Healing Childhood Trauma

This was originally published on Medium as "I survived the childhood trauma of being a Chinese immigrant — here’s what I wish I knew before having children of my own"

I think most people who had the childhood I experienced would choose not to have children. Now before you think that’s a harsh or extreme statement, let me just say, I realize most people do not have perfect or ideal childhoods. Why? Because we live in an imperfect world, and we’re shaped and raised by imperfect people. Being in a first-world North American country already puts me at an advantage compared with so many prospective mothers around the world who need to worry about safety and access to healthcare and education. So why am I thinking this way?

Let me go back to the beginning. As a result of the “one-child policy,” I spent my early years in China in the late 80s, where I was raised largely by my grandparents while my parents worked full time — a fairly common practice back then. My grandparents were warm and wonderful people, with all the wisdom and patience that often (but not always!) comes with age. What I didn’t realize was how much they had survived and endured through the tumultuous upheaval of communist China and the Cultural Revolution, which they came out of with a depth of compassion and strength that still awes me to this day.

(With my grandmother in China)

In hopes of a “better life,” my parents took me and immigrated to Canada when I was five years old. It was a very rocky transition, as I missed my grandparents terribly, and my parents were very much like strangers — unused to the idiosyncrasies that my grandparents had found so endearing. At the same time as having to contend with the sudden loss of my bonded caregivers, I also found myself in a completely foreign world with strangers who looked nothing like me and didn’t speak my language. In fact, when thrown into a school, one of the first phrases I learned in English was: “I do not speak Chinese” from the children who would respond with that repeatedly when I tried to communicate with them. Having a very outgoing, social and chatty personality that had been nurtured and encouraged by my grandparents since birth, the language barrier was a difficult but not insurmountable challenge in this brave new world. Sadly, language would be the least of my concerns.

The reality of the immigrant dream

As romantic as the immigrant dream is, the reality is very different. It’s hard work, often riddled with poverty and disillusion. My parents chased the dream of what they thought culminated as success: career, money, property and post-secondary education for me. We moved no less than a dozen times, and I attended 11 different schools between Kindergarten to gr. 10. I remember the anxiety and embarrassment of always being the “new kid” or the “curiosity” who didn’t belong. In the earlier years, we would move without warning, and I wouldn’t get a chance to say goodbye to the friends I made. As a visible ethnic minority, and one who didn’t have the means to dress/look like the other children at school, have “cool things,” go on trips, have experiences or social outings they shared in common, I was definitely an outsider in every sense of the word and an easy and frequent target for racism and bullying.

But it was more than just not being “in” or “trendy.” My physical and emotional well-being languished. I was malnourished, not kept very clean, and wore the same clothes for weeks or had holes in them. My father was busy trying to make ends meet, and was emotionally detached and neglectful. My mother was a sharp and intelligent woman who struggled terribly with her mental health and took out her anger and frustrations by constantly berating and putting me down. Both were physically and verbally abusive. As an only child who was not given the opportunity to bond with any peers for lack of being in one place for too long or socializing outside of school, I had nobody to talk to whatsoever. To be constantly bullied at school and then abused at home is an experience that grieves me to think any child may go through. At best, my home was one of silence. And in that silence, I retreated into my imagination and inner life, often weaving fantasy narratives where my life was everything I dreamt it to be.

I won’t even get into the chaos that was my adolescence and early adulthood. A lot unravelled in those years, more of the same, better, and much worse. All helped shape me into the person I am today. I am a person who is striving to unlearn unhealthy cycles, striving to heal my personal and generational trauma and be a self-aware and “conscious parent.”

Here are some things I have learned and wish I knew before having children.

You don’t just “get over” trauma

No matter how well-adjusted you may seem or how much time or distance you’ve put between yourself, your past and your traumas, they never truly go away. You don’t just “get over” them. And to believe so is asking for a whole lot of trouble. Denial is the worst roadblock to awareness, which is the first step to doing and being better than where you came from.

It takes more, a lot more than just intention to be different from your parents

In the early days when my husband and I talked about having children and parenting, he would voice his concerns that I would repeat my parents’ mistakes or repeat “what I know,” essentially raising my children in the same way I was raised. This was a valid concern but one that horrified and shocked me even to contemplate. I would vehemently protest that this was even a possibility, that there was no way I would become like my abusers, citing my “self-awareness” and “cultural difference.” I intended to be a calm, loving and enlightened parent — to be the opposite of what I grew up with. The thing is, awareness and intention is an important first step, but it takes so much more. I found and still find myself reacting in ways that my parents used to, and then feeling horrified that despite all my knowledge and intentions, that it’s happening. Because the path between “knowing” and “doing” can ONLY be bridged with practical, do-able, actionable strategies. You need to build a toolkit, and this needs to contain such strategies as the following: setting strong boundaries, knowing your trauma triggers, having time for self-care/reflection and communicating openly and honestly with your spouse or co-parent when you are struggling, need time away or extra support.

Awareness is not the same as blame

Just because you had angry, impatient, vindictive or aggressive parents doesn’t mean you are “becoming them” when you exemplify those characteristics. Those are common negative human traits and emotions that anyone — even the most benevolent, well-adjusted, balanced and well-raised human beings can exhibit. It can be tricky to recognize when you are repeating unhealthy cycles and when you’re just being a parent having a bad day. It’s critical to be able to separate the awareness from the blame. That way, you can accept and internalize the behaviour without spiralling into shame, guilt and disappointment. And as I said, at the end of the day, it doesn’t necessarily matter where that rage or outburst came from; it’s how you deal with it — what strategies you’re going to use from your toolkit to ameliorate those feelings and repair your relationships.

Know your trauma triggers

This goes with my first point of how we don’t just “get over” trauma. One of the worst lingering effects of trauma or PTSD are the intrusive thoughts and feelings that creep in when we least expect them. A trauma trigger is defined as “a psychological stimulus that prompts recall of a previous traumatic event.” Even though I’d manage to overcome a lot of personal hardship and insecurities to become a relatively confident and capable young adult, having children threw me in for a loop because of all the trauma triggers. Repressed childhood memories and traumas that I hadn’t thought about in decades suddenly cropped up unexpectedly and intrusively. I was reliving traumas all over again, and all the anger, sadness, fear and anxiety that came with them made me a very edgy person — and the goal of trying to give my children a childhood they don’t need to recover from exceedingly difficult. Taking the time to get to know your trauma triggers is immensely helpful. You’ll know it’s a trauma trigger when the situation generates a disproportionately strong negative response. When this happens, take a step back and hold yourself through it. Know it will pass, and you are not actually in emotional or physical danger. Then reflect on the roots and the negative thoughts/beliefs it creates, and try to reprogram/reframe them in the proper context where they belong. This is really hard, but journaling or talking to a counsellor can help with the process.

For the traumatized, just surviving a post-traumatic flashback is hard enough. Having to face and reflect on our traumas may be the last thing you want to do — but the work is worth it. Knowing your trauma triggers allows you a bit of space before you react. Unfortunately, our trauma triggers may never go away, and we can’t choose how our trauma triggers make us feel, but with awareness and practice, we can choose how to react to them.

You can only blame your parents for so much

I’ve really struggled with this one. When I first started seeing a counsellor some years ago, it seemed a lot of the issues I was struggling with could be traced back to my childhood with my parents and how I was parented and raised. Blaming them for my problems seemed justified and overdue. It’s the most human thing in the world to blame others. But where does it end? My parents can blame the oppressive social/political circumstances in their country for contributing to their malicious behaviours and so forth. It’s a pointless game of hot-potato-pass-it-on that goes nowhere. I mean, yes, at first, there is some relief in knowing the problem isn’t all you, that your problems aren’t necessarily innate or due to character defects etc., that it’s because of your circumstances or the cards you were dealt. But that won’t help you get out of the cycle. The cycle only ends when someone actually stops and takes responsibility. To recognize, what happened wasn’t your fault, BUT those learned behaviours are your responsibility to unlearn if you don’t want them in your life. It’s very much the difference between having a fixed vs. growth mindset. If you blame it all on someone else, the problem is fixed, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Perpetual blame will keep you from doing the work you need to grow and have a better life.

Your children are separate from you

You can’t be kind and compassionate with anyone if you can’t be that with yourself. You also can’t heal yourself, validate your self-identity or fulfil your emotional needs through your children. The last thing you want is to create co-dependency. They also should not be seen or treated as an opportunity to live the childhood you wish you had or chase dreams you never had the chance to. Love is not transactional, and your children don’t owe you anything for all the love, time and energy you put into raising them. I’ve learned my children, and I are on different journeys, and they are different separate entities — not “Little Me’s” I need to shelter, shape and heal because I had such a hard time myself. Or “Little Me’s” I’m neglecting cause I’m having a bad day. While it’s natural to want to provide everything I lacked in my childhood, it’s important to recognize our children have unique needs, wants, and emotions of their own, to separate their emotional responses from our own, and to really listen and encourage them to have their own voices and chart their own courses in life.

Healing is an ongoing process

I wish personal development and healing were a “one and done” deal. Like you have a revelation, it all comes together, and you move forward on a progressive path forever. Sadly this is not true. For everyone, especially those of us who have suffered trauma — it’s a path that goes forward, backwards and sideways. If you want a life for your family and yourself different from the one you grew up with, you need to commit to the work: Hard work, every single damn day of your life. And you’ll have a much better chance of success at that work if you take care of yourself and be well-rested, well-nourished, hydrated etc. If you wouldn’t show up at your work exhausted and hungry and expecting to do your best work, then don’t expect it with your personal and emotional life either.

Parenting is the hardest job in the world, and for those of us who have had less than ideal or traumatic childhoods, we have to do the extra work of healing our inner child and learning to parent ourselves in healthy ways. Perhaps many of these traumas would stay hidden and buried in the past if we decide not to have children. But instead, they come to the surface, break us open, force us to grow as a whole person and help us realize a depth of persistence, humanity and strength we never knew we had and couldn’t now imagine living life without.