We’ve all been there. It has been a hectic day already after managing chaos at work or school, and you come home and your child senses that you’re overwhelmed. Somehow, our kids know just what buttons to push when we are already distressed… but how and why?
Maybe it isn’t even that you’ve had an overwhelming day, but your child keeps doing specific things that instantly trigger your anger or anxiety. You want to be a peaceful parent and strive for using gentleness in the home, but something about this behavior feels like too much. You just want it to stop. You can’t quite understand where this anger keeps coming from but you want to better manage yourself while also being present for your child.
What you might be experiencing are referred to as parenting triggers. A trigger can be described as things that occur today that bring up feelings from years past. When a trigger happens, we are then operating out of old feelings and not from our most adult self. Our kids most often trigger us because their behavior is highlighting something for which we were once punished. Below are descriptions of two of the most common parenting triggers and how to cope with them.
First, let’s take a moment and reflect on how things were handled when you were a child and spilled something, broke something, or simply messed something up by accident. Were you yelled at, spanked, or worse? Did it feel like you should have known better?
Taking stock of the responses we received for simply being a kid can be a wise first step in identifying the reason for our own emotional responses. The reality is - a spill or accident is not the end of the world. Messes can be cleaned up. We tend to have an automated response because we received one for so long. Before accidents happen, choose what your response will be so that you have it available. Try to relax your posture and utilize a rehearsed response - it could be anything that feels appropriate: “It’s okay, accidents happen,” “We can clean it up together,” or whatever feels appropriate for you and your children.
Toddlers lack impulse control. Their brains are literally not developed enough to understand that hitting is not an appropriate response to you telling them that it’s bath time, bed time, or any other frustration they may experience. Needless to say, hitting from our toddler can be quite triggering, especially if we were hit as children.
Again, our responses are very automatic and it can be helpful to know what we are going to do before we do it. Notice when your child feels frustrated and hits. Is it during bedtime, or transitions? (e.g. from house to car seat, vice versa, etc.). Identify what you need to do in that moment to keep everyone safe. If it is to step away, then step away. If you can verbalize this to your child, do so. “Mommy/Daddy is stepping back to keep both of us safe.” Let them know that hitting is not okay, but that you aren’t abandoning them.
It can take time to change your automated responses. Be patient with yourself as you navigate this new territory. Completely changing our parenting from what we know and experienced as children is no small feat. Choose just one trigger to work on and focus on it for a couple of weeks. When you feel that you have improved that area to your liking, then move on to the next trigger. If you find that you’ve exhausted all efforts and are still struggling, it is okay to reach out to a therapist. For you and/or your child!
One of the most helpful books I ever read as a parent was Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting by Dr Laura Markham. Another favorite among many parents is How To Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber & Elaine Mazlish.