Let’s speak about parenting triggers. We all have bad days as parents. Sometimes we all have bad weeks or months. The truth is parenting can be exhausting. But if you find yourself being upset or yelling at your kids, the chance is you’ve been triggered.
You just told your five-year-old to come to the table for the eighth time in the last five minutes. Or this: your two-year-old decides to throw a fit about putting on his shoes when you are running late and trying to get out the door. Or possibly this, your seven-year-old yells, I hate you; you are the worst mom/dad ever, as she slams the door to her room. Suddenly your feelings of calm and well-being are swept away as your emotions and feeling well up and overwhelm you. This took a split second, and now you are spinning out of control. Before you can stop yourself, you are yelling, threatening, or punishing your child. We all have those hot buttons that take us from calm to crazy in about two seconds, as we cannot stop our irrational behavior. Our reactions may be way out of proportion to the seemingly small or trivial thing our child said or did.
Other times we may feel justified in our anger. However, once our emotional storm has passed, we feel guilty for overreacting and being out of control. We may vow to respond more calmly and not spiral out of control the next time our child does or says that thing that makes us so crazy.
What Are Parenting Triggers?
In parenting terms, a trigger is anything your child says or does that makes you feel excessively upset, hurt, or helpless. In her book Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids, Dr. Laura Markham, a clinical psychologist and parenting coach, says, “A Trigger is anything you experience in the present moment that activates a feeling from the past. We then act in a way that’s not in keeping with the present.”
A trigger often reminds you of when you were a child. Your childhood experience might have been that you had to shut down your feelings because your big feelings resulted in punishment, being sent to your room, or being left alone in time out with your feelings.
Your child’s behavior may trigger doubts about your parenting ability and make you feel helpless. Your reaction may result from exhaustion, stress, and your needs not being met.
What Are The Most Common Parenting Triggers?
- Being Hurt or Hit by your Child
- Siblings Fighting
- I Hate You
- Anything that makes you feel suddenly and irrationally angry and upset.
Why Do Triggers Happen?
Conventional wisdom about triggers puts a band-aid on the situation and doesn’t get to the root cause of the triggers. You can transform the trigger when you understand the root cause of why triggers happen.
The first step to understanding your triggers is understanding the relationship between your thoughts, emotions, and feelings. You may be unaware that your emotions and feelings directly result from your thoughts. Also, you likely think of emotions and feelings as being interchangeable.
Neuroscience tells us that our thoughts are the electrical signal that creates the neurotransmitters and hormones (chemicals) that travel throughout our body. These chemicals make the sensations in your body that are your emotions.
For example, your thoughts are, “I just told my child five times to pick up their room and look at this mess! There are toys scattered everywhere, all of the books from the bookshelf are on the floor, and his pj’s from last night are not in the hamper where they belong.
As you think each thought, you feel your stomach knot, your fists clench, your face turns red, and your mouth opens to tell your child what you think about the mess.” You may not even be aware of all of the sensations and changes that just happened in your body within about 2 seconds or less. In addition, your heart was likely racing and sending extra blood to your limbs so you could close the distance between to doorway of the room and your child in one giant leap if you so choose. All these changes occur because your thoughts activate a part of your brain called the sympathetic nervous system, also known as your fight, flee, or faint system.
Your feelings are our conscious awareness of the bodily sensations/your emotions. In other words, behind every emotion is a thought or a belief (the stimulus). Your emotions are the responses to your thoughts or belief (response). Your feelings are your awareness of the response.
The big idea here is that it isn’t the situation that causes us to be triggered (suffer) but our thoughts about the situation.
You might think that your child’s whining, temper tantrums, or disrespect are causing you to (suffer) feel suddenly and irrationally angry and upset. But you are feeling this way because of your thoughts about their behavior.
Let me give you an example of how thoughts might create how much someone might suffer, not the situation. This past summer, on the first day of a long-awaited vacation, I fell off a rock ledge and fractured two bones in my foot. This was a painful experience for me physically and emotionally because it meant I couldn’t do many of the activities I had planned for the rest of the vacation.
How much I would suffer would depend on my thoughts. I could think, this really sucks; my vacation is over. I might as well pack my bags, fly home and spend the next eight weeks in pain until my foot heals.
I could take a deep breath and think, wow, I’m lucky I didn’t hit my head. I can tape my foot, wear a walking cast and still enjoy the rest of my vacation. I went sightseeing in Rocky Mountain National Park. The scenery was exquisite. I took a gondola up to the top of a mountain and took many amazing pictures. I spent hours chatting with the people I met in the little towns I explored. I had a wonderful vacation. The point is my thoughts determined how much I suffered, not the painful experience.
What this also meant is there are thoughts underneath our common triggers. Overreacting with strong emotion, an angry reaction is caused by something we are thinking. Those thoughts may be conscious or subconscious, meaning we may not be aware of them. This is often the case because most of us have subconscious beliefs that inform our emotions. Our past experiences created these subconscious thoughts and beliefs. To bring these beliefs into our awareness, we must notice when we are triggered and then intentionally explore the thought or belief underneath the trigger. How?
The easiest way to do this is to finish this sentence,
I Feel ______ because_______. The reason you give after the because is the thought underneath the emotion. It’s essential to understand the thought beneath the emotion; however, when seeking to understand and transform a trigger, we have to take it one step further. We have to explore what we are making the situation mean about ourselves. Let me explain.
Why are we triggered?
We are triggered because our thoughts underneath the trigger aren’t only our negative judgment about our child (or others) but our judgments about ourselves.
We are triggered when our child, other events, or situations cause us to judge ourselves negatively (negative response), either subconsciously or consciously.
Let me give an example to explain what I mean:
Let’s suppose your co-worker didn’t complete the project he was assigned. You might feel compassion for him because it cost him his bonus. Or suppose your friend embarrassed herself in public. Again you may feel empathy and possibly some embarrassment on her behalf. However, neither of these events would likely trigger you.
Suppose your child failed to complete an assigned project at school, and his teacher asked you to come in for a conference to discuss the failure. Or suppose your child had an epic meltdown at the toy store because you wouldn’t buy her the toy she wanted. One or both of these situations will likely trigger you, making you angry, upset, and yelling at your child.
Your child did essentially the same thing as your co-worker and your friend. Only your child triggered you.
Why? Because you believe deep down that your child’s behavior reflects you as a parent. This commonly occurs. We are triggered when our children misbehave because we believe that behavior makes us look like bad parents.
If we could disinvest ourselves from our child’s behavior, as we do with our co-workers or friends, then our child’s behavior wouldn’t have any power over our emotions. Our child’s behavior brings up our negative emotions because we judge ourselves when we observe our child misbehaving.
What To Do When My Kids Trigger Me?
Here is what’s powerful for you also to understand. Our kid’s misbehavior won’t trigger us if we are secure in our belief that we are good parents and our kids are good kids. Our kids may struggle, but their behavior is consistent with those children who have good parents.
Said another way, we only get triggered because a part of us believes that we might be failing in some way as parents.
Remember: You are not a bad person. You are not a bad parent.
You wouldn’t get triggered if your child didn’t complete the assigned project if you believe you are a good parent. If you believe you are doing a great job instructing, teaching, and preparing your child for a successful future. Your response upon learning about the incomplete project might be a disappointment, surprise, or possibly even get upset. However, it will not trigger you.
Likewise, your child’s meltdown in the toy store will not trigger you if your belief is secure in knowing that your emotional, social parenting will lead to great social skills. Does this mean you won’t ever get irritated or angry when your kid throws a fit in public? Absolutely not; it is normal to feel irritation or anger in this instance. However, it isn’t the same as being triggered. Only you can decide what constitutes triggered behavior, and your reaction is way out of proportion with your child’s misbehavior.
This is also true for other triggers outside of the realm of parenting. When someone we care about disrespects us, we feel triggered only when the thought underneath goes something like this,
“Wow, when they treat me this way, it must mean that I am not worthy of respect.”
Parenting Triggers We Don't Want To Admit.
Let’s see if I can make it more real. Your partner asks you to put the trash out for pickup in the morning by the collection service. You become enraged because that is “his job,” and you launch into a tirade about how that’s his job and can’t he see how tired you are from running after the kids all day and on and on.
All of what you said may be true, but the reason you are triggered is not that he asked you to do something for him. There are lots of times that you do things for him when he asks. If you look beneath the anger, you will likely find that you think you should be respected more, and there must be something wrong with you that you don’t get his respect. You may also feel he is taking you for granted and blame yourself for letting him treat you that way.
We are triggered because our thoughts underneath the trigger aren’t only our negative judgments about others but our judgments about ourselves.
When your child yells, “I hate you.” or is disrespectful in other ways. If his words trigger you, the thoughts beneath the emotion of anger are likely something like, “what am I doing wrong that my child thinks it is ok to treat me this way? I am a failure as a parent.” Only you can find the thought that’s underneath your triggers. You can be sure that it will be a negative judgment of who you are or the person you are.
When you honestly look at the thoughts, it will be a judgment about yourself. You may be thinking that your strong emotional response is your child’s fault, and it is necessary to make sure you teach your child how to be respectful. What you may not realize is you are judging yourself. If you dig deep enough, every trigger you have will lead you to a negative thought or belief you have about yourself, your life, and the choices you make.
Your response is so intensely upsetting and often irrational when your children trigger you because you make it mean something negative about you. We all want our children to be responsible, respectful, happy, and successful. We want to feel like we are good parents. Our emotions are powerful when we see evidence in our children that we are failing or falling short.
Break the cycle of triggered parents. Read my blog post: Six Things Every Cycle-Breaker Parent Can Do!