Facing the Past as a Parent

How Our Worst Moments Can Stop Intergenerational Trauma

Magazine Issue
July/August 2024
Facing the past as a Parent

When we brought Brett home from the hospital, Michael and I thought, This will be a piece of cake. With Logan, we’d survived diapers and bottles, crying and crawling, tantrums and potty training. But from the beginning, Brett brought different challenges from his big brother.

For starters, he had medical complications, like reflux and persistent ear infections. He never slept through the night, so naturally, neither did we. It was nerve-wracking and exhausting.

We finally got medications to manage his reflux, and at nine months he had ear tubes surgically inserted to prevent fluid buildup, which allowed him to sleep through the night. But when he started eating solid food, he was soon diagnosed with food allergies. As an infant, he barely babbled; by two, he still hadn’t spoken a word. He had, however, begun to walk, and we couldn’t keep up with him. We had to put chain locks on every door in our house, because if given the opportunity, he’d run outside and keep going. In fact, with no sense of stranger anxiety, he’d go off with anyone who showed the slightest bit of interest in him. This was a whole different level of stress for our family.

When Brett was three, we got him a thorough neuropsychological evaluation. He was diagnosed with pervasive developmental disorder (PDD), which is characterized by delays in the development of multiple basic functions, including socialization and communication. Today, PDD is recognized as falling under the autism spectrum disorders. Shortly thereafter, he was also diagnosed with ADHD.

Brett is an amazing human being with a great sense of humor. He’s observant, highly intelligent, extremely sensitive, and for the most part, a joy to be with. Michael and I wanted the best for him, and our whole life revolved around making sure he was getting the care and services he needed. By the time he started preschool, we’d engaged a speech therapist and an ABA (Applied Behavioral Analysis) specialist, enrolled him in early intervention, and enlisted a cohort of providers and health aides to come to the house three to five days a week. Even with all this support, Michael and I rarely got a break.

Parenting Brett was not only overwhelming; it was expensive. Up to that point, Michael and I had each worked three days a week on alternate schedules so that one of us would always be home to take care of the kids. But to pay for all the services and specialists Brett required, I started taking on more work. As a result, we had to hire a babysitter with experience in managing special needs kids on the days we both worked.

At the time, Michael was working as a cake decorator; as a psychiatrist, my income was significantly higher. “We pay the babysitter more than I make per hour,” Michael said to me one day. “I think it’s time for me to quit work and manage our home and the services Brett needs.” I couldn’t have agreed more, and I was grateful he was willing to do it.

My motivation for working more hours wasn’t purely financial. I knew I wasn’t handling the stress of parenting well. I lost my temper, became reactive, and periodically yelled at the boys for their behavior. I saw Michael as the calmer parent and was hard on myself whenever I lost it. I didn’t want to negatively impact my children. More to the point, I didn’t want to become my father. Somewhere deep down, I thought my kids were better off with less exposure to me.

One such occasion happened when I was driving home after one of our town-sponsored playgroups. Brett was overdue for his nap, and the boys were yelling and screaming at each other in the backseat.

“Stop the fighting, you two,” I ordered.

“He started it,” said Logan.

“I don’t care who started it, I’m telling you to end it now.”

But it continued until Brett threw his bottle at Logan and it cracked open. The fabric seats, the windows, the carpeting were covered in formula. I stopped the car in the middle of the road and started yelling.

“What in the hell’s wrong with you two? How many times do I have to tell you to stop fighting? Get out of the car and walk home from here!” Even as I said it, I knew it was absurd: they were two and six years old. Then I saw the look of panic on their faces and immediately pivoted. “When we get home, you’re both grounded, and you’re going to clean up every drop of milk by yourselves.” Again, a ridiculous consequence. Did I really expect two small kids to do a detail job on the car upholstery? The fact is that I was as out of control as they were—only I was the parent, and they were just being kids.

The last straw came when Logan bit me while we were playing together in his bedroom and I reflexively pushed him away. I saw the initial confusion in his eyes, followed by fear. He had no frame of reference for my being physical with him, yet he was frightened by my response. After I recovered, I apologized for my behavior and immediately got myself back into therapy.

Around that time, while teaching at one of Bessel van der Kolk’s trauma treatment conferences, I sat in on a workshop by Richard Schwartz, founder of a promising new treatment approach called Internal Family Systems. His formulation of the psyche as “parts,” each with their own unique value and function, offered an intuitive, nonpathologizing way to make sense of the internal conflicts that so often result from a person’s trauma history. So I dove headfirst into IFS, taking every training, attending every workshop, volunteering at events, which naturally put me in the orbit of Richard Schwartz himself—Dick to his friends, as I soon became.

Over the next several years of working alongside Dick as an IFS trainer, the hero worship I felt for him developed into a relationship that felt more like the father-and-son relationship I’d always yearned for. His leadership was gentle and quiet, his manner warm and caring. Many of my conversations with Dick morphed into informal counseling sessions, helping me explore and make sense of my own parts. I felt that his influence could help me become the father I wanted to be.

Nevertheless, the stress-triggered outbursts didn’t stop in my home. Instead, I became even more critical and self-loathing whenever I lost control. I knew what healthy parenting looked like. I taught it for a living in my workshops and coached clients who were struggling with their children. Most important, I’d vowed never to be like my father with my children. Despite the physical distance I’d created with my dad, he remained alive and active inside of me. I was capable of yelling at my kids just like he’d yelled at me.

Strangely, it was one of these difficult moments with Brett that ultimately helped me become the parent he needed me to be. It happened on a Saturday when I was home alone with the boys. The previous night had been rough for Brett, and I knew he was getting close to his mid-morning nap (and I was counting the minutes). I heard loud noises coming from our master bathroom, which was not uncommon. At three and a half, Brett loved opening and closing doors (“stimming,” as this self-stimulating behavior is known). As I entered the bathroom, I saw him repeatedly slamming the vanity doors. Bang, bang, bang. He smashed the doors so hard, one broke off the hinges.

The sight instantly took me back to being a little boy, watching the hinges of my bedroom door rattle as my father pounded on it. The circumstances were different, but the feelings it evoked in me were exactly the same. I screamed, “What in the hell are you doing?”

Startled, Brett looked up at me, then launched into one of his infamous meltdowns. He proceeded to run into his and Logan’s bathroom, where he started banging on the shower door. This time he knocked it so hard that it came off the track and almost fell on top of him. I shouted out again, “Stop it right now, Brett! You’re gonna kill yourself.” Enraged by his behavior yet relieved that he didn’t get hurt, I was at my wits’ end, and I collapsed on the floor of the bathroom. I can’t take this anymore.

Desperate for help, I called my neighbor and friend, Joyce. As hard as it was to reach out this way, I knew she would get it, having been a sleep-deprived and overwhelmed parent herself. To my great relief, she came right over and took charge. “I’ll put Brett down for his nap and take Logan to my house for a playdate with Caroline. You get some sleep while Brett naps.”

That evening when Michael came home from work, he looked tired but immediately recognized the kind of day I’d had. “Frank, why don’t you go to the gym? I’ll make dinner and take care of the kids,” he generously offered.

Relieved, I drove to the gym, found an open Stairmaster, and hopped on. Relax and let it go, I said to myself as I closed my eyes and turned up the volume on my headphones. You know exercise always helps you. Suddenly, I saw a bright, white light and heard a clear, strong voice say, “He’s here to teach you, just as much as you’re here to teach him.”

It stopped me in my tracks. I opened my eyes, but there was no one there.

This was an important spiritual moment in my life, one that shifted my perspective on Brett. Why was I trying so hard to make him fit into this world? Why not let Brett be Brett? Maybe the world and I needed to fit him, instead of him fitting us. I thought of his sweet, beautiful face, the pure, loving innocence in his eyes. It’s not his fault; he’s trying his best to manage an overwhelming brain. I love him more than life itself, and I’ll do anything in my power to protect him.

Michael and I got in the habit of visiting our respective families at least once a year, so our boys would maintain a connection with their extended families. Whenever we visited, my dad would frequently take Logan aside and slip him some money or give him a rare coin from his coin collection. As strained as my relationship was with my dad, I loved watching him interact with my son. I saw how loving my father could be, and I saw the way Logan felt special to him.

It was different with Brett, for both my parents. Out of the corner of my eye, I’d see the look of judgment on their faces whenever Michael and I parented him with the hands-off techniques we’d been taught by his ABA specialists.

“In our day, parents were in charge, not the kids,” my dad would say. “I was taught that kids are not your friends; it’s your job to teach them right from wrong. Give them consequences for their behavior, don’t just get them to like you. They need to know who’s boss.”

A part of me thought, Are you kidding? You’re the last person in the world I’d take parenting advice from. Another part thought, He doesn’t have any experience with special needs kids. He just needs to spend more time with Brett; then he’ll understand. A third part thought, Parenting is so hard. I have no clue if we’re messing up our kids or doing right by them. Please, somebody help us!

I knew there were two underlying motivations that drove me deeper into my career. The first was to keep a safe distance between my kids and the part of me that got reactive toward them. It was definitely improving, but I was still prone to volatility. Second, my focus on success was also an attempt to gain the approval and validation I never got from my father. I was becoming a trauma specialist at a time when the world was desperate to learn how best to treat PTSD and dissociation. I began accepting offers to host workshops and speak at conferences. This pattern of protecting my boys from my anger and searching for love through success continued until the next wake-up call presented itself—this time, related to my relationship with Logan.

With so much of our time, attention, and energy taking care of Brett, it was a blessing that we didn’t have to worry about Logan in the same way. Aside from the challenge of Logan being diagnosed with ADHD when he was around seven, he was a well-adjusted, high-energy kid. He had friends, he fit in at school, and for the most part, he could take care of himself. At least, that’s what Michael and I believed.

When Logan was 12, in the seventh grade, I had plans to speak at a conference in Sacramento on the topic of relational trauma. Shortly after I boarded the plane to go to the event, I powered down my cell phone, and six hours later, as soon as I landed, I turned it on to see a string of urgent text messages from Michael. “Call me as soon as you get this. . . Mary called an ambulance. . . . Logan’s in the hospital. . . . He’s unconscious. I’m heading over to the hospital now. . . . They think it might be a suicide attempt. . . Call me as soon as you land.”

I got off the plane, frantic. “Oh my God, can someone please help me? I have to get home!”

A flight attendant came over and asked, “’What’s wrong?”

“I’m not sure exactly,” I answered truthfully. “My son is in the hospital. I need to get home as soon as possible. What do I do?” I was out of my mind, engulfed by fear.

The flight attendant, who might have been an angel, firmly grabbed my elbow and turned me around. “Get back on that plane. I’ll get your luggage.” She walked me to a seat in first class. “This plane is going back to Boston. It’s a red-eye. You’ll be home in the morning.”

Dazed and overwhelmed, I thanked her profusely. While the passengers were boarding the plane, Michael called me back. “Logan is alive,” he told me, “but he’s still unconscious. I don’t know much at this point. Apparently, he drank a lot of alcohol. Chris is at the house; she’ll take care of Brett. I’m going to stay here with Logan overnight.”

I burst into tears. It was intolerable to be out of town and away from my family, unable to do anything for them. I felt like jumping out of my skin. Please let Logan be okay! Pulling myself together, I managed to let Michael know that I was scheduled to land in Boston at 6:00 a.m. “I’ll head right to the hospital from the airport,” I assured him. “I love you, honey.”

When I arrived at the hospital, Logan was conscious but far from coherent. He’d been admitted with a dangerously high level of alcohol in his system and had his stomach pumped. Was it a suicide attempt? Michael and I were beside ourselves. We were committed to doing everything we could to help him get better . . . but from what?

We learned later that Logan and his friends had discovered alcohol during their sleepovers, sneaking sips of liquor at each other’s houses. The afternoon of my flight to Sacramento, Michael had taken Brett to see a movie, leaving Logan home alone for two hours, during which time he’d ventured into our liquor stash and started drinking tequila, until he’d stopped drinking and started vomiting. Fortunately, he’d called his friend Cody for help, and even more fortunately, Cody had told his mother, Mary. The two of them had driven over to our house, found the door unlocked, and found Logan passed out in his bed in a pool of vomit. Mary had called an ambulance, then called Michael.

At the hospital’s suggestion, Logan spent a week in an inpatient psychiatric ward. They determined that he was depressed, and upon discharge, he was placed on antidepressants and instructed to start therapy. His birth mother, Amanda, suffers from occasional depressive episodes, so genetics may have played a role in his actions that day. But by Logan’s report, it wasn’t an attempt at ending his life, simply a dangerously impulsive act. At the time, though, I saw the whole thing as being my failure, as a parent and a psychiatrist.

Why didn’t I see this coming? I asked myself. I should have known better!

That day, as visiting hours were coming to an end, Logan didn’t want me to leave. “Please, Papa, don’t go. I don’t want to stay here anymore. I hate it here. I don’t belong with these people,” he said.

“I know, honey. I did everything I could to see if they would let me stay with you overnight, and they said no.”

“It was just a mistake, Papa. I promise I won’t do it again. Really, I promise. Please don’t leave me.”

Hearing Logan pleading with me was heart-wrenching. As I searched for words to comfort him, the nurse came into the room and politely said, “Dad, it’s time to for you to leave.”

I wrapped Logan in a tight, desperate hug. “I promise I’ll see you tomorrow morning.” I assured him.

On the ride home, I got a call from Dick Schwartz. I’d told him about the situation, and he was calling to check in. When he heard how distraught I was, he asked me to pull the car over immediately.

“Why?” I asked, confused.

“Pull over,” Dick repeated, “and let’s take a look at the part of you that’s feeling so desperate right now.”

“Are you fucking kidding me? My kid’s in the hospital—he almost killed himself! Of course I’m feeling desperate,” I snapped. Nevertheless, I did what he asked and pulled off the highway into the breakdown lane.

Much to my surprise, as Dick and I talked, he helped me get in touch with the part of me that felt hopeless, abandoned, and all alone as a child. That little boy inside me was activated by Logan’s desperate request for someone to be with him and his pain. As I comforted the little boy within me, letting him know I loved and cared about him, I was able to differentiate Logan’s experience from my own.

When I returned to the hospital the next day, I was noticeably calmer and more stable. Logan instantly felt the shift in me and began to settle down, trusting that I knew what to do and had his best interest at heart. He started talking to his doctors about what transpired in days leading up to the alcohol poisoning event. Healing finally began.

It was a humbling experience, but not the kind that left me with guilt or shame. I didn’t care about how it looked to others that I was a psychiatrist with a son who struggled with mental health issues. I was solely focused on Logan’s well-being. We gradually learned that he wasn’t happy at school. Social pressures played a role. He had two close friends but was often teased because of his ADHD-related behavior and didn’t feel accepted by the kids in his class.

Even though Logan never explicitly stated it, I suspect he wasn’t happy at home either. When he was little, Michael and I arranged our work schedules so we could take turns being home with him and focusing all our attention on him. When Brett arrived, it would’ve been natural for Logan to experience some bumps in the road as he learned how to share our attention, but the bumps were much more extreme due to the level of care Brett needed. As he grew up, we attributed the amount of time he spent alone in his room to normal adolescent behavior, but perhaps it wasn’t.

The day Logan almost died was the most traumatic day of his life and of mine. Yet, as I’ve learned personally and often tell my patients, trauma can lead to transformation when you learn from your experience. Thanks to Logan’s crisis, our family situation dramatically changed. After the incident, I worked less and stayed home more, returning to co-parent more equally with Michael. I made it a priority to spend more time alone with Logan.

Looking back, it became clear to me how an attempt to fix one unwanted behavior unconsciously recreated another. I dove into work to shelter my kids from my reactive behavior, afraid of turning into my dad. In turn, though, my withdrawal inadvertently replicated another one of my dad’s mistakes: frequently being away from home. This resulted in my kids not feeling like a priority to me, just like I’d felt with my father. I ended up creating what I was trying to avoid.

Michael and I also realized that we were both too passive and permissive as parents. We resisted being angry and controlling like our fathers, but we went too far in the opposite direction. Logan’s substance use and depression expressed itself as anger and isolation, and we’d let it go on far too long. We’d tolerated his outbursts and attacks, instead of setting limits and providing the structure he needed and had been desperately asking for through his actions. I remember the moment the tide changed, and we stood up and claimed our parental power.

Six months after Logan’s hospitalization, he stumbled into the house, mumbling something incoherent. His clothes were disheveled, his eyes half open, and he looked confused and sounded . . . wasted.

“Logan, what did you take?” I asked, a hint of urgency in my voice. “You’re not making any sense right now.”

“Nothing, leave me alone,” he said. “I’m just tired.” Leaving the front door wide open, he dropped his backpack and headed straight for his room.

Michael combed through his backpack and found a dab pen and a half-eaten brownie wrapped in white paper. This was the last straw.

“Logan, we need to talk,” Michael said, calmly but firmly. We’d learned by then that talking to Logan together, as a united front, was a more effective way to stand up to his strong adolescent personality.

“Leave me alone!” he yelled from inside his room.

“Now!” Michael and I responded in unison. With a courtesy knock on the door, we entered his room.

“We found this in your backpack,” Michael said, as he showed Logan the drug paraphernalia.

“You’re grounded until further notice,” I said. “And you’ve lost phone privileges.”

With that, Logan exploded. He lunged toward us, screaming, “You have no right to go through my stuff. What the fuck?! You can’t take away my phone.” He started throwing things around the room.

“Stop it, right now,” I told him. “We will not tolerate any drug use in this family, period. We own the phone, this is our house, and we are your parents. Like it or not, we’re in charge here.”

In response, Logan punched a hole in his bedroom wall.

“You’ll fix anything and everything you decide to break,” Michael stated. “And if you try to hurt any of us, we’ll call the police.” With that, we walked out of his room and pulled his door shut, knowing it was time to give Logan some time to sober up and think.

Taking a stand like this was scary—terrifying, actually—for Michael and me. However, it was also empowering. For the first time ever, we were clear and calm, united and in charge. Firm in our determination not to ever again live in a family that was violent and destructive, we had the power now to create a safe, drug-free household where we were in control in a non-abusive way.

This shift in our parenting helped our family dynamic change for the better. Our kids needed strong parents, so we needed to be stronger than our kids. Up until that point, Michael’s and my histories had gotten in the way. As we all learned from and maneuvered through the challenging times we encountered as a family, we slowly began having more moments of levity at home. I remember the subsequent years as a montage of carving pumpkins, having family Nerf gun fights, jumping on the trampoline, going on hikes, swimming in the pool, and playing together in the bouncy house.

Even now, I’m filled with pride as I think of this journey: pride for what Michael and I created in this family, in spite of all the mistakes we made along the way. We all risked changing—and we’re all the better for it. I also feel sadness for the younger version of myself that sometimes showed up, for the terror, the anger, the need to disavow reality in the service of survival. But there’s solace in knowing I wasn’t repeating my history anymore.

Adapted from To Be Loved: A Story of Truth, Trauma, and Transformation. Copyright © 2024 Frank Anderson, To Be Loved. All rights reserved.


Frank Anderson

Frank Anderson, MD, is a world-renowned trauma treatment expert, Harvard-trained psychiatrist, and psychotherapist. He’s the acclaimed author of Transcending Trauma and coauthor of Internal Family Systems Skills Training Manual. As a global speaker on the treatment of trauma and dissociation, he’s passionate about teaching brain-based psychotherapy and integrating current neuroscience knowledge with the Internal Family Systems model of therapy. Contact: frankandersonmd.com