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Working Through Your Parenting Triggers

I am an incredibly patient person. It takes a lot to ruffle my feathers. I also work with children, so I understand what is typical behavior and what is a cry for attention or an attempt at conveying a message. But there are some behaviors that, even when I’m calm as can be, will immediately make me lose my mind and lash out inappropriately.  

Obviously, this is not the parent I want to be. I don’t want to project my past hurts onto my unsuspecting (and undeserving) children. I don’t want to be the type of mom whose children feel they have to walk on eggshells in their own home. I want my children to run TO ME when they make mistakes instead of away from me.  With these goals in mind, I’ve been reading about and researching “Trigger Work” for the past few weeks. What I have learned has been nothing short of life-changing.

Leaning into this work has been incredibly empowering (and also utterly exhausting)! A trigger-free existence is possible, but it takes A LOT of hard work…perhaps too much work for some parents to tackle immediately. Proceeding cautiously is advised, and having a support system or professional help if needed is crucial. Let’s be completely honest: you are literally peeling back the layers of your false identity. Figuring out and working through your parenting triggers is difficult work, but is immensely helpful in keeping yourself calm when your child is melting down. Just because your child is tantruming doesn’t mean you have to join them! Help them learn to self-regulate by being an example of a person who:  

  • Responds instead of reacts
  • Leads by example and doesn’t demand perfection 
  • Shows grace whenever possible, and 
  • Apologizes when they get it wrong

When we talk about reacting to our parenting triggers, we’re not just talking about getting annoyed or frustrated. We’re not talking about raising our voice or giving a warning (or even a consequence). We’re also not talking about losing your patience because you’re tired or overwhelmed, or because you’ve already told her nicely to pick up her socks 7,384 times and she STILL HASN’T DONE IT. These are fairly normal reactions to frustrating behaviors, and they usually take a minute to build up to a major blow-up.

  

A reaction caused by a trigger, however, is more of a knee-jerk reaction

It’s what makes you go from 0-10 on the Rage Scale in a matter of seconds. You can’t control it, and you can’t stop it from happening. It may feel very familiar to you, but you can’t quite figure out why. You may even feel the urge to lash out physically at your child. You react immediately (out of anger, fear, sadness, or worry) and you (and those around you) have the feeling that this outburst came “out of nowhere”. 

But did it?

Most often, triggers are unique and deeply rooted responses to past events that have remained unresolved. For example, if you’ve ever been in a terrible car accident, your trigger may be your child engaging in dangerous or unsafe behaviors in the car.  If you were harshly disciplined as a child for lying, you may unfairly lash out at your child when you catch her bending the truth.  

Because triggers are different for everyone, Googling “What are my parenting triggers?” will not be very helpful. The only way to figure out your personal triggers is to spend time being mindful of your reactions to your child(ren)’s behavior. Any time you find yourself reacting immediately in an angry or wounded way to a behavior, take note of it and write it down. Notice a pattern? You likely will! At the end of the day, you can sit down with your list and for each question, ask yourself “Why does this bother me so much?” 

The answers may not come immediately, and that’s ok. This type of work often involves deep introspection and the willingness to conjure up memories of past wounds. Not everyone is ready for this type of experience, but when you are, be sure to show yourself grace and do not expect perfection. Be gentle with yourself, and keep in mind that there is no timeline for healing old wounds. Overcoming your parenting triggers takes time, effort, diligence, and patience. It might not be easy, but remember…you can do hard things!

This past week, I’ve been working on becoming more mindful of my triggers, and I’ve narrowed them down to just a handful:

  1. unnecessary loud noises indoors
  2. being ignored after saying “Stop”
  3. having to stand for longer than I’d like because of “dawdling” 
  4. people touching my head or face without asking

Some of you may have read that list and nodded your head in agreement,. Or, perhaps you can’t relate to any of the above.  Maybe your trigger is related to crying, or sibling fighting, or tantrums. Maybe it’s non-compliance or backtalk. My husband has a hard time staying calm when our 5 year old moves (and loses) his belongings. My aunt becomes triggered when she perceives that her grandchildren are being rude to her. A friend of mine immediately loses her temper every time her toddler asks for a snack directly after refusing a meal.

  • Do you know your parenting triggers? Could you list them?
  • Do you know WHY you are triggered by certain behaviors and not others?
  • What could you do today to lessen their power during your interactions with your child(ren)?

Personally, I’ve known the “Why” behind #2 and #4 for a while now, but it took me about 2 years after my son, Simon, was born to figure them out. Now that I know them, I am often able to say “I’m feeling triggered” when it happens instead of blowing up. Sometimes I say this to myself, and sometimes I say it out loud to my 5 year old (or my husband or whoever else is performing the offensive behavior). I also understand that #3 is triggered by chronic pain and not due to a past trauma/hurt. Still trying to figure out #1…but as my yoga teacher says, “it’s a practice, not a perfect”. 

I’m going to keep practicing, because my kids deserve to have a mom who doesn’t project her past hurts onto them. They deserve a mom who understands that these “leftover” feelings don’t belong in my current relationship with my children. It’s helpful for me to remember that the goal is not to “not react” to my parenting triggers, but to react differently. After all, peaceful parenting is not about controlling my children’s behavior- it’s about controlling MY OWN behavior. I am forever a work in progress.

Important Note: If you grew up in an abusive or neglectful home, it is advised to first seek professional help to identify and alleviate past hurts before delving into your triggers. 

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