If you’re like most parents, you find yourself asking ‘why, why, why?’ on a daily basis. Sometimes you’re referring to your child’s behavior--‘why did he decide to lick the floor at the grocery store?’ Other times, you’re likely asking yourself about your own behavior--‘why did I just lose my mind about an unfinished bowl of cereal?’
Maybe you yell at your child, or swat or spank them - or perhaps you cope by either mentally or emotionally walking away from the situation.
Our ability to handle the ups and downs of parenting is dependent upon our ability to regulate our own emotions and our ability to build and maintain healthy relationships, and difficulty with emotional regulation makes parenting tough. Our children aren’t shy about letting us know about their needs (or what they don’t need, like the other half of that bowl of cereal even though they asked for it…). This can feel really jarring to us because we were socialized to ignore our own needs - to the point that many of us have a hard time even identifying what are our own needs.
But if we regularly overreact when our child asserts their needs, ruptures in our relationship with our child may appear. And when we’re in full flip-out mode over that bowl of cereal we aren’t modeling successful emotional regulation for our child, so they’re more likely to struggle to develop those skills themselves.
But there’s a lot you can do to regulate yourself more effectively, once you understand the reasons why you feel this way, and learn some simple tools to navigate situations that make you react explosively.
Haunted by the past
Trauma lives in the automatic response system of our brain. Maybe a particular smell always makes you think of your grandmother or hearing a particular song reminds you of a friend whom you haven’t seen in years.
We might think we have difficulties digesting certain food, but some scientists think that this may actually be linked to a difficult emotional experience we had while eating that food - so maybe we feel nauseous when we smell calamari because they remind us of the fight we had with our spouse at the Italian restaurant. And it might seem like we’re angry with our child for wasting food (don’t they know about the starving children? And greenhouse gas emissions?!) which means they need to change their behavior, the actual cause of our explosive reaction lies within us parents.
When we have an oversized response to something - including our child’s behavior - that originates in a traumatic event we experienced at some other point in our lives, psychologists say we’re being “triggered”. When triggered, people may find themselves reliving a traumatic event - or if this happened so long ago or our brain has blocked these memories, we might not even be able to identify the trigger.
When triggered, your body goes into fight, flight, freeze, or fawn mode (more about these later). These reactions can be useful during a traumatic event but when the trauma is long-past, changes that occurred in our brains and bodies during and after the trauma leave us with a legacy of health problems from cancer, heart disease, and respiratory disease to drug use and violence directed toward oneself and others.
Parenting is a tough job with often intense emotions. Even if we haven’t experienced trauma we may still have similar reactions to our child’s behavior known as emotional flooding, which is extremely common among parents. This often flares up when our child does something that reminds us of how our own needs were not met (because they weren’t understood, or were understood but deliberately ignored) as children. I hear from parents all the time who snap when their child argues, refuses to cooperate, doesn’t use appropriate manners, makes a mess, and wastes food - all of which we were likely punished for doing as children. Like trauma-related triggers, emotional flooding can make us unable to behave rationally.
Body and mind disconnect
You may have heard the brief history of the separation of body and mind that I described in my recent podcast episode on The Physical Reasons You Yell At Your Kids. For thousands of years in Western culture the body has been thought of like a machine with parts that needed to be maintained so the overall whole looks and functions acceptably, and occasionally replaced when they broke down. This view sees a separation between body and mind that intensified as we began to view brains essentially as computers that process information rationally - unless they’re defective or broken in some way.
Disconnection between mind and body is incredibly common. It is frequently the result of trauma, but it doesn’t have to be a trauma in the objective sense. There aren’t ‘legitimate’ or ‘illegitimate’ traumatic events. For some people, a job loss might be an inconvenience, while for others, it might be a traumatic event. We can’t change how we respond to the event by telling ourselves it wasn’t a big deal because the reaction we’re experiencing isn’t ‘in our head.’ The reaction is being experienced in our mind and our body.
Our automatic stress response
When we are flooded or triggered, our bodies are “thrown into an unnecessary state of survival mode that does not correspond to any actual or significant risk to survival or well-being.” Our bodies are disconnected from the reality of the situation we’re in.
We struggle to recognize our emotions and assess threats: our child leaving half a bowl of cereal uneaten does not represent an actual threat to us, even if we’re reacting as if it does.
Next, our bodies may go into fight, flight, freeze, or fawn mode. This is a response in our body that is designed to protect us from harm. It is instinctual. You’ve probably heard of fight or flight, where we prepare to attack or run, but additional automatic reactions have been identified. Sometimes people freeze; this is the deer in headlights response and can happen when we have no way out of a situation or when we aren’t able to figure out what is happening. The fawn response can be thought of as the people pleasing response and is often developed to protect us in a situation where we hope we can appease the person threatening us to prevent them from harming us.
The commonality across all of these responses is that they are automatic, and when these are activated our amygdala, which is sometimes referred to as the guard dog of the brain, springs into action to keep us safe. That can prevent us from using our rational decision making process: our brain believes that we don’t have the luxury of being rational, so that part of our brain shuts down in favor of the fight, flight, freeze, or fawn response. Because the traumatic memories are disassociated in our brains, the memories, smells, tastes, sounds, and feelings are all disconnected. This is why people often don’t understand their reactions - and it seems like it’s the half-eaten bowl of cereal that’s the problem, when actually the problem lies deep within us.
It’s also worth noting that people who have experienced discrimination or persecution based on their race, religion, gender, or sexual preference may not have the luxury of knowing that they are safe. The threats their bodies are trained to identify and respond to are not relics of the past that no longer serve them. The fear that their child’s behavior could provoke a tragic response from threats outside the home is not unfounded.
If we spend years living with a threat, our body may be stuck in a state of heightened alert. We may have anxiety, high blood pressure, or permanently tense muscles. This can have devastating health effects. While it is impossible to blame any one aspect of discrimination to the overall health of marginalized groups, there’s a goodd eal of evidence that the ongoing trauma caused by racism has negative health impacts on both children and adults.
For some of us, the over-active guard dog that’s still trying to protect us may need some retraining. As a result of past circumstances, it may still jump into action every time someone walks past on the sidewalk and isn’t actually trying to break into our house, and the chronic stress associated with this isn’t good for us - or for our relationship with our child.
Reconnecting our minds and bodies
Slowly, research is changing the Western understanding of the mind-body connection. We now know that the mind and body are not separate entities, and the connection between them is important for health and wellness. Meditation, which takes many forms, has been associated with positive effects on physical and mental health and wellness. During meditation, people reconnect their minds with their bodies by observing what they’re experiencing through their senses (which are located in the body!) right now in the present moment.
One thing that can have an impact is to have physical experiences that directly contradict how our body is programmed to react. Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, author of The Body Keeps Score, gives the example of martial arts and yoga. In the martial arts, you learn and practice ways to protect and control your body, so you know and you feel that you are not helpless, this can help overcome the trauma that taught you you are helpless.
How to stop reacting explosively to your child’s behavior
There are two main approaches we can use to effectively regulate our emotions.
Top down emotional regulation involves changing our thought processes by developing deeper insight into their behaviors and past experiences. I don’t want to give the impression that this type of therapy is wrong or problematic - in fact, the insight we get from understanding why we feel a certain way can sometimes help us to be less impacted by situations we used to find difficult to navigate.
But many people find that there simply isn’t any space between their child’s behavior and their explosive reaction for them to choose the response they decided during therapy would be more constructive. This is why we might fully comprehend that the way we’re reacting to our child’s behavior isn’t helpful (or aligned with our values as a parent), but still not be able to stop ourselves from doing it in the moment.
I worked with one parent who said it was like she was floating above herself yelling at her child - knowing she would be trying to repair the relationship in just a few minutes - but still unable to stop herself in the moment. The top-down (brain-based) approach is more effective when it operates in conjunction with bottom-up (body-based) actions.
Bottom up emotional regulation involves taming the autonomic nervous system—actions our body takes without any direction from our rational brain—our heart rate, blood pressure, breathing, and digestion.
Using the bottom up strategy can be summed up with a word you’ve heard me say many times: mindfulness. With basic activities like breathing, moving, and touching, we can affect our body’s “involuntary” functions and improve our ability to remain rational and regulate our emotional responses. In getting out of the stories our brain is telling us about how we can’t cope with the situation, we realize that we can cope in this moment. That there isn’t an emergency. By working with our brain in this way, we can improve our emotional regulation.
This is something that can benefit all of us. I think everyone I know has lapses in emotional regulation - including me. It’s amazing how a little bit of growth in this area can have a really dramatic impact on our lives and families, and that’s why I created the Taming Your Triggers workshop.
This 10-week online workshop will help you understand the strong reactions you have to the little frustrations of parenting--unfinished cereal, backtalk, messes, and the insistence on having the “right” cup for their milk even if it is in the dishwasher and unavailable.
If you often find yourself triggered or flooded by your child’s behavior, you’ll find yourself in good company. We’ll dig deeply so you can find the causes of your triggered feelings and understand these to bring the insight you need. Then we’ll develop skills to create space between your child’s difficult behavior and your explosive reaction so you can respond to them effectively.
In the workshop you’ll learn:
- The real sources of your triggered/flooded feelings (which aren’t in your child’s behavior!);
- How to feel triggered less often;
- How to repair your relationship with your child on the fewer occasions when it does still happen.
The workshop is recommended by a Licensed Clinical Social Worker who counsels individuals who have experienced trauma and it’s not an exaggeration to say that participants who have engaged deeply with the content have experienced dramatic results.
Here’s what one real parent said about her experience:
"I can honestly say this is the most important and significant accomplishment I've had in my personal life... maybe ever."
"Where do I start saying how this workshop has helped me? It has helped me to identify that I was even being triggered in the first place. I thought I was just an anxious person and there was no other way. Because of this workshop, I can now identify when I am triggered and step away from my narrow perspective, understand the root of the trigger from my past, and see the bigger picture including what my partner or child might be feeling and perceiving in that moment from me.
The whole workshop was really well structured to both give me insight and help find solutions that work for me. Now I understand much more about how the intergenerational trauma that has happened in my family is impacting my relationship with my son. And I had always known I had issues with my mom, but not the extent to which it affected me on an hourly basis - that module of content dropped a bomb on me that I never saw coming. I'm so glad that I learned tools in the workshop so I don't have to be ruled by that any more. I also learned what hypoarousal is - I saw that I probably spent 50% of my time in this state and had no idea it was even a thing.
I still get triggered and give in to impulse every once in a while now, but FAR less often. What I've learned in the workshop has improved my relationship with both my child and husband and even my relationship with myself. I can honestly say this is the most important and significant accomplishment I've had in my personal life... maybe ever. I wish there was a way to fully convey the value that parents who are experiencing these feelings will get out of this workshop.
Your powerful feelings are not random and it’s not your fault that you’re having them - but even though it’s not your fault, you can still do a lot to help you navigate them more effectively. By boosting your own coping skills, you’ll increase the sense of calm in your home and become not only a model of emotion regulation, but of being imperfect, and recognizing that imperfection, and taking steps forward anyway - which gives our children ‘permission’ to do the same in their own struggles.
You’re not failing them...you’re helping them.
I’m looking forward to working with you in the Taming Your Triggers workshop. Sliding scale pricing is available - we start on October 17!