Hurt People Will Hurt People. But Healed People Heal People, Too.
What happens when parents manage their own trauma and focus on themselves
I never imagined my first few weeks of graduate school would feel like a sucker punch to the gut. Not because my paper-writing skills are lackluster or my teachers are awful — I’m getting good grades and I think of my instructors as wise, endearing, quirky aunts.
I’m in a Master of Social Work program, and during each class, in some way, it all comes back to trauma. We discuss trauma at length — the ways it shapes how we grow, act, think, and feel as humans. Trauma is the hammer to our nail. Sometimes it hits us just right so we learn something helpful, grow from it, and connect one important thing to another. Other times trauma hits us at an edge, or pokes us sideways, and we become bent out of shape and barely useful. And sometimes, trauma breaks us completely.
There’s no getting away from trauma; it happens to everyone. And there’s no getting around the fact that our original caretakers are responsible for our first, most significant experiences with trauma.
This is why I’ve felt defensive in some of my classes. This is why my foot is tapping under the desk. This is why I’ve taken a break from my weekly readings to cry.
I am someone’s original caretaker. As a mother, I care for humans who will model themselves after me, try to do everything in their power to be the opposite of me, and perhaps one day go to therapy because of me.
I am responsible for these two, innocent humans and their first experiences with trauma. And that is a tremendous weight to bear.
I was the one responsible for the chemicals and nutrients that entered their tiny brains in utero. I was the one holding them when they screamed at 2 a.m. while I frantically searched for lost pacifiers under their cribs. I am also the one who makes their breakfast, and has a once-per-month breakdown when they have to be asked four times to come to the bleepity-bleep table.
I am responsible for these two innocent humans, and their first experiences with trauma. And that is a tremendous weight to bear.
Especially when I see them struggling. Or sick. Or sad, or angry, or afraid. I have to ignore a thousand burning questions in my head so I can stay present, focused on them, and attuned to what they’re feeling:
Is this because I took anti-nausea meds when I was pregnant?
Is this because I let you cry yourself to sleep?
Is this because I forced you to put your coat on instead of trusting your knowledge of your own body when you told me you weren’t cold?
Is this because I lost my temper that time on vacation?
Is this because I divorced your dad?
I’ve never regretted bringing my children into the world, not even for a minute. But I’ve spent half a lifetime regretting the minutes I didn’t protect them, value them, and treat them better.
They deserve better than what I’ve been able to give them. And if I let it, that thought alone could pound me into a bent, broken piece of useless metal.
Here’s the one thing I do that keeps parenting anxiety at bay: I focus on myself. It’s counterintuitive, but it’s helped me be the kind of mother I can not just live with, not just accept for who she is, but actually love and respect.
I used to shrink back from that oft-repeated phrase, “hurt people hurt people.” I was hurt by my original caretakers. Does that mean I will hurt my children, too? Does that mean they will struggle like I did, and complete the pretty circle by inflicting trauma on their own children?
The answer is yes. All of us will hurt our children in some way, to some degree. Some of us will do a lot more to hurt them than others. And some of our children will never recover.
But there’s another piece of that lesson we sometimes forget. And it’s why I’m choosing to focus on myself, instead of getting swallowed up by anxiety: Healed people heal people.
I don’t need to be a self-fulfilling prophecy, doomed to repeat the mistakes of my parents. I also don’t need to be the “bad mom” I so desperately don’t want to be.
I can choose to be a mindful parent who works hard to reduce the damage by staying calm, collected, and connected to the things that are most important.
I can choose to be a truth-telling parent who chooses vulnerability instead of hiding her flaws or masking her insecurities.
I can choose to be a responsible parent who makes therapy and centering practices and self-care a regular part of her life — not just a lifesaver thrown into the ocean to keep us all from drowning.
Instead of getting lost in shame and guilt or hopeful denial, I can offer a meaningful apology and work hard to make amends.
I can choose to be a grace-giving parent who accepts humble apologies… and, sometimes, crappy ones too. In a gritted-teeth moment, I can talk myself into remembering that growing up is a process and that empathy is a skill. My job as a parent is to be empathetic, and behave in grown-up ways so my kids will know what that looks like.
I can choose to be a humble parent who owns up to how she has inflicted hurt. But instead of getting lost in shame and guilt or hopeful denial, I can offer a meaningful apology and work hard to make amends.
As a child, I didn’t get to choose what kind of trauma would be inflicted on me, or how much, or who would or would not take responsibility for it. But now the choice is fully up to me to be the kind of parent who strives for healing, and brings that experience, rather than the traumatic one, into my own home.