I couldn’t wait for him to pick up the line. It was one of those ugly cry calls where I needed someone to throw me a raft. I was barely staying afloat. Sobbing behind a closed bedroom door, I sat curled into myself like a child, almost as if to protect myself from the sea of emotions I was drowning in.
When he answered, I bypassed hello, with, “I think I am a terrible mom. I am yelling at our kids for being kids. I don’t know why I am doing it and I feel so guilty. I think I may need a break from motherhood … just a couple hours or maybe an entire day … for my mental health and theirs. I feel like I am failing. Omg, am I failing?”
What parent hasn’t had some version of this play out at some point? Moments where your children are doing what they are designed to do, be BIG, and in their bigness, we feel triggered. They take up big space with their big emotions and big behaviors and big imaginations and big dreams. And sometimes, in our child’s attempt to be their whole self, we react in big ways - ways that often ask our children to shrink.
So, why does this happen?
What Is A Trigger
A trigger is anything we experience in the present moment that activates a feeling from the past. You know you are feeling provoked by the past when your emotional response is not equal to the event.
So when your child is crying hysterically because they don’t want to leave the park and you snap, it has less to do with your child’s desire and likely more to do with what your experiences have told you about being sad or expressing big emotions.
Simply put, a trigger activates an old wound, and these wounds often have roots deep in the depths of our own childhood. We all have survival adaptations that we created to be “the right amount” for the adults in our lives so that they could feel comfortable.
This suppressing and shrinking of ourselves often creates our identity, leaving us looking for confirming evidence throughout our lives that the story we have created about ourselves is true. These wounds hide in the shadow of our psyche until the present moment brings them to the light.
These visceral feelings from the past can greatly affect your present mood, influencing whether you feel angry, sad, resentful, irritable, happy, excited, and more.
And while it is true that your child will do things that require redirection and boundaries, it is also true that we are responsible for our own reactions. When we feel triggered, we may yell, punish, lecture, shame, retreat, or shut down. These are all responses to our past. But when we can step out of the past and back into our present bodies, we are given the freedom to see whatever is happening in its pure form, without the constraints of our wound shackles.
Why Do We Feel Triggered
But let’s back up for a minute, back to the beginning - your beginning.
Babies come into this world whole. I often say that the reason babies can’t talk is that they are closer to their consciousness and carry all the wisdom of the things that we spend the rest of our lives trying to remember. I’m joking but also not joking at all.
Based on our family of origin, experiences, and the implicit and explicit messages we receive, we begin to be conditioned out of the wholeness we are born into.
Two fundamental needs for human animals are attachment (love and connection), and authenticity (autonomy). Attachment will always trump authenticity.
As children, when our environment couldn’t support our instincts, nature, and emotions, we unconsciously learned to suppress ourselves for the sake of staying in a nurturing family ecosystem.
We learn that our whole, vibrant self threatens attachment and that authenticity is unsafe, so we often create subtle agreements with our caregivers by responding in ways that appease their expectations and preferences.
If I give up this part of myself then you will love and accept me.
If I hide what feels right for me then our relationship will thrive and I will survive.
This is often referred to as self-abandonment. Our biological need for proximity overpowers our basic and natural impulses. Over time, these adaptive survival responses are forged into our neurology and become the conditioned blueprint of who we are, which is often a denial of who we really are.
What does all of this have to do with triggers?
Our children, in their wholeness and brightness, often trigger our adaptive responses. They feel threatening to the shadowy parts of us - those parts we learned long ago to suppress - our authentic self. And then, we shut down what was shut down in us.
- If your child expresses big unpleasant emotions, and it sends you into a reactive state, there’s a good chance you weren’t allowed to express those types of emotions within your family system.
- If your child clings and wants constant affection and it triggers you, being physically and emotionally independent were likely highly esteemed in your home.
- If you are sent over the cliff when your children don’t “listen” and are “defiant”, you may have felt like the caregivers in your life didn’t value your voice, perspective, wants, and desires. Your child’s impulse to speak up now unconsciously triggers the child within you who wasn’t able to.
Ask yourself, What about my child feels “too much” or “isn’t enough” and what was I told about these same things as a child? What am I trying to suppress in my child, and how was that suppressed in me?
Whatever answers come up for you about your past will likely be informative as to the reasons you respond the way you do to your child in the present.
** Read Part Two: What Can I Do When I Feel Triggered By My Kids?