Working with parents in a trauma informed way

Parents suffering the impact of childhood or even adult trauma can be hard to work with. The parents can come across as angry, aggressive, not present and uncaring. There is a lot of push and pull in these relationships. They want your help, and then they are pushing you away in what could look like an overreaction.   

Trauma could be from physical or mental abuse, neglect, or coming from a home where they witnessed domestic abuse, drug abuse, alcoholism, death of a parent. Those who have experienced more than three types of trauma are likely to struggle later in life and are more likely to do poorly in school and suffer from mental health problems and other illnesses.    

Sheila works as a young parent practitioner at St Michael’s.

How does she help parents who have experienced trauma? What does she do when someone verbally abuses her one minute and asks for help the next?   

“In my truth, it’s bigger than us. We try to work in a way that tries not to retraumatise parents, but we are only part of their story. We set clear boundaries – always reminding our clients of them and reinforcing when appropriate. Our clients know that working with us is their choice and the support they receive from us is dependent on what they present.”   

History repeating    

“I have worked with one of our parents since she was pregnant – you can see there is hurt.”  

“The events in her life has seeped into how we work together – informing our relationship. It is because she trusts I have her child and her best interest in mind when working together that strengthens our relationship. It has taken many years for her to realise, then share events that have affected her behaviour. This allows me to now say ‘why do you think you are doing that? Why do you think you are feeling like that? Why do you feel that that is important right now?'”  

“I help her to reflect and recognise where these reactions are coming from. It’s often coming from a place of hurt. I have watched this journey; I have pulled things out for her to see, but the hurt is still there.   

“She now recognises some of her reactions are because of her hurt or trauma but more work needs to be done. She is now seeing some of what she went through being played out in the child’s own life, and the mum is in tears because it feels as if it is history repeating and feels she can’t stop it.   

Questions I am asking to make this better   

So, I am trying to bring her to the present and see how she can change things for her child. “What can we do to stop this? If you can feel it, if you can see it, you can try and do something about it. So, if you can think back to when you were a child; what you wanted to help you get through it, let’s put that in place for your child.”   

“Can we pre-empt the next move – what is that child going to do next, what do you think your child is feeling, what can we do to shift and change things? What diversions can we put in place there? Something to soften the damage or remove it.   

Thankfully this parent has engaged in counselling and other therapeutic services to help deal with her past and present trauma.   

It’s a lot to deal with emotionally for a professional too – How do you work in a trauma-informed way to protect yourself?   

“Thankfully, as colleagues, we regularly speak to each other about our cases for support and reflection. I am doing reflective practice constantly to avoid taking things personally. I am aware of how to respond to the needs of a client and conscious of possible triggers that could make me to react negatively.”   

“When my client found out her child was being removed, oh my, how I was assaulted verbally. She was so mad at me, so, so, so angry. She was crying and saying all these things she was going to do to me. And I was like. ‘No, you are not.’ Then I thought, no, Sheila let her talk. This needs to come off of her chest because who wouldn’t be angry? Especially knowing that it was me, that caused the whole thing to erupt. I was the one. I am the right person to be angry at right now. Because you cannot blame yourself, you can’t.”   

Oh, how I was assaulted verbally, but I listened   

“At that moment, I had to use my reflective process – this is not about me. This is about what is going on for you right now, having to go through this grieving process. I took the approach of just listening, letting her sound off and not chasing her down to check on her or get an apology. I just answered the call when she called again, “Hi how are you?” – and we carried on. I got some more texts which were like – this is your fault, but I was there again I was checking in to make sure she was alright. Now she wants me at every meeting she wants me to come and sit with her, she wants me. She will call me just to let me know how her day has been. In the moment, you have to remember this is not personal.”   

Constantly being reflective, “this is not about me.”   

“I was with a client yesterday, a different one, and she reacted to me in a way that could be seen as ‘very rude’. I had to gather myself because my reaction in the moment was – ‘who the hell do you think you are speaking to. I am out there trying to help you!” (This all happened in my head). I thought – I am not going to chase after you, and every behaviour has a consequence. I can understand that you are going through stuff, but I do not have to chase after abuse. She obviously needs time, and I will allow that.”  

So, she walked off and didn’t answer the phone when I called. She called me this morning – like nothing had happened – asking if we were meeting. I didn’t want her to just walk around what had happened yesterday like that. I thought it best to talk about it, and then we could move on.” We spoke, and she acknowledged that she was having a moment and apologised. In her reflection, she accepted that her reaction to my statement was because of what she was going through rather than what I had said. We can now keep it moving…   

It’s a testament to our Outreach team’s relationship building that we manage to build strong positive relationships with young women who look like a nightmare on a referral form. They’re helping these mums understand why they are reacting in a particular way.   

Here is more information about our young parent’s outreach team and our trauma-informed work.