Have you ever observed how the roots of our deepest wounds often burrow into the soil of our childhoods? Maternal and paternal echoes reverberate as “mommy issues” and “daddy issues,” resonating alongside the haunting specters of abandonment and the tumult of communication breakdowns. The toxicity that infiltrates our environments, both in the womb and after birth, possesses the ominous power to unleash chaos upon our lives.

There is no shortage of research on the impact of parents on their children. One study conducted by the University of California – Los Angeles Health Sciences concluded, “Severe childhood trauma and stresses early in parents’ lives are linked to higher rates of behavioral health problems in their own children.” The symptoms of unresolved trauma vary and may include uncontrollable anger, addictive behaviors, an inability to deal with conflict, anxiety, confusion, depression, or a deep-held belief that we have no value.

When parents have unidentified and unresolved trauma, they inadvertently engender traumatic childhoods in their children. Darius Cikanavicius states, “The fetus is biochemically connected to the mother, and her external, internal, physical, and mental health affect the overall development of the fetus. Stress and depression during pregnancy have been proven to have long-term and even permanent effects on the offspring. Such effects include a vulnerability to chronic anxiety, elevated fear, propensity to addictions, and poor impulse control.”

Fathers also profoundly impact the development and sense of worth of their children. Research proves that children who have present and engaged fathers are less likely to drop out of school, avoid high-risk behavior, and be better-adjusted members of the community.

I believe the world is flooded with well-meaning parents who nevertheless are unaware of how they are negatively impacting their children simply because they have unresolved traumas in their own lives and poor coping mechanisms to deal with the stresses of the world. I indeed found this to be true for myself.

In Opobo Town, located in southeast Nigeria, we have a saying that dancers cannot see their backs. The translation is that we have blind spots. We may not see ourselves as we are, and that denial or ignorance can have harmful effects on those around us. Victoria Secunda wrote, “If unloving mothers were able to see their behaviors as abusive, they either would stop behaving that way, or they would get help for their dysfunction. But many cannot: instead, they deny it to themselves, their families, and the world at large to avoid a sense of guilt, to avoid having to make changes in their lives, or to avoid the bruising awareness that they, too, were unloved children.”

I have had multiple opportunities to observe how my parenting style could traumatize the very children I loved with all my heart. I first realized I was not the “Greatest other of all Time” I fashioned myself to be when I watched my young son recoil under the assault of my raised voice. I stopped mid-sentence. I grew up with adults raising their voices at children. I hated it, and yet here I was, repeating the pattern.

The next wake-up call occurred during a tender moment with my then 4-year-old daughter. We were sitting in front of a mirror, and I told her how beautiful she was. She looked at me and said, “You are so beautiful, Mommy.” I immediately corrected her. “No, baby, mommy is okay, but you, you are absolutely beautiful.” I hugged and kissed her, then I noticed the tears welling in her eyes. “Why are you crying?” I asked. She responded, “Mommy, if I am your daughter, how can I be beautiful if you are not?” Oh, my goodness!!! How could I teach my daughter to esteem herself if my esteem was clearly on shaky ground? I was sick to my stomach. I had not even realized that’s how I truly felt about myself. I had work to do.

On another occasion, my fourth child came to my room early in the morning to get a hug. On my nightstand by the side of the bed was an unfinished glass of wine. As we cuddled, he asked if he could have some of my drink. “No,” I said. “It isn’t good for you.” In that way that children have of dismantling us with basic questions, he asked, “If it isn’t good for me, why is it good for you?” I was tempted to give him some of the same responses I had received as a child. Something along the lines of, “Get out of here.” “Because I said so.” “Because I am an adult.” “You will understand later.”

Some of you may have explained, “This is mommy’s ‘happy juice,’ and it is not for you.” I told him it was alcohol, and I did not want him drinking it. That was the day I decided to stop drinking alcohol. I know many have arguments about the distinction between children and adult behavior. The fact that I drive a car does not mean my underage children should get to drive cars, too. I get it. I also know that no one plans to become an alcoholic. I know our society has an unhealthy preoccupation with alcohol, and many use it as a coping mechanism. I have seen lives devastated by alcohol. For these reasons and more, I decided to model for my children how to relax and have a good time without alcohol. What they eventually choose to do as adults is up to them.

Over 22 years of being a mother, my children have spotlighted additional areas where I needed to heal, patterns that had to be broken, and tendencies I must overcome. Although I am committed to doing the work and I continue to grow and evolve, I am devastated by the fact that my awareness and healing may have come too late to prevent damage (even ancillary damage) to my children, whom I love dearly. While I cannot undo the past, I do wish my epiphanies about my trauma would have surfaced and been addressed before my bringing children into the world.

More recently, society is beginning to recognize the importance of pre-marital counseling to help couples build healthy relationships. I would take it a step further and call for pre-parenting counseling for all would-be parents so we can raise healthier children. We must consider whether we have done the work to have and raise healthy children before becoming parents. Our children deserve and are more likely to thrive when they have the best of us. They deserve a fighting chance at a happy, well-adjusted life and parents and living environments that nurture and set them up for success, not pain and despair.

If you are already a parent and you are discovering your shortcomings, as I did, all is not lost. I have allowed my children (when age-appropriate) first-row seats on my healing journey. I apologize when I fail them. I make amends as soon as I realize my missteps. I work harder to listen to them and not assume I know everything. My children can attest that I continue to evolve in how I discipline and talk to them.

I know my healing journey will be instructive for them. I know the healthier I become, the less trauma I will cause them and the more present I will be for them. I know they will have their own challenges, but I hope they will be healthier, more resourceful, and more resilient because I took charge of my healing. My deep prayer is that should they ever become parents, they will be equipped to do a much better job at it than I did.

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