Before we have children, we do a lot of thinking and planning. What crib should I buy? Am I going to try baby-led weaning? What faith will we raise our child in? Perhaps you are thinking about all the lovely experiences you will have together — trips to the park, their first day of school, snuggling up at bedtime, and reading a story. All these things represent us in our best state, feeling calm and in control and taking charge of parenting our little people. But you probably haven’t considered parenting triggers.
These are moments when our kids do, feel, or say something that triggers us, resulting in a potential loss of control or big emotions like guilt, powerlessness, anger, or fear.1,2,3,4 We all have these triggers and, at times, will behave in ways we didn’t expect of ourselves. These parenting triggers may make us react in ways that are a mismatch between our values as parents and our behaviors in reality. This can make parenting even trickier than it already is.
What is a Trigger?
A trigger is something happening in the present moment that brings up feelings from the past. You know it’s a trigger because the level of response is usually well out of proportion to the thing that triggered you or represents some loss of control. The reaction to the trigger could be emotional or physical; in the extreme, you might even see a fight or flight or freeze response.2,5 We usually associate a trigger with a past trauma or adverse life event. Still, it can also be due to stress, intense, overwhelming feelings, or even how you process (or don’t process) emotions and situations.
For example, your child begins crying hysterically because they want a cookie. Instead of responding mindfully and consciously, you react in a way that’s well out of proportion to the event. This could look like snapping and shouting, going silent and being unresponsive, leaving or fleeing from them, or having an intense emotion (guilt, frustration, etc.), among other things.
The behavior is not necessarily about your child crying but what this brings up in you or which old wound is being triggered. Were you given messages during childhood about how emotions should be expressed (and your child having a big loud feeling is triggering)? Or perhaps you are triggered by their volume, either from sensory sensitivity or memories triggered by particular noises.
What Do Parenting Triggers Look Like?
Parenting triggers are unique, just like each parent is unique. What triggers one person and makes them mad or overwhelmed might not trigger you. Triggers can be internal, like values, emotions, memories, past experiences, trauma, etc., or external, like events occurring around you or other people’s behavior.1,2,4 However, there are a few themes or types of triggers to be aware of.
Sensory Parenting Triggers
Suppose you are highly sensitive or have specific diagnoses that can influence sensory sensitivity, like autism or sensory processing disorder. In that case, your senses might trigger you (touch, taste, smell, sound, sight).3,6 This can result in parenting being pretty overwhelming at times. Anger triggers could come from the constant touching, holding, cuddling, carrying, and other kinds of physical contact essential in caring for children. If you are sensitive to noise, the continuous stream of talking, shouting, laughing, and playing might get on your last nerve.
Emotional Parenting Triggers
Emotional triggers arise from your feelings about stuff that comes up in parenting. These can be wide-ranging triggers, from recollections of how you were parented (i.e., your childhood baggage) to your child’s behavior.2,6,7 For example, if your child is hitting you or saying mean things, it might elicit big feelings in you. Perhaps your child is melting down themselves or in some emotional pain, triggering a similar response in you.
These triggers relate to your morals and values, which influence your boundaries. When these are violated, it can be overwhelming and trigger a big response.8 An example might be about lying; you value honesty, and when your child lies, it triggers you and makes you mad or sad. Or perhaps it’s feeling unheard that triggers you (not feeling that your opinion or boundaries are being valued), like having to repeat yourself five million times a day (give or take) to get your child to pick up their socks. Other boundary violations around personal space and privacy can be very challenging, too.
Your history of trauma, including domestic violence, childhood abuse, physical injury, or illness, could trigger you in the present moment. You could be triggered by things like touch, noise, smells, rejection, isolation, your child’s experiences or actions, etc.1,2
Identifying Parenting Triggers
To get control of your triggers and automatic reactions and become a more mindful and authentic parent, it’s essential to be aware of and understand what triggers you and why. This reflection might be triggering, particularly related to past trauma or adverse life experiences. So please ensure you are in a safe space before you start reflecting or reach out for support if you feel overwhelmed or your well-being has been impacted.
Here are some questions to consider when trying to understand your triggers better:
- When I am triggered, is there a particular time of the day/week/month/year?
- Is there something in particular happening around the time I am triggered?
- Am I being affected by some unmet need (from hunger or thirst to nurturing)?
- Do I feel like I have lost control in this situation?
- Am I taking my child’s behavior personally?
- Does their behavior bring back memories from my past?
- Does their behavior trigger feelings of guilt or shame?
- Am I mirroring and feeling what they are feeling?
- Do I have different expectations about how they should or should not be behaving?
- Is an underlying sensory need unmet or overstimulated (touch, taste, sound, sight, smell)?
How To Deal With Parenting Triggers
When you get triggered, it’s often automatic. We want to create awareness so that instead of being reactive, we can move into a space where our parenting choices are intentional. So, it’s essential to learn not only how to identify them but also how to work through triggers and how to communicate when you’re triggered.
You can use some of the questions from the previous section to get you thinking about and learning to recognize your triggers. Once you are aware of them, you can do something about them. Knowing when they happen or why, you can better prepare by removing yourself or the triggers and engaging in self-care or other strategies to help you tackle the situation.
1. Check-in With Yourself
This is easier said than done, but if you have an unmet need, try to meet it. It’s hard to be at our best selves if our cups aren’t full. Make sure you are hydrated, well rested, etc. It’s hard to be regulated and remain calm if we aren’t looking after ourselves.
2. Figure Out If You Have Sensory Issues
Being triggered by sensory issues differs from having triggers from past experiences or emotional triggers and requires a different response. If you feel like you might be getting overwhelmed by sensory stimulation in your environment, it might help to reach out to a professional for support. In the interim, you can try to meet those sensory needs with noise-canceling headphones, boundaries around physical touch, wearing sunglasses, turning the lights off, etc.
3. Try Mindfulness
Mindfulness is about learning the art of being present rather than being caught up in our past, thoughts, or future worries. Research tells us that mindfulness can improve our mood, relationships, communication, and emotional regulation.8 It can be helpful to search for strategies or watch videos on YouTube that teach you mindful practices.
4. Practice Makes Perfect
When we practice something often enough, it becomes like a muscle memory (or more automatic). So keep trying. Practice responding in ways that align more with how you intentionally want to parent and practice self-care or emotional regulation strategies. In time, these will come more naturally in the moment, and triggers will be less impactful.
5. Step Back and Breathe
When you notice you have been triggered, step back. I know it sounds simple, but pause, take a breath, and give yourself a moment. This slight pause allows you to stop the automatic pattern of reacting. It also gives you the space to make an intentional choice about how you will respond. It also lets your body calm down and settle before deciding to take action or engage with the situation.
6. Be Kind to Yourself
Triggers are often automatic, which means we can’t help them. So be kind to yourself. We don’t necessarily want to continue with the behaviors we exhibit when triggered. You have identified that you want to do things differently and are working on it. That’s amazing, so be kind, as it can take time to break old habits and develop new ones.
Parenting is tough, but you’ve got this. The simple fact that you have identified that you get triggered and want to do things differently is a positive. It’s our responsibility to look inward and grow as parents alongside our children as we raise them. Our kids are constantly changing and challenging us. It’s essential to seek support if you identify any triggers and these strategies aren’t enough, or your well-being and mental health are being affected. Remember that there is no shame in seeking help. So, don’t hesitate to contact informal (friends and family) or formal (doctors, psychologists) support networks if needed.