Parenting Triggers: 3 important things you should know
Parenting triggers are not really something we think too much about before we have children, right? f you’re anything like me, when you imagined becoming a parent, you saw trips to the park, arts and crafts projects, lots of snuggles, holding cute dimpled hands in yours, playing in the backyard, bedtime stories – things like that. Sure, you knew there would be difficult parts too, but you always pictured yourself as a calm, loving, patient mama who took it all in her stride and responded with compassion and empathy to her kids.
What you probably didn’t imagine was losing it over wet towels left on the floor, toddlers who refuse to eat the dinner you’ve been lovingly preparing for them all evening, or the whining that starts the moment you sit down with a hot coffee. But we all have these triggers. We all have things that cause us to completely lose it with our kids. Situations that just get to us and cause us to behave in ways we never expected we would.
And that’s particularly tough, because it causes us to question ourselves as parents. Our parenting triggers and the way we react to them challenge our perception of ourselves and create a mismatch – between what we value as parents and the way we behave. And that makes it incredibly difficult to parent mindfully.
What is a parenting trigger?
Parenting triggers are things that our children do, say, feel or believe that cause us to have an automatic, negative response. We may yell, lash out, shut down, cry, try to escape or feel compelled to punish or shame our children when we feel triggered. We may say or do things we normally wouldn’t.
Triggers cause us to act in a way that is out of line with our own values and beliefs about parenting. Our response when we feel triggered is usually extreme, and not at all in proportion to what has actually happened. And here’s the thing: triggers prevent us from being the parent we want to be, at least in that moment. They rob us of our choice. They cause us to act in a way that eases our own emotional discomfort, instead of in the way that is best for our child in the moment. That’s because these responses are usually the result of experiences from our own childhoods.
What do parenting triggers look like?
We all have different triggers, but our children experiencing big emotions is a huge trigger for many parents. Often, it is because we were raised in an environment where we were not free to express our own emotions safely. Because doing so would have led to us being punished, or ignored, or otherwise invalidated. So when our own children express emotions, we feel threatened and overwhelmed by them. Or, we simply don’t know how to deal with them, because no one ever modelled this behaviour for us as children.
It is not always negative emotions from our children that trigger us either. Sometimes it is our children’s happiness that does it: things like playfulness, acting silly, or having choice and autonomy in their lives. If we were never allowed to experience these things as children – if these behaviours resulted in us being shamed or punished – then this kind of behaviour in our children has the potential to trigger us also.
Some of the more common parenting triggers include:
- Children not listening
- Sibling arguments
- Food waste
- Children talking back
- Tantrums and big emotions
- A lack of privacy or personal space
So if any of those things sound familiar, you’re definitely not alone. And you’re also not failing. Here’s what you really need to know about parenting triggers if you want to make some changes to the way you respond to your kids.
3 things you need to know in order to parent mindfully while triggered
1. Your child’s behaviour has nothing to do with your yelling
When our children behave in challenging ways, we often lose our cool. We yell. We lash out at our kids. We punish them. We say things we regret. And many of us believe that if our kids just stopped doing this incredibly annoying thing, we could stop yelling right? That if they just listened to us the first time, appreciated what we did for them, or gave us a little bit of space, we could be the cool, calm collected parent we always imagined we would be.
But what if I told you your child’s behaviour has NOTHING to do with the way you’re reacting?
Yep, it’s true. Your reaction has nothing to do with the actual behaviour, and everything to do with how the behaviour makes you feel, and the meaning you assign it. These situations cause us to feel frustrated, angry and helpless. Overwhelmed. Anxious. Scared. Negative thinking sets in. Things like, “No one ever listens to me!”. “I’m failing as a parent.” “No one appreciates me.” “I’m useless.”
Why? Because triggers activate old wounds from childhood. Old hurts and beliefs we have carried with us into adulthood. They take us right back to that moment in time when we felt abandoned, rejected or unheard as a child. They cause us to relive that pain. And then we react in ways that aim to protect us from being hurt again. When you are triggered, you are no longer in the present. You are reacting to past events.
And THAT is why you yell.
2. Your stress is making it impossible to control your reactions
The other thing that is important for us to understand about triggers, is that they are more likely to be activated when we are already feeling emotionally heightened or physically depleted. So if we have had an argument with our partner earlier in the day, or we’re stressed about a work deadline, or we’re hungry, or we haven’t had enough sleep, those triggers are more easily brought to the surface.
We are not able to think clearly when we are stressed. When the fight-flight-freeze response kicks in, our thinking brain shuts down. Logical thinking goes out the window. And so does our self control. Because we need our thinking brain to access our self control. That means, the more stress you are under, the less able you are to control your reactions.
This is why it is so very important to learn how to mindfully manage our stress as parents. It is important for us, and our own emotional health, of course, but it is also important for the emotional health of our kids. When we are feeling emotionally and physically well, that threshold for feeling triggered is raised: it takes much more to trigger us. We are better able to regulate ourselves, and therefore, help our kids regulate themselves.
3. You are not your reactions
The final thing we tend to do when we find ourselves triggered, is assume that our reaction is some kind of character or personality flaw. That these reactions are simply a part of who we are.
So many people tell me things like:
- “I’m a yeller”
- “I’ve never had much patience”
- “I’m naturally fiery. That’s just who I am.”
- “I’m not a very calm person.”
When we think like this about ourselves, two things happen. We feel powerless to change, and we feel shame about our behaviour. And both of these things increase our stress and make it less likely that we will be able to respond differently. We get stuck in a shame cycle, repeatedly being triggered, yelling, feeling bad, and then yelling some more because we feel bad.
Your reactions are not who you are. They are not happening because you’re a bad person, or a bad parent. They are simply stress responses and patterns that you have learned. Yes, they take time to change. But they CAN be changed. The brain can be reprogrammed. You can choose a different response.
And once you accept that, the real change can begin.
Where to next?
Now you know the truth about parenting triggers. You’re not yelling at your kids because they’re misbehaving, you don’t need to have more self control, and your reactions are not a character flaw or personality trait that you are powerless to change. Your reactions are stress responses. And you are triggered because parenting activates old childhood wounds.
But letting go of these beliefs is just the first step. Your brain will continue to react this way until you teach it a new way to respond. And you CAN teach it a new way. You can get out of this cycle and be the parent you always imagined you would be.
But you’ll need some help to do it. This is exactly why I created my FREE 3 day Calm Mama Mini Series: 3 Days to a Calmer You. Inside of the series, we’re talking about how to identify and understand your triggers, how to manage your stress, and how to challenge those old beliefs that no longer serve you or your child. We’re kicking off the series inside of my Facebook Group: Raising Mindful Little Minds on Tuesday June 15th. Come join us!
Sarah is a psychologist, mama of 4 and the creator of Mindful Little Minds. She has over 10 years of experience working with children, adolescents and families experiencing mental health problems and has a special interest in anxiety disorders in children. In her spare time she enjoys hugging her kids, drinking coffee, and telling anyone who’ll listen how tired she is.