Have you ever felt anger or other strong emotions, rise up like surge of power that you had no control over, in response to something your child/children did? Perhaps, it was when your children were fighting or maybe it was in response to an emotional outburst or refusal to cooperate with a request. If this sounds familiar, it is likely that you have been 'triggered' emotionally. When this happens the 'thinking' part of our brain goes offline and the part of the brain involved in survival kicks in. We go into 'fight, flight or freeze' mode. This is why, in that moment, we are more likely to say or do something that we later regret. In this state of animal panic, many parents find themselves shouting at their child before they even realise it's happening. When the storm passes, parents committed to a more gentle approach might feel laden with guilt and vow to do better the next time. In our clearer thinking moments, we know that our fighting offspring need our guidance or that our wee one can't control their big feelings and it is up to us to set an example. Even when we know this, it's not always enough to stop it from happening again.
So, what is it that makes these emotional reactions from us so very powerful? When our buttons are pushed or when we are emotionally triggered, the strong emotions we feel are usually connected to other experiences in our past. In their book, ‘Parenting from the inside out’, Dan Siegel and Mary Hartzel write “Experiences that are not fully processed (from our past) may create unresolved and leftover issues that influence how we react to our children.’ (Siegel and Hartzel, 2003). Their book was inspired by research findings that indicated that the best predictor of a child’s security of attachment to their carer was the way that the adult had made sense of their own childhood experiences. This knowledge can seem daunting and liberating at the same time. Daunting, because making sense of our own experiences is no small task. Hugely liberating, because it means that it is not the experiences themselves that are significant, but how we make sense of them that matters. In short, even people with incredibly difficult childhood experiences are not destined to repeat the past and can go on to have full and healthy relationships with their own children.
When we start out on our parenting journey, many of us begin with an intention to be the best parent we can be and this often involves parenting in a different way to how we were parented ourselves. It can be tempting to push away any of our own difficult experiences in an attempt to not allow them to interfere in our relationship with our children. However, we now know that if left in limbo, these experiences can interfere in our relationships with our own children. For example, if you grew up in a family where any expression of difficult emotions was met with anger, you might have learnt to hide your emotions. In addition, if no adult helped you to understand your emotions and offer comfort when you needed it, you may have found it difficult to process any emotional distress. This might mean when it comes to parenting your own child, you panic when he or she expresses their own difficult emotions. Your child might sense your discomfort and feel more distressed and eventually learn, like you did, that expressing emotions is wrong and so the cycle continues... although, it needn’t.
No one has had a perfect childhood and all of us will have received messages from our own parents over the course of our childhood that create strong patterns of thinking that become fairly fixed. Some of these beliefs are useful and others less so. For example, we might hold a strong belief that we are loveable or kind or we might also believe that everything we do must be perfect or that we always get things wrong. If we are not aware of these beliefs, they can lead to us reacting to situations rather than making a choice about how we respond to them. Add to the mix sleep deprivation and/or balancing work responsibilities with raising our children and household tasks and we are even more vulnerable to reacting to our triggers.
So, how do we ensure that the past doesn’t get in the way of us being the parent we want to be?
- First off, get to know your triggers. It may help to take note (mental or written) of the times when you react in a knee jerk fashion to something your child/ children do. You might start to see a pattern emerging. Reflecting in this way is often the first step towards changing the negative cycle that ensues when we are triggered.
- When you find yourself 'triggered', take a deep breath and count to ten or leave the room if you need to, so that you can begin to feel more centred and balanced. Some research suggests that 20 seconds is all you need to engage the thinking part of your brain.
- Practicing mindfulness can help us to become more aware of ourselves and others and help to prevent us from becoming to stuck in our thoughts. For more information, this is a good introduction from the NHS http://www.nhs.uk/Conditions/stress-anxiety-depression/Pages/mindfulness.aspx
- Recognise when you are reacting to an emotional trigger rather than your child. This can help us to step back from our situation and see our reaction for what it is: an unhelpful belief created in our own childhood. We can then say to ourselves, for example. "This is about being taught that being angry is wrong and I know that that isn't true"- this can go a long way towards diluting the power of the emotional trigger.
- Reminding ourselves that our child is probably engaging in developmentally 'normal' ways can keep our expectations realistic and can help move us into a position of empathy.
- We are much more likely to react without thinking, to situations when we are tired or stressed. Do what you can to get more sleep if you need it. If that means sleeping at nap time or going to bed when your wee one goes to bed- DO IT! I promise it will make a difference. If you are feeling overwhelmed with balancing a million tasks, do what you can to take some of the pressure off. Is there something you can drop? Is there anything you can get help with?
- Lastly, talk to someone. It could be a friend, a family member or a professional. This parenting gig is an honour and a privilege. It is also HARD, so don't ever be afraid to ask for support.