Working with Parents Who Have a History of Trauma


When working with families who are under stress, it is important to consider how past trauma may affect parents. Many parents who seek help from community agencies or come  to the attention of child welfare system have experienced some form of trauma. This might include living through or witnessing the following:

  • physical abuse
  • sexual abuse
  • emotional abuse
  • chronic neglect
  • family violence
  • community violence

Some parenting behaviors can be misunderstood if not viewed through a ‘traumas lens’. Parents who have experienced trauma may:

*have difficulty making decisions that keep their children and themselves safe. They may fail to recognize dangerous situation, or they may see danger where none exists.

*find it hard to trust others, resulting in poor relationships with friends and family[including their children].  Relationships with people in positions of power may be particularly challenging, which may also shed some light on parental ‘attitude’ or the often perceived ‘aggressive’ demeanor of some parents of color at their child’s school. Whether you agree or not, educators at school do possess power- to discipline, to fail, to influence their children’s learning experiences….

*cope in unhealthy ways such as using drugs or alcohol.

*have a more difficult time controlling their emotions or words, which may explain the occasional cursing in schools, offices, at home-to their children or any perceived adversary threatening their ‘autonomy’ or their rights or sense of fairness.

*seem numb or ‘shut down’ and fail to respond to their children under stress.

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How can you help?

A good relationship with parents is critical to your ability to help them and their children. Understanding that past trauma may be affecting their behavior will help you earn their trust and increase the potential for positive outcomes. Consider the following suggestions:

*Understand that parents’ reactions-anger, resentment, avoidance- may be a reaction to trauma. Do not take these behaviors personally. It is not directed towards you.

*Assess a parent’s history to understand how past traumatic experiences may inform present functioning and parenting.

*Refer parents to evidence-based trauma-informed services whenever appropriate. Or utilize strategic trauma-informed or trauma-sensitive outreach through effective and reciprocal communication. This will likely be more effective than generic services or interventions such as, parenting classes or anger management that don’t take trauma into account.

*Remember that parents who have experienced trauma are not “bad” people. Blaming or judging them is counter-productive and may make situations worse rather than motivate them to change.

*Recognize that all parents want their children to be safe, healthy and do well while doing their best in school and all they do. Compliment parents’ good decisions and healthy choices when you see them.

*Stay calm and keep your voice as neutral and nonthreatening as possible. Model direct and honest communication.

*Establish clear boundaries and expectations. Be consistent. When you make a commitment, stick to it; follow through. Do not disappoint parents or their children-they’ve probably seen it, experienced it, and felt disappointment from others more times than they care to remember.

*Be aware that you could experience secondary traumatic stress, which can occur when you see or hear about trauma to others. Take care of yourself and be mindful of your own reactions when you feel yourself becoming overwhelmed.

When working with parents who may or may not present with signs or symptoms of having experienced trauma, it is most important that communication is respectful, culturally responsive, authentically warm, non-judgmental and void of the imposition of personal perspectives on the parents’ realities and experiences.

Seek to understand their reality, their perspectives, and build your capacity to support them by expanding your knowledge base and skills needed to interact effectively with people of different cultures and backgrounds. Consider each family’s unique strengths and protective factors, and be mindful of the risks. Remain grounded in the belief that all humans have the potential to overcome adversity and trauma and can emerge triumphant over all challenges to their growth. People are resilient, inherently good and parents are people, too!

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