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Emotional Avoidance and Parenting: How to Help Your Child, and Yourself, Open Up

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Updated on Nov 7, 2013

If you have undergone childhood trauma, your greatest hope may be that you can give your kid a happy childhood with a strong parental relationship. The good news is you can! But if you still have posttraumatic symptoms, they can have a quiet impact on your relationship with your child. One of these symptoms is emotional avoidance—a conscious or unconscious effort to deflect thoughts and feelings that remind a person about a traumatic event from his or her past.

Research from the University of Notre Dame suggests that your past trauma may interfere with your ability to speak with your child about emotions in a helpful way. Emotional avoidance symptoms may cause you to have shorter, less in-depth conversations with your child than other parents do, resulting children who respond with one-word answers or shut down completely. Want to know how to make a meaningful connection with your kid despite your past? Kristin Valentino, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Notre Dame, and lead author of this study, has some answers:

  • Ask more open-ended questions. Parents who have avoidance symptoms often ask only closed-ended questions that require very short responses. For example, you might ask, “Did you like that?” which requires only a yes or no answer. Try asking questions like, “What did you think of that?” or “What happened next?” which require more detailed responses. These will help your kid open up to you and feel that you’re truly interested in her responses.
  • Validate your child’s ideas. Listen to what your child says, and try to include part of her comment in your response. For example, if your child says, “Emma always badmouths me in front of her friends,” respond by saying something like, “Wow, you feel like she says nasty things about you? That must hurt.” Even though it will feel strange at first to repeat what your child just said, albeit in different words, it will help her feel understood.
  • Be open to talking about emotions. Children need to discuss their emotions in order to deal with them appropriately. When your child says she’s angry, avoid responding with trite phrases like, “It’s not such a big deal” or “Why get angry over something like that?” Don’t be scared of anger or sadness. If your child is angry, then it is a big deal to her, and you should acknowledge that.
  • Label your child’s feelings. A great way to help your child deal with tough emotions is by giving them a label. For example, you might say, “I could tell you were scared because you squeezed my hand really tightly” or “You seem so angry right now.” Young children may not understand why they feel a certain way, and parents can help by identifying the emotion.
  • Discuss how your child’s negative emotions were resolved. When your child does successfully deal with her negative emotions, point that out to her. For example, you might say, “We tried it together, and now it doesn’t feel so scary anymore, does it?” or “You felt jealous and upset, but now you’ve helped yourself feel happy for her.” Help your child understand that feeling emotions involves a process.
  • Recognize red flags in yourself. Not sure if emotional avoidance is an issue for you? If you spend a significant amount of time and energy trying to avoid thinking about the cause of your childhood trauma, you may be at risk. More subtle symptoms include feeling distant from others, resistance to positive feelings, and difficulty remembering parts of the traumatic event. Taking care of your child may always be on your mind, but you can’t forget to take care of yourself too.

“The suggestions above can help improve communication with children, but they won’t address the traumatic symptoms themselves,” says Valentino. “Thus, parents who are struggling with trauma should consider therapy to alleviate those symptoms.” In addition, recognize that not all parents who have undergone childhood trauma will have this difficulty in engaging their children in discussions about emotions. Either way, you can talk with a therapist about how to make sure that you are dealing appropriately with any posttraumatic symptoms that you may have.

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