A parent I work with once asked me, “When will my child stop doing the things that make me absolutely lose it?” I had no choice but to give her the good news and the bad news: The good news is that they will likely eventually grow out of it. The bad news is that they’ll start doing something else that will push your buttons just as much, and there’s really no way to stop it. That’s because the true source of our triggered feelings isn’t actually our child’s behavior; it’s within us.
If you’ve ever tried to change someone else’s behavior—an uphill struggle all the way—you’ll realize this is actually great news. We need to identify the reasons why the behavior is affecting us so much, and take steps to turn our explosive reactions into considered responses.
Here’s how to do it, in three steps.
Recognize the sources of your triggered feelings
This can be hard stuff, because often triggered feelings don’t have much to do with what’s going on in your life right now. Instead, they tend to have roots in things that happened to you as a child, or even to your parents when they were children. Martina, a parent I work with as a parenting coach, can trace trauma back through five generations of her family, from the immigrants who endured discrimination after arriving to break a mining strike, through the parents who were alcoholics, emotional abusers, and neglectful of their children.
Martina’s own mother, Lucia, was dismissive and overly controlling in response to the neglect she experienced from Martina’s grandmother. Martina remembers that emotional expressions were simply not allowed (or safe) around her mother. Martina went on to develop an anxiety disorder, low self-worth, and a deep mistrust of her instincts.
Martina then saw her legacy of family trauma showing up in her own parenting as she obsessively sought out expert advice to shore up what she perceived as inadequate knowledge. She couldn’t identify her own needs, so she couldn’t set boundaries when she needed them—and she also felt that she shouldn’t set a boundary because she wanted to show her son the love she didn’t experience from her own mother. The lack of consistency and boundaries was already affecting her newly verbal toddler, who told her they should get another baby—implying that he wasn’t good enough.
Even if the trauma in your own family doesn’t run as deep as it does in Martina’s, it’s likely that many of your childhood needs were not met, either because your parents couldn’t meet them, or they chose not to meet them, or they tried to shape you into the child they wished they had. And all of this, in turn, cause you to experience overwhelming reactions when your child does things you find annoying.
Begin to heal the sources of your triggered feelings
Sometimes, insight alone is enough to allow you to make progress here. You can hear how I discovered—during the interview of an expert on intergenerational trauma—how my father’s near-nightly lectures as a teenager led to me feeling an intense anger whenever my husband interrupted me. Since learning about this connection, I’ve been able to have a much more measured response to my husband that makes it clear I don’t like being interrupted, without giving an out-of-proportion reaction.
We can do writing exercises to help us better understand the trauma we’ve experienced, which helps to clarify our memories and integrate them—just as retelling the story of our own explosive episodes with our children helps them to process these events and move past them.
Another impactful tool we can use is to recognize that even though our memories seem very real to us, they are actually stories that our left brains make up to make sense of our experiences, and they may have very little basis in reality. When we realize this, we can create distance from our trauma and see it as something we can choose to pay attention to—or not.
Understand your feelings and needs
Understanding your feelings and needs seems like an incredibly simple thing to do—until we realize that our culture often only allows a limited expression of feelings (men shouldn’t feel much except anger, and women can have a wider range but shouldn’t feel anger themselves, or anything else “unladylike”). And if our needs were routinely disregarded as children, we often have trouble even identifying them, never mind trying to meet them.
I realized this a few years ago when my husband and I were booking flights to take a trip over the holidays that I really didn’t want to take. I agreed to do it, and it wasn’t until we were in conversation with a therapist months later that he said “How did I know you didn’t want to go? I asked you three times and you said yes!” The therapist said, “You asked her three times? Why did you do that?” I had a need for some quiet time alone over the holidays that I couldn’t fully understand or express. My husband heard the tentative expression of my need but ignored his intuition because I said I was willing to take the trip.
Now I know I need to pay attention to the physical expressions of my needs—which can show up as sensations like nausea, a heaviness in your chest, and tightness in your throat or shoulders. And he knows he needs to pay attention to my nonverbal communication. Together, we’re working to break the cycle of the trauma I’ve experienced so we can raise our daughter to live her life in a way that isn’t constrained by our experiences.
None of this is quick or easy. It involves showing up for ourselves and our families in a way that we might not have done before. But the results can be profound. Martina always knew her relationship with her mom was challenging, but not how it was impacting her interactions with her son on a daily or even hourly basis. She says the changes she’s been able to make have been, “the most important and significant accomplishment I’ve had in my personal life…maybe ever.”
Jen Lumanlan hosts the Your Parenting Mojo podcast, which distills scientific research on parenting and child development into tools parents can use to make decisions about raising their children. She also hosts the Taming Your Triggers workshop, which helps parents to understand the sources of their triggered feelings, begin to heal from the trauma they’ve experienced, and find new and effective ways to respond —rather than react to—their children’s difficult behavior.