Recognising trauma, healing and growth in parent carers

With thanks to Joanna Griffin, a parent carer and Counselling Psychologist, for sharing her insights on trauma and growth as a parent carer. Helping us to recognise trauma, how to care for ourselves and how we might even grow, going forward.

You can read more in her new book Day by Day: Emotional Wellbeing in Parents of Disabled Children.

Day by Day - Emotional Wellbeing in Parents of Disabled Children book cover by Joanna Griffin

As parent carers we can experience additional stress at the best of times. Living through a pandemic has been a challenge for so many families.

It has also highlighted the importance of taking active steps to maintain our emotional wellbeing – without guilt - on a daily basis.

For the last few years I have been researching emotional wellbeing in parent carers and share what parents report as helpful in my new book, Day by Day: Emotional wellbeing in parents of disabled children.

Why parent carers experience trauma

In this article, I want to focus specifically on trauma, which is often part of a carers’ life but not always recognised as such.

Many of us will have been through a traumatic experience; witnessing the fragility of life or our loved ones experiencing invasive medical interventions.

"Each time my son has a seizure a little part of me dies" – Parent carer

Day to day cumulative traumas, such as ‘the battle’ for limited resources, can also take their toll. Even receiving a diagnosis for our child can be experienced as catastrophic for some, although others may find it a relief.

As carers, we may have higher levels of contact with medical, hospital and support staff than other people. Every experience of contact is potentially re-traumatising and the quality of the interaction can literally make or break someone’s day.

Parent carers can show ‘evidence of post-traumatic stress’, which is a common reaction to a shocking event, or events, in our lives. It only becomes a disorder when it continues over a longer period and affects our functioning.

It is suggested that ‘UK services are not designed to support traumatized parents, and health practice may serve to compound distress’ (Emerson, 2020).

What does trauma look like?

Traumatised individuals may experience symptoms, such as having an exaggerated startle response; intrusive thoughts; constant concern for their child’s health and, if the child has siblings, their health as well. Parents can go into hypervigilant mode and it can take time and patience to regain faith and trust in the world.

Where there is a continual re-traumatisation from new diagnoses, problems and difficulties, there is little time to catch up, take stock and re-ground ourselves for the next hurdle. For those children who are medically fragile there may be many hospital visits, close calls and having to prepare for bad news.

Some parent carers lose the sense of normalcy that other parents have because they have been through a traumatic time which triggers their alertness to danger. Furthermore, during times of trauma the support we need may be different from other times.

For example, people report feeling numb, excessively calm, zoning out or withdrawing. We may not be able to take in information or advice from others. Some parents told me in these moments they needed to be alone. But if people become isolated for too long this can also backfire and lead to further pr