First, let me say that trauma survivors can be among the most loving and active parents I work with as a pediatric occupational therapist.
How do I know they are survivors? Some parents share their histories openly, and some aren’t aware of what their actions and words reveal. Occupational therapists that have worked in psychiatry are particularly attuned to patterns of behavior that suggest a history of trauma. And after therapy has gone on for a while and the therapeutic relationship blossoms, some parents wish to share more of their personal story with me.
Trauma survivors that had complicated pregnancies Can The Parents of Pediatric Clients Have PTSD? , have children with genetic disorders, or deliver children who develop developmental delays, come in all ages and social/support situations. Some currently have a psychotherapist for support, and some have done a tremendous amount of therapy in the past. Others may not even recognize that what they experienced in the past was traumatic, or that there is specialized help for trauma-related issues.
What they all have in common is the (mostly) sudden stressor of having a child with special needs, the seemingly endless daily demands of care, and the constant seeking/managing of medical, educational and therapy services. Survivors of trauma may not realize that they aren’t alone with their feelings of distress, or that their child’s therapists can help them cope.
I wrote a post on how therapists can help a child’s siblings, How an Occupational Therapist Can Help The Siblings of Special Needs Children , but parents with trauma backgrounds can ask for and receive support from their child’s therapists as well:
The simplest way therapists can help you is to validate the real demands of care and give you some perspective on what other family’s lives are really like. We are aware that we are asking parents to do home programs and obtain equipment and toys that facilitate development. We also know that life is messy, and it is OK if you admit that you find it hard just getting through the day. You can ask us if other parents go through the same things that you do, and you will find out that you might be doing more than we expect.
If you are having a rough period, ask us to give you just the ONE thing that would be the easiest to incorporate into your day that would help your child this week. We won’t be offended. You might be surprised to find that we know what those days/weeks/months feel like too.
Some parents who are trauma survivors are less likely to ask for a review or clarification of a technique or treatment when therapists give them instructions. This can come from fearing criticism, having been taught not to question authorities, feeling judged by therapists they perceive as punitive authorities, and even being dissociative during their child’s therapy session. “Spacing out”, forgetting, being confused, etc. are all possible dissociative responses. Parents who are reliving a NICU nightmare or who are triggered and recall their own medical trauma or physical abuse may have a lot of difficulty learning to do treatments on their child that involve any level of restraint or distress. This can be managed, but only if it is addressed.
Your child’s therapists have many different ways of holding and positioning a child, and different ways of administering a treatment technique. You can express your discomfort in general terms or you can tell us that this is a trigger for you, and you can ask us to make things easier for you without having to tell your own story. Asking for a few reviews of home programs is seen by most therapists as indicating interest in what we do. We aren’t offended; we are flattered.
Some parents need to be out of the treatment room during a session for their own comfort, and that is also OK. We like to share your child’s progress, and we welcome you into the session, but we understand if you need to have some distance. Scheduling treatment at your child’s school or in a therapy center, rather than at home, may be easier for you. Your child will still receive excellent treatment.
Trauma survivors can be extremely distressed when their child cries in therapy, or even while witnessing their child struggle to learn new skills. This can bring up distressing childhood memories for them, some of which they may not fully recall or even connect with their responses to their child’s therapy session.
Therapists can be healing models for actively managing a child’s distress and expressing how they handle their own feelings when children struggle. A parent that grew up in a punitive home may not have seen adults model healthy reactions to a child’s distress.
Therapists can teach you their techniques for grading challenge and providing support that reduces your child’s level of agitation. My favorite book to learn how to respond to young children warmly but with limits is The Happiest Toddler on the Block by Dr. Harvey Karp. His techniques support healthy attachment and children respond much more quickly than parents expect. Everyone feels better, not just the kids! Read Teaching Children Emotional Regulation: Can Happiest Toddler on the Block Help Kids AND Adults? for more on this amazing program and how it can help both of you. Today.
Some of the OT treatments that help children also can help their parents with regulation issues and/or trauma histories. Read Should the PARENTS of Kids With Sensory Issues Use Quickshifts? about one easy treatment to develop a wider window of tolerance that works well for both children and adults.
UPDATE: I was a speaker at the Healing Together conference in Orlando FL this month (Feb.2020). It was an amazing gathering for adults with dissociative disorders, their loved one/supporters and clinicians. I highly recommend this conference to parents who are trauma survivors that struggle with dissociation.