Susan is a 38-year-old stay-at-home mother to three children aged 8, 6, and 5. She has been married to Frank for 13 years. Until recently, she felt that she had a perfect life. Last month, Frank told Susan he is unhappy in the marriage and asked her to begin counseling.
For Susan, this was a complete surprise. She strives to be a perfect mother and wife, since her own childhood was very unhappy. She watched her father physically abuse her mother throughout her childhood years until he became disabled by a stroke when she was 15. She spent the remainder of her teen years helping out at home because her mother was overwhelmed by the responsibilities of caring for her bedridden father, who died when Susan was 22.
Susan finds it difficult to control her temper when her children break household rules. It is very important to Susan that the family home is immaculately clean at all times and she feels that her children should do a better job of cleaning up after themselves. Susan is ashamed of the fact that she sometimes yells at her children in anger, calling them “bad” and “stupid.”
Later she regrets saying these things to her kids and she feels extremely frustrated and inadequate as a parent. Susan takes pride in her children but lacks confidence in her parenting skills.
Frank tends to be more lenient with the children and feels sorry for them when Susan criticizes and calls them names. Frank thinks Susan is too hard on the kids and that her expectations of them are unrealistic based on their ages. He tried addressing this with Susan but she became defensive, yelling at Frank that he is unsupportive.
Frank, a dentist, works hard during the day and leaves most of the parenting to Susan. He feels like an outsider when it comes to the kids. When they married, Frank believed Susan would make a perfect wife and mother. Frank’s own mother died when he was 6 years old. Frank’s father was so grief-stricken following her death that he was unable to help Frank cope with the tragic loss.
Frank was forced to deal with his feelings on his own and as an adult he tends to withdraw in emotionally tense situations. When Frank sees his children’s reactions to their mother’s yelling he is overcome with emotion, remembering the pain he felt as a child.
Susan wants Frank to step in and back her up when she corrects the children’s behavior, but Frank remains silent. Susan then becomes angry at Frank and herself. Susan and Frank want to find better ways to manage their children’s behavior and improve their communication as a couple, but they don’t know where to begin.
When viewing this family through the lens of trauma, it is apparent that both parents are affected by traumatic experiences from their childhoods. Research indicates that witnessing domestic violence, even when children are not physically harmed, can be traumatic for children.
After seeing her mother victimized throughout her childhood, Susan missed out on many typical teenage experiences as she helped with caregiving due to her father’s chronic illness for a period of seven years after his stroke, and his untimely death was another loss for her. Although she hoped to be a “perfect” wife and mother, she did not have an example of a healthy relationship from her family of origin to help her learn parenting skills. In fact, she never learned to express her feelings in a healthy manner.
It is no wonder she responds to frustration by yelling and screaming, as she learned this communication style at an early age. Susan is unable to respond to her children’s emotional needs because she feels that her own emotional needs are unmet.
Frank, too, has experienced trauma. The loss of a primary caregiver at a young age is a major trauma for a child. While his father was there physically, his grief prevented him from being attuned to his son’s emotional needs. Frank was on his own to deal with his feelings and he has never learned to express them appropriately.
Both Frank and Susan are triggered by their children’s emotional needs and retreat to the same coping methods they used as children. Susan yells and Frank withdraws. Who is meeting the children’s needs in all of this? Susan and Frank do not know how to. Therefore, the children act out in attempts to gain their parents’ attention. However, all is not lost. Frank has asked Susan to go to counseling and she agrees.
Therapy with Susan will focus on helping her to learn to identify the feelings which drive her behavior. When Susan is able to identify how she is feeling and what triggers her emotions, she can learn new coping skills to address her reactions.
Psycho-education about her children’s developmental levels will help Susan develop age-appropriate expectations of the kids and begin to recognize their emotional needs. Then she can begin working to understand how her children feel when she yells at them and find more effective ways to address their undesired behaviors.
Frank’s therapist will help him to process the unresolved feelings about his mother’s death and practice communicating more openly with his wife and children. Family therapy sessions will help improve the communication in the family overall and build cohesion. In a relatively short period of time, this family will be feeling much better!
Clients often begin therapy with little hope that they will ever be able to find a sense of contentment. However, in my years working with individuals and families who have experienced trauma, I have seen time and time again that recovery is possible. I encourage anyone who is thinking of beginning therapy but skeptical about results to give it a try. You might be surprised at how much better you feel!
Further reading about trauma:
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