The rage lives in my hands, rolls down my fingers clenching to fists. I want to hurt someone. I am tears and fury and violence. I want to scream and rip open pillows, toss chairs and punch walls. I want to see my destruction — feathers floating, overturned furniture, ragged holes in drywall. Minna Dubin, The Rage Mothers Don’t Talk About, New York Times Parenting
I actually have never been furious like this with my 5-year-old daughter. Don’t get me wrong; there are regular occasions when I’m really frustrated. Just last night she was manipulating Daddy into tumble drying her Chickies (some old over-the-head infant towels that she claimed as lovies after we unearthed them last year to block the smoke from coming under the doors during the Camp Fire) before she would go to sleep.
He offered other stuffed toys, his favorite sweater, his favorite fluffy sweater; all were summarily rejected. When he left the room to restart the dryer she turned to me with a glint in her eye and the upturned corners of Jack Nicholson’s Joker smile and whispered: “I’m making him do that.”
I was mildly amused myself until she announced that once the Chickies were ready for sleep, she wanted to repeat our nightly ritual of hiding from us in her bedroom before she would go to bed: any attempt to speed this process up by ‘searching’ in less than five potential locations before ‘finding’ her under the covers is met by tears and protestations that we “didn’t look in enough places.”
I told her firmly (unkindly?) that I didn’t appreciate being manipulated and that we were not going to search for her again, before leaving her room and closing the door. Also firmly. (I don’t think it quite rose to the level of ‘slammed.’)
Stalling winds me up as well: the dramatic collapsing on the floor because she wants me to put her shoes on; the bowed-head, slumped-shouldered foot-dragging that results from an announcement that we do, in fact, have to walk one more block to the restaurant; the extra seconds playing with the toothpaste before opening her mouth to brush teeth that are seemingly precisely timed to poke me like a hot needle.
But my really special triggers are reserved for my husband.
When I was growing up my father used to lecture me on my shortcomings. I no longer remember many of the specifics, but I do recall their frequency, and duration, and that I was not allowed to express an opinion. And I clearly recall the shame. I learned to tune out and go somewhere else in my mind, inserting minimally committal mumblings during gaps where it seemed like a response was required.
As an adult, I cannot stand to be interrupted. I get that same white-hot anger that Minna Dubin feels toward her child, but it’s directed at my husband instead.
I’m trying to explain what the Post Office’s website says about his options for mailing a package as he interrupts me to ask…what the Post Office’s website says about his options for mailing a package.
“Don’t interrupt me!” I scream. My daughter seems unperturbed. She isn’t especially attuned to emotions. She doesn’t notice if I’m distracted or sad or afraid. The last time my husband and I had argued in front of her about something that doesn’t matter any more I slammed the lid of the bar-b-que in fury so hard that it put the flames out before she calmly observed: “Mama’s not very happy, is she?”
But a couple of weeks after the Package Incident we were in the car and she was describing something to me. I thought she had finished speaking so I started to respond and she shouted “Don’t interrupt me!”
My husband gave me a side-long look and said “She is you…”.
It might seem like an obvious connection, but until then I didn’t realize that my childhood experiences had so profoundly shaped my parenting experiences. You can actually hear me realize the connection between the childhood lectures and being interrupted as an adult live during a podcast interview with an expert on intergenerational trauma.
And this is what’s missing from Dubin’s piece: an understanding of where these triggers come from in the first place. We’re not just angry with our child. We’re not feeling uncontrollable rage because our child won’t get in the car; because they hit another child at school; because they’re ignoring us.
It’s not even about our child.
It’s about the hurt that we felt as children when we weren’t allowed to assert our preferences; when we were shamed as we learned how to regulate our emotions; when we were ignored as we sought reassurance.
Kaiser Permanente surveyed 9,500 of its patients in and around San Diego, CA in the mid-90s about the traumas they had experienced in childhood, as well as their current health status. More than half of the respondents reported exposure to traumatic experiences like psychological, physical, and sexual abuse; substance abuse, mental illness, criminal behavior in the household, and their mother having been treated violently. A quarter reported exposure to two or more of these factors. 10% said they lived with a parent who would swear at them, insult them, or put them down. 19% said that an adult or other person at least five years older than them touched or fondled them in a sexual way.
People who had experienced four or more categories of exposure had a 1.4-1.6-fold increase in physical inactivity, a 2.4-fold increase in the prevalence of smoking and poor self-rated health, and a 4-12-fold increased risk for alcoholism, drug abuse, depression, and attempted suicide.
If you’d like to learn more about your own exposure to Adverse Childhood Experiences, you can take this survey.
There’s no competition for a high score; even a score of one is powerful. And while being humiliated by a parent might seem like a ‘lesser’ trauma than being sexually abused, both represent a failure of what’s called the ‘attachment relationship’ between the parent and child which can harm the child’s developing sense of self. (It’s also possible that your own parents experienced trauma which caused a ruptured attachment bond with you, which is a contributing factor to your own anger.) And the researchers failed to examine stressors like systemic racism, homelessness, and being in the foster care system that disproportionately impact parents – and children – of non-dominant cultures that really should be reflected in the ACE scoring system.
I know I’m not the only one who struggles with this. I see parents posting about it in online forums all the time. Parents are frustrated; they’re angry; they want to know when their child will grow out of the behavior that they find triggering. That’s why I created an online workshop – grounded in the latest research on the origins of trauma and the best tools we have to manage it – that helps parents to identify the true sources of their triggers, feel triggered less often, and manage their emotions on the fewer occasions when it does still occur. So you can close a door firmly, rather than wanting to tear your house apart.
The bad news about intergenerational trauma is that if we don’t understand it, acknowledge it, and use the right tools to manage it, it is so easily transmitted to our children.
When we think back to our parents freaking out when we make a mess, and we see ourselves freaking out when our child tips allll of the Legos and crayons and stickers allll over the floor, and we see the fear and anger and shame in our child’s eyes as we shout at them to CLEAN IT UP NOW OR I’M GOING TO THROW ALL OF YOUR TOYS AWAY, it’s easy to see how these things get passed down.
But the good news is that there’s a lot you can do.
Recognizing that triggers lie within you – and not in your child’s behavior – is an enormous first step. The next is to understand the true sources of these triggers, and to accept that our parents were doing the best job that they could in the face of the trauma that they had experienced.
Only then do tools to manage your emotions make sense. And actually work.