By Louise-Ann Paris-Riviere
As parents, even the best of us sometimes find ourselves yielding to negative impulses and reactions, which cause us to behave in unhelpful ways towards our children. These impulses and reactions seem to come from nowhere. Try as we may, we find it difficult to near impossible, to curb these negative impulses and reactions often brought on by certain behaviours of our children.
Take Maggie for example; Maggie is an excellent mother. She makes many sacrifices, puts her family first and always ensures that all of her daughter’s needs are met. However, she often has outbursts of anger in response to certain behaviours of her 5-year-old daughter, Judy. She begins by raising her voice and the situation sometimes escalates to the point where Judy ends up in tears. Once Maggie cools off she realises the impact of her actions and in the clear light of day recognises that her reaction to Judy’s behaviour was undeserving. She often ends up ridden with shame and guilt. Maggie cannot understand why she keeps doing this. She wakes every morning with the intention of being an amazing, gentle mother. She has been following the principles of a gentler style of parenting, which she read about a few months ago. The principles work well, except for when Maggie loses control of her emotions whenever certain behaviours of Judy triggers her undesirable feelings and reactions. She keeps promising herself that the next time she will not yield to her impulse to shout and/or scream at Judy but unfortunately, she keeps falling back into the same old habit.
Many parents have similar emotional impulses and reactions which do not make sense to them. Impulses which we keep repeating despite our best efforts to make positive change. Our natural response is to handle this by dealing directly with the impulses/feelings/reactions. Although this may work occasionally, the results are temporary and often ineffective. These undesirable feelings and impulsive reactions are often caused by what we refer to as parenting triggers. They can often blindside us, sabotage our positive parenting efforts and consume us with parental guilt.
What Are Parenting Triggers?
Parenting triggers are those events that take place which ignite unhelpful impulses and reactions within us towards our children. Causing to rise in us, unconscious fears, shame, insecurities, traumas, and hurts from our past, but particularly from our early life. Responses appear in the form of anger, frustration, intolerance, upset, sadness and helplessness. We hold those past hurts and traumas in what psychologist Carl Jung called the Shadow. The Shadow refers to that place within our psyche where we hold our deepest wounds and parts of ourselves we prefer to keep out of our consciousness because we do not want to know about them or remember.
These develop out of cultural and societal expectations and personal experiences which may have traumatised us on various levels. We repress these ugly feelings and experience into our shadow where they reside out of sight but never without consequence. What our wounds want, is for us to recognise that they are there and are still a part of us. They want to be dealt with. When these wounds are left unattended they fester like any unattended wound. They rear their heads when we least expect and cause us to behave in ways which we would describe as ‘out of character’.
Unfortunately, or fortunately, our children seem to be the masters of helping to unearth these old buried wounds. Sometimes because we were not taught as children how to process our emotions in a healthy way, because we want to protect our children or because we are afraid of being hurt again. Maybe as a child you were not allowed to show excitement, be silly or be your authentic self. You may have been told many times that children are to be ‘seen and not heard’ so you repressed the parts of you that wanted to squeal with delight and do cart wheels at the prospect of something exciting happening, or be silly, because they were unacceptable. You eventually became the impassive, stoic person you are today. But, somewhere deep inside is that child who wants to show her excitement about life. If you then go on to become the mother of a child who shows unhindered excitement, this may set off a trigger. Alternatively, you may be triggered by an opinionated child, because you may not have been allowed to express your thoughts and feelings when you were younger, on account that it was considered disrespectful. Our triggers may arise out of fear of being hurt again or out of fears of our children being shamed, belittled or hurt by others. Ironically in an attempt to save them from being hurt we hurt them ourselves because of our uncontrolled repressed wounds.
Triggers come in all shapes, sizes and responses. A child not eating every last morsel of food on their plate, can trigger fears and shame about ill health, waste, scarcity and poverty in their parent. The fear that this could happen again or the feelings of shame towards it could influence a response which is far more inflated than necessary. Children with wild imaginations may trigger feelings of being shamed as a child, possibly being called a liar for having had the same wild imagination. Children who talk back may trigger feelings of fear around losing control, or shame around being shut up as a child. You may find listening to a child cry intolerable, because it triggers the feeling of not being consoled as a child, maybe getting in trouble for crying or being forced to hide your feelings because “big boys or big girls don’t cry”.
The esteemed paediatrician and psychoanalyst D. W Winnicott said in his now famous book Playing and Reality, that what a child needs is a “good enough mother”. A good enough mother to him, is not a perfect mother, neither is she a mother who settles for a mediocre style of parenting. A good enough mother is a mother who is attuned to the needs of her child and meets those needs. Providing her child with a sense of safety. She is a mother who also allows for manageable amounts of frustrations to facilitate the development of a sense of individuality and an understanding of a world outside of his mother and the resilience to live in an imperfect world. However, even while allowing these frustrations, the good enough mother is always attuned to her child and a theme of empathy and affection is consistent throughout her parenting. Something which allows for reparation.
The problem with parenting triggers is that they can derail our ‘good enough’ parenting efforts and steal from us the opportunity to parent in the way we know to be best. Without conscious efforts our repressed parts will force their way to the surface in an uncontrolled way and can cause damage to our relationships and our children. The important thing is to recognise when you have been triggered and understand that this is not about your child but instead about you. When you notice a trigger then it’s time to take action.
So How Do We Take Action?
First Identify When You Have Been Triggered?
1. If you find yourself excessively angry at your child it’s a sure sign that a trigger has been activated.
2. If you find that after you calm down you recognise that your response was out of proportion to the situation or incident, then it is likely that a trigger has been activated.
3. If behaviour from a young child produces deep sadness in you then you have had a reaction to a trigger.
4. If you feel that “this seems familiar. I know this feeling very well”. If you feel that you’ve unfortunately reacted an undesirable way many times before, then a trigger has been activated
5. If you find that your reaction to your child’s behaviour is to hurt them by smacking, beating or shouting at them. Whether or not you yielded to the temptation you need recognise it as a trigger.
We must get to know those fears and insecurities that hide under the mask of anger, intolerance, sadness, and pride.
Shine a light on those parts that are hiding –
Take a note of your triggers; Take a step back and observe what just happened. Note when and how it happened.
Process those feelings. Are you angry, Annoyed, scared, sad? How do you feel physically?
Recognise that this is not about your child. The bad feelings were not created by them. This is about your past and the pain that your inner child still holds on to, has been suppressed so deep, but wants to be heard.
Stop yourself in the middle of a trigger. If its safe and appropriate to do so, step away from your child and into a quite, calm space. Breathe. Remind yourself that you are safe and in control of the situation.
Make peace with your past hurts
Share your feelings and concerns with a trusted friend.
Journaling; Reflective writing, free writing or stream of consciousness writing can all work.
Speak to a parenting coach who is experienced in working with parenting triggers.
Inner child work –. Inner child work is a very effective therapeutic practice that can be done on your own or with a therapeutic specialist
If you feel you need further professional help speak with a qualified therapist.
If you would like more information and support on parenting triggers, please contact The Whole Parenting.