you for more details and you can offer then what you feel is manageable and valuable. Ask yourself what takeaway should be for them. I like Teehan’s goal, which is “ teaching about honoring my son’s own boundaries, choosing healthy partners and community, and embracing his own path, voice, values, and dreams.”
For now, you’re doing exactly the right thing by your child: safeguarding their wellness. Someday, when they’re much older, they may come to appreciate that you did.
Editor's Note: 'Your Other Dad Says' is a new weekly advice column for young people and those who love them by David Valdes. Waldes is a Cuban-American playwright and author. He’s written about family, race, and LGBTQ issues for the New York Times, Boston Globe, and HuffPost.