I’m asking my 2 year old daughter a question and her big sister interrupts with an answer before she even gets a chance to speak. I instantly snap at her that I wasn’t talking to her and not to interrupt. It seems like there wasn’t even a moments space for me to take a breath, try to see her perspective, and respond in a calm and productive manner. My annoyance was instantaneous and out of proportion.
Whenever that happens, I know I am triggered. No amount of peaceful parenting ‘techniques’ can help me. There is no script I can follow. A feeling has been triggered inside me and I am acting on impulse to shut it down because it is too uncomfortable.
I bet you know how that feels. You can have all the good intentions and then this. Why?
“Triggers are often a sign of unintegrated emotional experiences that are a result of emotional control we may have experienced as children. Often when we are triggered by something a child says or does, it brings up emotions that are related to an incident earlier in our lives where we experienced pain.” – Teresa Graham Brett
We are all triggered in our own ways. Whether we recognise it or not, our children take us back to our past, to our childhood. The experiences we had back then still live with us, and if we never got the chance to emotionally work through them, you can bet we will now. The saddest thing is, most people will never take that opportunity.
“Whether we unconsciously generate situations in which we feel the way we did when we were children, or we desperately struggle to avoid doing this, in some shape or form we inevitably experience the identical emotions we felt when we were young. This is because, unless we consciously integrate the unintegrated aspects of our childhood, they never leave us but repeatedly reincarnate themselves in our present, then show up all over again in our children. Hence by offering us a reflection of our unconsciousness, our children bestow on us an inestimable gift. As they provide us with opportunities to recognize our unconsciousness as it manifests in the here and now, we have a chance to break free of the clutches of our past so that we are no longer ruled by our early conditioning.” -Shefali Tsabary
If you are struggling to respectfully parent and find yourself getting overly angry or frustrated or just ‘snapping’ no matter how much you have practiced, how much you’ve read, how many parenting techniques you have up your sleeve, then it’s probably because you have some internal work to do.
How can we hope to understand our children, be compassionate, and have a respectful relationship with them when we can’t do those things with ourselves. We need to understand our past and move through it, showing ourselves compassion and empathy, or our children will keep delivering the same lessons until we do.
We can choose not to, of course, as the majority do. We can ignore our inner child and instead adopt mainstream parenting techniques. We can deal with any negative or difficult situations with control and force so we never have to look inside ourselves. We can convince ourselves that this is best for children, we’re teaching them how to be ‘good’ humans, right? They need our control and force and punishment. Just like instead of drinking enough water you could take paracetamol for a headache every day. You get to feel ‘okayish’ and minimise surface level symptoms instead of dealing with the underlying issues.
Or, we can recognise the immense opportunity our children present to us. To learn and grow and heal. We can do the real work of parenthood and transform into our best selves.
I hope you’re opting for the latter.
When we commit to looking inside ourselves for the answer, we realise that moments of conflict aren’t something to diminish. They are opportunities for growth. Instead of relying on power and control, we seek connection and understanding (with our children and ourselves). Instead of reacting to our children, we critically examine why we react. We get to the root of the problem and make lasting changes.
“Our children come to us so we may recognize our psychic wounds and call up the courage to transcend the limitations these wounds place on us. As we uncover the ways in which our past drives us, we gradually become capable of parenting consciously. Until then, try as we may to bring awareness to the way we parent, unconsciousness seeps into our interactions with our children at the least provocation.” -Shefali Tsabary
It’s not easy. You probably have many triggers, and they may not always be simple to identify. But you deserve the freedom that comes from healing the emotional wounds of the past.
How do you do it?
Identify your triggers
The first step is always to identify your triggers. Simply knowing what situations are likely to evoke an intense reaction for you means you can be more prepared. For example, I know that I am very likely to get overly frustrated when we’re in a rush, so I can be prepared for that. I can make sure I don’t leave things to the last minute, I can clearly communicate with everyone in the house what the plans are, I can give myself extra time, etc. Try keeping a diary for a week and noting down all the times you have an intense or disproportionate reaction to a situation, what was going on at the time, and how you felt.
Find the why
Try to work out where your feelings are coming from. What are you reacting to? How are you interpreting your child’s behaviour/feelings? When have you felt similar in the past?
Connect with the child inside you. Why is that child so angry/upset/hurt?
It could be a general feeling or a specific instance. Maybe you felt powerless often as a child, or maybe you remember a clear incident where you were shamed for something.
One thing that is triggering for me is when I perceive my oldest child as being ‘bossy’, something I felt shame for as a child. I interpret her behaviour in this way when others may not. But she has the right to her own experiences, free of judgement. She is capable and confident and is entitled to experiences where she gets to work out how to be an effective leader.
For parents who value freedom and autonomy for their children, even this can be unexpectedly triggering. Maybe your child is doing nothing ‘wrong’ but the fact that they can be truly themselves, make their own decisions, and be free from control, is a stark contrast to your own experiences as a child, and even though you value this it is triggering for you to witness.
It can be so uncomfortable and vulnerable to explore these memories, after all, that’s why we react to experiences that bring up the same types of feelings. We want to shut them down so we don’t have to relive them. But when you acknowledge your triggers, when you know what they are and where they come from, they lose their power over you. They can no longer hide in your subconscious and make you react without thought. You shine a light on them and move them into your consciousness so that you can begin to address them instead of hiding from them.
Sit with the feelings
So many of us were not allowed to express our feelings as children. Our emotions were shut down and we never learnt how to deal with them. Now is our chance to change that. When you identify and acknowledge your triggers, it often brings up a lot of feelings. Maybe anger, sadness, regret, disappointment. Instead of pushing them aside and shutting them down, we can name them, feel them, and move through them.
This is not only a gift to us, but our children too. They so deeply need us to be accepting of their feelings, but that is very difficult until we get comfortable with our own emotional state. Unless we can accept our own feelings, we cannot often accept theirs.
“The primary cause of the adult desire to control children’s emotions is probably that adults are not well-equipped to deal with our own emotions—having had our emotional expressions controlled as children. We recreate the controls imposed on us because we are uncomfortable with the feelings that arise when a child expresses her emotions.” -Teresa Graham Brett
These early experiences also shape our beliefs about ourselves. For example, if we were often shamed, dismissed, punished, ridiculed, or ignored, we may have come to believe that we are unworthy, unlovable, uninteresting, unimportant, or otherwise ‘bad’. We may feel that we are loved only conditionally and must prove our worth to others.
What beliefs about yourself came up while examining your triggers? Which of them need challenging?
Recognise that you are worthy and deserving of love, just as you are.
“Children who use more shame self-talk (I am bad) versus guilt self-talk (I did something bad) struggle mightily with issues of self-worth and self-loathing. Using shame to parent teaches children that they are not inherently worthy of love.” -Brene Brown
Empathy is so incredibly healing. If you didn’t receive it as a child, give some to yourself now. What does the child inside you need to hear? What do they need to heal?
You don’t need to solve it, you don’t need to explain it away, you don’t need to minimise your feelings. Just accept them and acknowledge ‘that was hard’, ‘that was not ok’, ‘I felt really worthless’, or ‘I felt really sad and what I needed was x’
Mainstream parenting, characterised by control and conditional approval and love, can be so harmful. I wish I could talk to the child inside each of us. I would probably say something like…
You didn’t deserve to be hit, you should have felt safe.
Your questions deserved an answer, your voice was important.
You didn’t have to perform, you were loved anyway.
It wasn’t ok that you were laughed at, you deserve to be taken seriously.
Who you are is acceptable.
You are allowed to feel sad or angry or any other emotion.
You can say ‘no’, you are allowed an opinion.
You have a right to privacy.
What you value is important.
…and a million other things.
I can’t really go back in time and do that, but I can take the opportunity available to me to heal now. What an absolute gift our children are giving us. They show us the way back to the people we were meant to be. They show us exactly how to be the parents they need! Isn’t that amazing? The work is ongoing, growth is constant, but it is SO worth it.
Will you take this gift?
“While we believe we hold the power to raise our children, the reality is that our children hold the power to raise us into the parents they need us to become. For this reason, the parenting experience isn’t one of parent versus child but of parent with child.” -Shefali Tsabary