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What Can I Do When I Feel Triggered By My Kids?

When you feel stressed out by your kids, do this.

We all have survival adaptive responses that we have put in place long ago in order to draw attachment and fit into our family system. This creates an outline for who we become. 

Parenting children can feel incredibly hard, especially when there is an unconscious conflict between the different parts of ourselves. 

On one hand, we may logically conceptualize gentle parenting tools and have a desire to respond to our children in ways that are different from how we were responded to in our youth. 

On the other hand, our children often trigger parts of us that were shut down long ago - the parts that our caregivers told us were too big, too much, or not enough. Because our body holds onto these implicit and explicit messages, we form an identity that appeases our caregivers' expectations and preferences. And because our nervous system has created this identity to survive (and has gotten really good at it), it is often reluctant to let those patterns go. 

So, when your child does that thing they do that sends you into yell mode, threaten and lecture mode, or any other form of punishment, even when you desire to do something differently, it becomes incredibly tricky not to re-enact the same reactions you received when you did that thing as a child that your child just did.   

Your mind and your body are at odds

As much as we want to do things differently with our kids, the work must start with us, and there is a biological reason why. We can’t give out what isn’t inside of us. 

Everything you struggle with has a story to tell. You have the power to listen. It is never too late to break generational cycles and write a new narrative. 

Tools To Manage Your Triggers 

If you find that you are projecting your survival adaptive responses onto your child, know that 1) there is nothing wrong with you and 2) you are not alone. Our impulses to control our children are unconscious, merely re-enactments of the reactions we received. This leads us to project our own disowned authenticity onto our kids. Simply put, what we judge within ourselves transfers onto our children. But it isn’t too late to break the cycle. 

Preventative Tools

Here are 3 tools to use outside of dysregulation to help you better understand your child-self and your current triggers. 

1. Become curious about the child within you.

This isn’t a space for self-judgment or “fixing” but, rather, empathetic witnessing. Just time to observe and be with the child parts of yourself that have been hidden for so long. Ask yourself, 

  • What parts of yourself did you shrink to avoid punishment, meet expectations, and/or be viewed as kind, good, and acceptable?
  • What parts of yourself did you grow in order to fit into the ethos of your home?
  • What happened when you showed big emotions or voiced your wants and needs? 
  • What happened when you told the adults in your life “no” or voiced when something didn’t feel right to you? 

2. Complete a trigger worksheet.

Look to current-day triggers. Fill in this phrase: 

  • When my child does/doesn’t ___, I feel ___. 
  • I think ___. 
  • It makes sense that I feel __ and think __ because __. (think back to your inner child)
  • My goal for my child in these moments is ___. 
  • I cancel the goal that my child does __, and replace it with a new goal that **I** will ____ when my child does/doesn’t __. 

An example: 

  • When my child doesn’t listen to me, I feel disrespected. 
  • I think that they don’t care about my feelings and wants - like what I say doesn’t matter. 
  • It makes sense that I feel disrespected and think that no one cares because when I was a child, I was not allowed to voice my feelings. I was expected to walk the line. If I didn’t, I was isolated in my room. 
  • My goal for my child in these moments is that they do whatever I ask them to do. 
  • I cancel the goal that my child does whatever I ask them to do and I replace it with a new goal that I will step away and take three breaths before responding to my child when they don’t listen. 

Maybe you stop there. Maybe that goal, which is huge and paramount, is your starting block. 

If you want to layer onto that, maybe add whatever the next step would be for you. Perhaps it will sound something like this: I will then validate my child’s feelings. Or, I will set and hold to a boundary. Or, I will insert play to the situation. Or, I will look for ways to compromise and meet in the middle with my child. 

We do not control our children’s thoughts, feelings, and actions. We do control our own. In setting an intention about what you will do when your child does that thing that triggers your old wounds, you step into your power and will be in a better space to guide the present moment without your past controlling you (and your child).

3. Understand what your child’s behavior is saying

I find it helpful to understand what common triggering behavior indicates about my child’s development. Here are a few examples: 

  • Saying hurtful words such as, “I hate you.” - Your child is reaching for the most explosive thing they have to communicate that they are unhappy. This is a sign of dysregulation and a cry for help, not punishment or isolation. It really has nothing to do with their level of love for you and everything to do with their inability to manage their big emotions. 
  • Disrespect - Children are wired to push boundaries. It is how they learn about the world, what is accepted, what is not, and how their caregivers counter in the face of tricky situations. Their mirror neurons are absorbing how we respond to them, which serves as a sketch for how they will respond in the future. When we can manage our emotions first, and then get creative to find win-win solutions, we go into a problem-solving mode instead of power struggle mode
  • Being physically hurt - This one can really ignite our inner bear. No one likes to be hit, kicked, or attacked. No. One. At the same time, this isn’t your child’s attempt to knock you out or “be naughty.” Their fight behavior is a sign of a dysregulated nervous system. Something feels threatening and they are using the parts of the brain that are online - their brainstem and their midbrain. Our children are capable of detecting threats and feeling feelings but require guidance in managing behaviors.
  • Messes - Children don’t have the same wiring as us when it comes to cleanliness. If accidents and messes were an emergency in your home when growing up, chances are, this behavior brings up something big in you. 
  • Sibling rivalry - Our children are programmed to have a spectrum of emotions towards their siblings. While they may love one another, they are also competitors for your attachment. So, using tools to guide their relationship and tools for conflict resolution is useful. If this is a trigger for you, ask yourself about your own childhood. Do identify with one birth order more? Were you and your sibling allowed to disagree? Were you forced to share and get along?

In The Heat

Here are 4 tools to use inside dysregulation to help you better address your child-self and manage your current triggers. 

1. Pause

What are you thinking? Feeling?

What physical impulses do you detect when your child does whatever thing they are doing that triggers you? Where do you feel the tension? Are there dull or sharp sensations? Clenching? 

Is your tendency to shut down? Yell? Control your child or the situation? Do you strive to “be right” or get it perfect?

Just pause and notice. 

2. Tell yourself that you are safe

Thank your shadow-self that is showing up here and now, and then say something like, “Hello, this part of me. Thank you for your service. My brain has been firing this way my whole life, and it doesn’t have to anymore. I can choose a new story and we can get through this together. I am safe.”  

3. Choose a calming strategy

After you pause, use a calming strategy to help your nervous system regulate. Maybe you take deep breaths with a hand on your heart and another on your belly or step away or get outside. Whatever you need, take a moment to give yourself that time. We cannot regulate a child when we are dysregulated

4. Process with your child

After you use calming strategies to help notice and manage your emotions, you will be better equipped to be with your child in the pureness of the moment. This will give you a foundation to then 1) validate their emotions and 2) set boundaries/redirect their behaviors. You may also choose to take a Time-In so you and your child can connect and process together. 

We won’t be perfect at this. Being a generational cycle breaker is a lifelong journey. Every opportunity is a blessing to notice and practice. 

We are the leading men and women of our lives. And we get to write the narrative.

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