“We come into the world wired to make connections with one another, and the subsequent neural shaping of our brain, the very foundation of our sense of self, is built upon these intimate exchanges between the infant and her caregivers.” -Dr. Dan Siegel, M.D.
What is a trigger?
According to Wikipedia, an emotional trigger is a stimulus such as a smell, sound, or sight that triggers feelings of trauma. We tend to associate the word “trauma” with horrific and indescribable events; the type of things we hear or read about in the news. Unfortunately, some of us have experienced such a form of trauma; however, for the majority of the population, our traumas are milder yet no less valid or important. Many times we don’t even know we have experienced stress or petrauma in our lives. An absence of childhood memories or viewing a parent or caregiver as perfect or infallible can be a sign of childhood stress or trauma. What registers as trauma for one person could possibly not register as trauma for another. However, the brain and body store memories. When we are triggered, these past memories flare up and overwhelm us with feelings and occasionally physical symptoms. Many times it happens so quickly and unexpectedly, the feelings are intense and take us by surprise. Triggers are subconscious reactions to an emotional experience from the past. Essentially, triggers call back unhealed wounds.
Triggers and parenting-
How does this relate to parenting, our kids, and their behavior? When we become parents, our children can rekindle these memories simply by something they have said or done. Have you ever had an “out of body” experience when parenting? You are yelling at your littles or being physically aggressive or rough and you know you should stop, in your mind you can feel yourself getting out of control and you know you shouldn’t yell… If you can relate, keep reading.
You are not alone; this does not mean you are a bad parent.
This means at some point in your own childhood you experienced some form of stress or trauma that has gone unhealed. Triggers are often related to our own schooling, experiences, or how we were raised. These triggers don’t necessarily need to be negative. Occasionally our child having a positive experience can trigger us, especially if we were never allowed to express ourselves fully as a child. During parenting, old forgotten memories emerge and dictate our behaviors in a reactive moment. We see our children as symbols of our past memories and these associations can cause us to act on autopilot.
It is important to note here that a trigger has nothing to do with the child’s actual behavior, but our reaction to it. We are reacting to our child’s behavior and what that means to us from past experiences in our own childhood.
When our children do, say, or behave in a manner that triggers negative responses in us, we are reacting to their behavior. For whatever reason, the words or actions (positive or negative) our littles did ignited the fire within us. They “set us off.” Once triggered, the body moves into “fight or flight” mode and we are in a sympathetic state. In the sympathetic state, our brain functions from its most primitive state. At this point, it becomes difficult to reign in our actions, feelings, and thoughts. All of this happens within our subconscious and it is our subconscious that takes over when we are triggered. Neurons fire in a blink of an eye and, before we know it, our reaction has exploded.
How to deal with these strong, familiar, and unchained reactions? By identifying the reason behind the rush of emotions, we can catch ourselves before the explosion.
The idea of emotional trauma and parental triggers can be difficult to understand and accept. Many of us might feel protective and staunchly defend our upbringings. We might believe it is the child’s fault that we were triggered and that their behavior is inappropriate; however, in reality, the trigger is a window into the past to our unhealed soul. Growing up we might not have received the message that we were loved completely, imperfections and all.
It is not about your child’s behavior. It is about us.
What does it feel like to be triggered?
Each person will have an individual response to his or her own triggers. Commonly experienced feelings that one might have are anger, sadness, panic, pain (physical or emotional), racing heart, anxiety, and explosive reactions to seemingly minor events.
Healing from triggers-
Recognizing we have been triggered is the number one step to begin the healing process. Avoid blaming or punishing our littles for their behavior and instead reflect on what it was that caused our reaction. It’s important to highlight that we should also avoid excessively blaming or punishing ourselves as parents. After losing our cool, we might have feelings of inadequacy towards ourselves or want to punish ourselves for our reactions. Taking the time to simply recognize we have been triggered is the single most important step we can take. Writing down what happened and diving deeper into the feelings is one way to become more aware of them. Write from the feeling instead of about the feeling (ex. “I am screaming at my child” vs. “I was angry at my child” tell the story of what happened). This might cause internal discomfort, and that is okay. Observe yourself throughout the day and see if you can figure out whattriggers you. This process could last several weeks or months. Voicing these thoughts out loud and sharing them with a partner or therapist can be especially helpful.
Understanding why we have been triggered is the biggest step towards healing. This can be an uncomfortable process as it requires us to call back and sit with memories from our past that might be painful. One way to do this is to picture ourselves as children again and think back on how we were parented. Realizing that our reaction is not about our child’s current behavior, but about what that behavior means to us. This meaning was created in the past, when we were children—this is how deep we must reflect when trying to figure out why we have been triggered. Again, journaling can be an effective tool for recording past memories and thoughts. Being open and vulnerable during the reflection process can help get to the root of the why.
Self care is a cornerstone to being the best version of ourselves and thus a better parent. This is especially difficult in the early childhood years when the demands are endless and unmet needs feel urgent. It is in this stage of life when we might be more susceptible to triggers. Self care can look very different for each individual person, here are some ideas:
- Meditation: spend some time in a day to close your eyes and bring awareness to your breath. Use an app, music, noise canceling headphones, or go outside. It can be 1 minute or 10 minutes, whatever works for you.
- Breathing: it sounds simple but simply breathing can help calm the nerves and regulate us.
- Exercise: whether it is 10 jumping jacks during a heated moment of emotions or a full blown workout, find some time to move your body.
- Journaling: this has been instrumental in my own healing. Writing down feelings, stressful moments, past memories, parenting wins and failures. Write it all down and let it flow.
- Crying: so many of us are emotionally constipated after years of repressing our feelings. Let it out and cry. It is therapeutic and can help us release pent up tension and inflammation.
- Taking a break: in the moment when the littles are screaming and crying, simply being honest and saying: “I’m finding this hard. I need a moment.” Or “This is hard right now. Mommy is going to close her eyes and breath.” Not only is this wonderful modeling for our children but it also gives us a chance to slow down and collect our thoughts before reacting.
- Play: this is especially unheard of for adults in today’s world. Adults need to play also. This means participating in activities that are joyful and fun and spark your creativity and passion.
Repair and Reflection-
What happens after we have exploded and caused the damage to our littles or ourselves? The most crucial step is REPAIR. We are not perfect and when we mess up it is critical that we learn to repair after a damage. When we repair we reflect on what has happened and apologize to those we have hurt, including ourselves. During the reflection process we must remain open, observant, and objective about what is going on in our own minds and with others. Before repairing and reconnecting with others, we need to ensure we are connected with ourselves. This might mean cooling off for a bit, breathing, and then going back to apologize.
Repairing means apologizing to our littles (or those we hurt), explaining to them what happened, why we became reactive and asking for forgiveness. Our littles learn through modeling and this act alone of apologizing and asking for forgiveness is one of the most important acts we can teach our littles about life, relationships, and connection. In this process repair comes from forgiving ourselves and releasing the blame on ourselves for our mistakes. Easier said than done, it is important to change our internal self talk to positive as opposed to negative and give ourselves grace.
Our children remind us of our past and are here to help us grow into the best version of ourselves we can be. Triggers are a reminder that we have work to do, and unhealed wounds to confront and heal. You are not alone and are not a bad parent, we all have internal work to do.
“Be the hero you wish to see in your children.” -Roslyn Ross
Resources for learning more about triggers and childhood trauma:
Healing Developmental Trauma: How Early Trauma Affects Self Regulation, Self Image, and the Capacity for Relationship by Laurence Heller, Ph.D
Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation by Dr. Daniel Siegel