Parenting with PTSD with Guest Dawn Daum

Dawn Daum joins the Mental Health Mamas this week to discuss parenting with PTSD after experiencing childhood trauma. Listen in to the conversation about mental health, parenting and the importance of connection.

Notes and Mentions

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Serena: Hey Everyone, I?m Serena.

Tina: And I?m Tina and we are the Mental Health Mamas.


Serena: Welcome to No Need to Explain, we are so glad you?re here.

Tina: First, as always, a quick disclaimer.

Serena: We come to you NOT as mental health professionals or experts in the field, but rather as parents with lived experience who are on a mission to normalize the conversation around mental health.

Tina: If you or someone you love is experiencing a mental health crisis, please seek professional support. You?ll find a variety of resources in our show notes and on our website,

Tina: So some of us are experiencing a little bit of relief from the pandemic and while there are still restrictions, I am starting to witness America opening up again little by little, although we are having a little bit of a boomerang effect, truly. But I did go to New York City several weeks ago and had the opportunity to see a Broadway show. And I saw Tina, the story of Tina Turner?s life. I had heard the underpinnings of her story with husband Ike Turner and I guess I knew a little bit of her life but I really didn?t know much of her story. As the story unfolded in front of me, I counted up the ACES in her life: a witness to abuse, lived with a parent with mental illness, abandoned by a parent, systemic oppression, poverty and that is 5, 5 out of 10 ACES and those were the ones I noticed. Since learning about Adverse Childhood Experiences some 10 years ago, it seems that ACES everywhere, in books, in stories, and in movies. Since Serena and I learned about ACES about the same time a few years ago, do you notice it as well Serena?

Serena: I totally do. I often find myself watching a show or a movie and thinking about the ACEs of a particular character and the people around me in the world, not just characters on TV but in real life as well. It really speaks to their actions or the outcome of their story if that makes any sense.

Tina: Total sense! For me this is going to be an episode about normalizing. When we started sharing the ACES information with families about 4 years ago, we were pretty sure how families might react (because of our own reaction when we learned about it) but everyone wasn?t convinced that it was a good idea. Somehow, it seemed that some people thought that asking might really re-traumatize people or trigger people in a way.

Serena: I agree that we got some pushback around sharing of that information and it can be triggering but more importantly it can really provide us with a connection to information that helps explain choices we make, ways we parent, how we build relationships with others. I have to say that learning about the ACEs really helped me understand myself.

Tina: Yes so let?s break that down a bit. And please, if you are listening and are somehow triggered by this information, take a pause and go take good care of yourself. We know that none of this is easy and we support you doing what you need to do.

Serena: A few years ago, Tina and I went to a conference sponsored by Prevent Child Abuse NY and a survivor of childhood abuse was the keynote speaker and she also spoke to us. She spoke very candidly about her abuse as well as her road to healthy relationships and parenting.

Tina: Yeah. It was so interesting. I was so compelled by her story and her bravery and vulnerability in getting up and talking about it. And I am going to say again that parenting is hard. We say it a lot on this podcast. Everyday we are given situations that challenge us to make decisions for the good of our kids and our families. And again, it is hard. I think that before I heard this person speak, I thought very little about my parenting style or even how my experiences have shaped parenting and quite frankly, how triggering parenting can be at times especially for those who have experienced childhood trauma.

Serena: As you mentioned a couple of times, parenting is hard and add to that trauma and what might seem like mundane parenting duties can be very triggering. Dawn Daum, one of the authors of Parenting with PTSD points out that breastfeeding, diapering, bathing and even kissing your child goodnight can be extremely triggering especially for victims of sexual abuse.

Tina: So instead of us recounting all that is in the book and I literally started writing this episode and was quoting her in the book and thought, why don?t we contact her and have her one. So Dawn welcome to the podcast!

Dawn: Thank you both for having me on and having these important conversations. I'm really happy to be here!

Tina: So we mentioned your book Parenting with PTSD and that is clearly how we got to know you, tell us a little bit of your story and how this book came to be.

Dawn: Sure. I will start by saying that parts of my story are tough to tell and can be difficult to hear. But I chose to speak candidly about it because even though I know my particular story is dramatic of sorts, it's not unique. And one of my main goals is to help normalize life for women and parents living with complex trauma and PTSD. So I?m the youngest of 3 and my siblings are 10, 12, and 14 yrs older than me. My mom got pregnant very young, I believe she was 15, and unfortunately even by the time she had me at 30, she nor my father were well enough to parent. There was drug addiction, alcoholism, mental illness onboard. My parents lost custody of me and I was eventually placed with my oldest sister when I was a toddler. My sister was about 16 and was married. Which seems strange but in Georgia that happens. It did at the time anyway. She was doing the best she could in wanting to take care of me and herself but it was an unhealthy environment that I was in. I acquired an ACE score of 9 by the time I was 6 years old. In 1995, when I was 14, I disclosed I was being sexual abused and had been since I was very young. The decision was made for me to live with my mom who I hadn't lived with since I was a toddler. But she had recently moved to NY to be with my other sister and her family. And at the time, my mom was fairly mentally. She was working on being well and putting pieces of her life together. But unfortunately, she was diagnosed with cancer. And again unfortunately, soon after I moved in with her, she passed away. It was just shy of my 16th birthday.

Tina: whoa

Dawn: I know. I told you it was rough! This is the worst part. And thank God my sister Patti was there to take care of me and my mom but after mom died I moved in with her and she became my rock. It was because of her I was able to have some stability and a somewhat normal and safe teenage life. Which then allowed me to finish high-school. It allowed me to go on to college and get a degree in psychology?shocking!

Tina: Not at all!

Dawn: It is what we do. So after that I married my highschool sweetheart and started my family at 28. I thought I had my life exactly where it needed to be in order for me to become a mom. To be the kind of mom that I knew I wanted to be and that?s really where my journey in creating Parenting with PTSD with my co-editor Joyelle Brant started. It was during the time that I chose to stay at home as a stay at home mom that I started a blog WTF, Words, Thoughts, Feelings. I wrote an article called Raising a Girl as a Survivor. This blog started as a way for me to have an outlet write fun, funny stories about motherhood and about my kids and as time went on and my writing started to get a little bit more truthful and in depth into my own hard parts of my journey. And that article was published on Scary Mommy which at the time was a platform that was kind of exploding and it got a lot of eyes on it. Joyelle Brant, like I said, is the co-editor for Parenting with PTSD and she was one of the ones who read it. Joyelle reached out to me just to say that she hadn?t heard anybody talk about what it was like to parent as a survivor of abuse. That she too when looking for a resource that spoke directly to that and couldn?t find anything. And after only a couple of conversations, she asked me if I wanted to create the resource that we both went looking for. And I said yes. So that is what we did.

Serena: Well thank you, Dawn, for sharing all of that. We know how much vulnerability it takes and I do hope that as you share your story that other people can sense your hope and your support from afar. So let?s dive a bit deeper. In your book you talk about the coping mechanisms that serve a child well when dealing with childhood trauma yet as an adult, a parent, those same behaviors and coping mechanisms can be very maladaptive. And I remember specifically at the conference that you shared some of the parenting styles of those who have been abused as children. Can you share some of those with our audience?

Dawn: Yeah sure. So let me first say that what we have discovered in creating the book is that the parenting reactions you are referring to and I will talk about happen because of post-traumatic stress. At the time, when we created the book and when we were really just figuring this all out, we didn?t even know what we were experiencing. Neither of us had been diagnosed with PTSD nor was that even on our minds, that that could be what we were dealing with. What I am talking about are brain and body reactions specific to parents who experienced abuse when they were the child. These triggers are unique to parenting and care taking, meaning they will show up when you become a parent, because the child becomes the trigger. The good news is that if you have a doctor or therapist or even a friend that can tell you that this happens, you aren?t blindsided when it does and you have the awareness you need to get curious about the triggers, and not be afraid of them. So let me give you some examples of what I mean. Some basic acts of parenting that can cause a survivor to become triggered: diapering, dressing and bathing your child, breastfeeding, giving and receiving affection. There have been multiple conversations that I have had with women particularly to these acts of parenting that are very difficult with them with breastfeeding. I have had a mom say, ?Everytime I nursed him I would be tensed and flooded with unwanted memories.? Dressing and bathing, you know, even down to, ? I need the help. I can?t let my husband bathe and dress her or give her a bath because that triggers me as well.? Diapering: I have heard from mothers, ?I have had these terrible thoughts that I was going to become an abuser.? These are all really very, very scary things to have inside of your heads. So it is very difficult to talk to anyone about them. It is really hard to make sense of them yourself.

Tina: And how freeing it must have been for you to meet Joyelle and know that some of this stuff, that it wasn?t only you. You are not alone, right? You connected with someone who could connect with you on these very things.

Dawn: Absolutely. I mean, one of the things that Joyelle was really struggling with, her son, at the time he was a toddler, and he was going through a hitting phase. So he would hit her and she would just freeze, that freeze reaction. You feel paralyzed. You don?t know what to do because it completely transports your body when somebody hits you whether it is your child or not. And so that is what I mean when I say that the child becomes the parent, excuse me, the child becomes the trigger. If the first time in your life in a healing journey, whether you have done healing in the past or not, you are going to be up against these types of things that are unique and specific to parenting. And there is an added layer of shame I think and fear in talking about this because you are a parent and you should have taken care of and put that stuff in the past. But in reality, you have no control over it.

Serena: So Dawn I wonder if you could talk a little bit about, before we move on about what it might look like as far as a parent?s reaction to their children. So you mentioned Joyelle would have a freeze response but what might we see when a parent has experienced childhood trauma?

Dawn: You know, common reactions are shutdown and detaching. From the outside looking in it could look like an indifference or even neglect in the relationship between the parent and the child. You can see irrational rage, moodiness, short tempered scary reactions to the child. Parents can react with overthinking and or doubting everything, it being difficult to make a decision because you are so fearful of the impact this decision you are going to make on the child. Neglect is a big one and I think this is one of the most important things I have been able to share with those that support families. Particular to child protective case workers. A parent not being able to react appropriately to their child can look like neglect. When in reality, what the parent is experiencing is an inability emotionally and psychologically to complete the tasks. Not physically. They are not incapable individuals. But the actual acts can physically and mentally make them sick. Until they are able to make the connection of being triggered by these acts and until somebody coming in, hopefully a caseworker or another support coming in and helping them understand that that is what is happening. And that they are capable doing the things that they know they should be doing and want to do.

Tina: Yeah so thank you for doing that work because I do think, as you said, there is a lot of judgment when someone can?t properly (I am putting that in quotes) care for their children and I think for a very long time there was no room for backstory, right? There was no room for thinking about that and I can imagine that for some of our listeners who have never connected with anyone, for whatever reason, shame or other things, this information is incredibly validating. It is hard to parent and even harder to parent when you have experienced childhood trauma. I will also mention that there is a tremendous amount of shame and guilt that surrounds abuse in particular. I am going to quote your book for a minute. You say on page 26, ?My entire days consisted of things that triggered me?changing diapers, snuggle sessions, disciplining?the most basic elements of my new job description. I felt trapped, alone, crazy, shameful, defeated and broken.? Can you say more about that?

Dawn: Yeah. You know I could recognize that I was not well. I had physical pain in my hip particularly and eventually diagnosed with arthritis. At 30. I had debilitating headaches daily. I was nauseous at times during the day. And I was spiraling down mentally and emotionally. I think a lot of times when people think of mental health they only think of the mental aspect of it but it very much comes through the body as well. I didn?t realize that at the time. I am learning that now and you know may well use that. At the time I didn?t know. At the time, I was doing the things, and smiling at my young kids while doing them. But I was hurting and didn?t tell anyone I was feeling this way because I felt like I couldn?t. I was afraid to tell a professional or even those close to me. Part of that comes from working in the mental health field for as long as I had. I knew what constituted a professional to make a mandated report. I knew that the professionals that maybe could help me could also call and make reports of neglect even though I was in no way neglecting or harming my child. And I don?t say that as? hmm?understandably somebody might have made a call. Had they not understood what I was experiencing. Right? That is what they are trained to do. But I knew I wasn?t doing anything to harm my child, I didn?t want to harm my child. I was a good mom. Right? It was the PTSD fueling my thoughts that I needed help with but I was scared to ask for help. Because of the shame wrapped around the thoughts that I was having.

Tina: So this is so real for people right? This is real, real?yeah. And I guess when we talk about being trauma informed which is exactly the place you are when you are helping others especially these health and human service folks understand these things, right? To be trauma informed is not about no consequence, or not reporting because they are mandated to report and that is a thing. But it is about being understanding and really picturing the whole situation. Making sure that from, that your story is heard as well. And that you get the real help you need because that is what we want right?

Dawn: Yeah and I will say that it is very important that for family and human service worker to understand what they are hearing and observing. You know in hindsight, if I look back and if I put myself in somebody's shoes that I may have told, I hope that there is the day that somebody will recognize that this isn?t really about my ability to be a parent. It is about my mental health. And my mental health isn?t at a place where I am causing harm to anybody, but the opportunity to address is the missing piece in me being able to break cycles of generational trauma, right? And dysfunction. That is the missing piece in the parenting services that we have a lot.

Tina: We are picking up what you?re putting down! We hear ya!

Dawn: It is that oxygen mask and really understanding what parts of the parent needs the oxygen. It is not teaching them how to change diapers and that sort of logistic aspect of parenting. It?s addressing the parent?s mental wellbeing and unresolved trauma.

Serena: Yeah. So let?s shift a little bit and talk about the idea of connection. So for Tina and I it really made a huge difference. Meet one another and feel somebody else that had similar experiences And it sounds like you have had some of that as well. Can you share more about how connection with people with similar stories has changed your experience?

Dawn: Yeah. Connecting with Joyelle in particular and then other momma survivors changed everything for me. Joyelle and I knew that we had picked up on a missing chapter in the parenting books because of the "me too" conversations I started having, we started having online and particularly after I had started telling my story at speaking events. The connection to others AND to information I had no idea was out there was equally important. Learning about the ACEs study, the body keeping score, how trauma disrupts and hijacks brain and nervous system development, and that it was possible to recalibrate our bodies is what has allowed me to heal this far. Curiosity and connection is how I have learned to live with and grow with the ripple effects of my traumas.

Tina: And currently, you are not only taking care of your personal people but also others in a residential setting. That is incredibly hard work! So I am curious about what you do to take good care of yourself?

Dawn: I have had to learn and now practice stillness. Not filling every moment with a productive thought or a movement. I permit myself to sit and read in the sun if that's what I really want to do, even if the house is a mess and the kids are bored. I've never been great at playing with my kids but I love card games. I grew up playing even poker very young. So Skippo is my go-to when I want to sit still and connect with them. My daughter is 13 now and I am teaching her how to play Texas holdem. Sometimes we go a little crazy with that. It is fun. And movie nights are my favorite. It is really just, particularly with them, and for myself it is about stillness and just simple being. But I also write. I'm working on a new book right now and also on building my business Rooted Efforts. It is going to be a trauma informed space that provides healing and self-care opportunities in my physical and online communities. And also trainings to build trauma informed families and communities and service providers. So it is so important for me to rest, recharge and also to create.

Serena: I am intrigued that there is a new book. You might just have to come back again and talk about that.

Tina: Yes!!

Serena: Tell our listeners how they can connect with you and learn more about all you are doing.

Dawn: So the book is called Parenting with PTSD. You can learn more information on my website at You can also find more information and learn more about me on my website and I am on social media Dawndaum on both Instagram and Facebook.

Serena: Alright. Excellent. And we will share all of those in our notes. With your sites so people don?t have to worry about writing them down. But Dawn, I just want to say how happy we are to have reconnected with you again and we have felt a powerful connection with you since the very first time we met you so many years ago.

Dawn: I was so happy to hear from you and excited to get the chance to talk to you both. It was so much fun and I'm very grateful for the conversation!

Tina: Yes! And thank you for your vulnerability. Thank you for being honest and sharing. We know you a little bit and we know that is who you are and it is really benefiting others in ways that I am sure you don?t have any idea so I appreciate that! And so on that note, if you all have messages for Dawn, I am sure there is a way to message you on your website, correct?

Dawn: yes. I mean you can either reach out on the website, there is a contact page and you can do that either if the websites I gave either or For anybody who wants to reach me via email, I am also available at

Tina: Awesome so we will?.I just feel like when people hear these episodes, I don?t want it to be the end. I think people should?.there is NO should about it. People can connect and open up because we know how much it benefits us when we connect with others who have experienced similar things. I am super glad to have reconnected. It may just help others go from darkness into light! You are doing great things.

Dawn: Thank you. Thank you both.

Tina: And so podcast friends, we are, as always, grateful for all of you listening and supporting us. You can help us out by visiting Apple podcasts, leave us a review, subscribe and please share with others. You will find lots more content on our website You can also connect with all of our socials on our website as well! And?we have a very exciting new thing which is?

Serena: We do! We have a new way for you to call us and leave us a voice message. We will share that information in our notes and we would love to hear your stories, your ideas, your thoughts or just say hi! We would love to hear from you. And this is your gentle reminder to take good care of yourself while you are also taking care of your people.

Tina: Thanks for listening!

Serena: Bye!