Micro-Traumas that Lead Teens to Feel Unseen
An article about the micro-traumas of childhood came across my feed the other day — Why Loving Parents Can End Up Raising Children Who Struggle With Lifelong Problems.
The title jumped out at me because these are the kids who I tend to work with, and this was the child I had been. The girl from the loving home, with supportive parents, who still struggles so much and is dealing with the fallout decades later.
I have several friends who work with trauma clients. They do a lot of somatic work and reparenting coaching to help their clients move through their experiences and rebuild a foundation for themselves to grow on. I love what they are doing, and when I learn more about the symptoms of trauma survivors exhibit, I see a lot of myself in there and that confuses me. I haven’t been physically or emotionally abused like my friends’ clients. I have survived or witnessed a situation that is commonly associated with these struggles. I’ve lived a fairly ordinary life, but have often felt unseen and hiding, and it’s in those emotions where my personal trauma experiences come up. Why is that?
This article really helped to shine a light on that answer for me. Trauma doesn’t have to be the big events. It doesn’t have to be abuse, neglect, accidents, and the like. The struggles that arise from feeling traumatized can build up due to microtraumas that we experience as we grow. Those experiences that I often attribute to feeling unseen.
According to the article, even these smallest interactions between parent and child can lead to a traumatic emotion
- A parent being distracted during an important conversation (important in the teen’s mind)
- Being told “you can do better” on an assignment or event where the teen invested a lot of effort and is feeling proud of the result
- Being overly criticized for a small accident — such as making a mess when they were making a snack
I would add to this not feeling supported with a new dream or goal that a child has. For example, when a teen wants to go out for a new sport in middle or high school, only to be met with a “what do you want to do that for?” from her parents.
As I’ve been working through my own triggers surrounding feeling unseen, it is these kinds of interactions that pop up. And I feel silly about it. I often feel that even the events that pop up as trauma for me aren’t worthy of mentioning because they are so meaningless to anyone else. But there lies the key — they are extremely meaningful to me. Because each of these circumstances added a stone to my “Not Good Enough” pile, and keep me on a path of what I can do to be enough. When will my parents, family, and society finally look at me a say “Wow! She did such a great job.” So far, three degrees, being on the Dean’s list, having my Masters’ Thesis published, receiving awards — none of these have made me feel enough. They are, as sports psychologist Pippa Grange refers to them, “Shallow Wins”, those successes that leave you unfulfilled. The groundwork for this started with those microtraumas I internalized growing up.
Before you brush off this trauma as something that can easily be worked through by your teen growing a thicker skin, please know that these small experiences can lead to big challenges as our kids move into adolescence and adulthood.
- Never taking a chance for fear of failure
- Struggling connecting in relationships and social circles
- Being afraid to say no for fear of conflict
- Getting stuck in a career or a series of jobs that don’t excite them
- Financial issues due to career choice and also coping mechanisms involving spending
- Unhealthy relationships to alcohol, drugs, work, exercise, sex, or food
- Falling grades and checking out of academic work
- Depression, anxiety, or low self-esteem
- People-pleasing and codependency
- Not quite knowing what they want out of life
- Feeling inadequate, unlovable, unworthy
I can’t tell you how many teens I’ve worked with who have shared similar feelings with me. The conflict is real. The feelings are 100% real for them, and yet they struggle because even while in the midst of those emotions they feel that it’s not right. They have no right to have such a reaction to a parent “flying off the rails” because of a bad test grade — especially when the teen has been at a sports tournament all weekend.
Often, these aren’t the teens who need in-depth clinical counseling. Instead, they need someone to validate them.
To celebrate the little things and to hold space for them to step into their success. What is needed is a coach to help them move through these small traumas that have accumulated and also teach how to use her voice to let others know how important the experience is. Then, we need to teach parents to silence their own inner dialogue and resolution plan and bring the focus back to their child.
In addition, as parents, we need to disconnect from our screens, our work, our own personal triggers, and emotions surrounding an event and instead connect with how our teen is processing it all. To be able to see that, while you personally would have liked to see an “A” on an assignment, that your teen really did work her tail off and is excited about that grade. If the result isn’t something you wanted, then that when parenting really comes in.
Why is your kid working her tail off and not getting “As”?
- Is she overscheduled and can’t fit it all in?
- Does she have an undiagnosed condition, such as ADHD, that she’s functioning well with but is holding her back?
- Does she care as much about the content area as you do?
- Is the information being presented to her in a way that she connects to?
No one teaches us this as parents because each teen is unique. I know my sister was raised in the same house as I was, but she took each challenge and comment and used it in a different way. As far as I know, she doesn’t hold onto some of the trauma as I do. I doubt she even processes some of the events that I remember as any trauma at all.
We all know from experiencing childhood ourselves that we’re going to come away with negative experiences that shape our lives. Recognizing the small microtraumas and also the triggers that bring them up are both components of the BECOME model that I bring my teens and parents through.
Specifically, we work on the pieces of being seen and heard, overcoming perfectionism, and bringing in mindset work. This work is done on both the teen and parent levels because in order for that communication to flow again, both sides need to be able to relate to each other.
The best piece of information I can give you is to be present in your parenting. If your teens’ path is straying or has suddenly changed directions, start exploring why that might be. Open up the conversation with your teen and invite her to take the floor. Look for the value differences between you, your teen, and the rest of your family, and try to find the commonality to build from.
Showing, as a parent, that your teen is enough — however that shows up for them — is the best thing. You know they are, but do they?