How Triggers From Childhood Shape Our Parenting

Has becoming a parent revealed certain triggers from your own childhood? Dr. Laura Markham of Aha Parenting discusses the causes behind parenting triggers and how to manage them.

Mom trigged by child

Ever wondered why some parents can keep a sense of humor in the face of their child’s challenging behavior while another parent starts yelling? Why some parents plague themselves with criticism, worry and doubt while others seem more able to just relax and enjoy their children?

Sometimes, it’s just our stress level. We all know that when we’re under stress, we’re less patient. And parents certainly have even more reason than usual to be stressed in the middle of a pandemic.

But often it’s our thoughts and attitudes, which means the way we’re interpreting the situation. So where one parent might respond to a child’s rudeness with quiet dignity and curiosity about why the child is so upset, another might get triggered, assuming that defiance is dangerous and needs to be quashed.

We don’t even notice such beliefs, which are usually unconscious and were often shaped in early childhood. For instance,

  • If our parents reacted harshly when we got upset, we may have concluded that getting upset is an emergency, so now we go into fight or flight when our child gets upset. The catch? When we’re in “fight,” our child looks like the enemy. We end up escalating the drama and making everything worse.
  • If we weren’t treated with respect when we were young, we often grow into adults who perceive others as disrespecting us — which will trigger us to react with anger to the slightest disrespect, even from a three year old.
  • If we concluded as children that we simply weren’t good enough the way we were, we’ll probably set impossibly high standards and torment ourselves with self criticism. Worse yet, perfectionism always sabotages the unconditional love our children need, and they always sense it when we don’t accept them as they are.
  • If we were bullied or socially ostracized, we may get triggered when our child has social difficulties, which makes it more difficult to help them constructively.

 

Do we all have triggers?

 

Virtually all of us, unless we’ve done a lot of work on ourselves. No matter how loving and responsive our parents were, most of us drew some conclusions from our childhood experiences that don’t serve us. And there were bound to be times when you experienced something that was overwhelming for you. Because it was so overwhelming, your brain wasn’t able to process that experience in the way that we usually process experiences — by incorporating the memory into a neural network that stores related memories. Usually when we process memories — which happens during sleep — the emotions associated with the memory are stripped away. That’s why once we sleep on something for a few nights, it isn’t usually so upsetting.

But any time the memory was so upsetting that your brain wasn’t able to process that memory as usual, the memory was stored unprocessed — with all the emotions you felt at the time. That’s why when you experience something similar to that event — maybe not in actual content, but in the way it makes you feel — you are suddenly swamped with body sensations that are an over-reaction. Those feelings aren’t actually from the present experience. They are stored with that earlier unprocessed memory, which is getting triggered by the current experience.

Your psyche does this for a reason. If you had a bad experience with a snake in childhood, you’re more likely to stay alive later in life if you remember that experience with all the fear you felt initially. So there may have been a time when some mild form of PTSD was beneficial to survival.

But this doesn’t work so well if the experience was being humiliated by a teacher, which might make you quake when you have to speak up at a staff meeting. And it really gets in your way if the original experience was being frightened of, yelled at, or hit by a parent. If those memories were stored unprocessed, then when your child yells at you or hits you, it triggers all those feelings of fear and feeling victimized that you felt as a child. You can’t think clearly. You freeze, or you lash out, either verbally or physically.

So most of us have some unprocessed emotions from childhood, which is another way of saying we’re lugging these unprocessed feelings and memories around in our emotional backpacks. This unconscious “baggage” will inevitably get triggered as we go through life. It sends us right into our unconscious, which means we do and say things that we would never do if we were fully conscious and aware. And because these are childhood experiences, our children have an uncanny ability to trigger us.

 

How to Heal Triggers

 

Unfortunately, if we don’t resolve our triggers and issues, we take them out on our children. That’s because when we get triggered by the past, we lose our conscious connection to what matters in the present moment. So we say and do things that we would never do if we weren’t triggered.

So instead of supporting our children to work through their normal childhood issues and emotions, we add a layer of shame and blame. Instead of calming the storm and creating a safe haven, we end up escalating  the drama. And we pass our unresolved emotional baggage on to our children, who will carry it for the rest of their lives.

Luckily, there’s a better way. You can heal those old triggers. It’s not easy and it takes courage — but it’s simple. Here’s the secret.

NOTICE the FEELING,
but RESIST TAKING ACTION.
Instead, HOLD YOURSELF WITH LOVE,
and JUST ALLOW YOURSELF TO FEEL.

It’s that simple. All those actions we take when we’re triggered take us down the wrong path. We leap to action or conclusion to avoid feeling those emotions. But once we allow ourselves to feel an emotion, it begins to evaporate. (By contrast, as long as we’re pushing the emotion away or running from it, it keeps pestering us to be felt. We’re doomed to lug it around with us until we get the message.)

Of course, when you allow yourself to feel any emotion you’ve been avoiding, it probably won’t feel good. But you can handle that, because you’re not a child any longer. The emotions may feel dangerous, but they aren’t. You’re an adult, and you can love yourself through it. You can do hard things! And if it feels too scary and you want support, no shame, no blame. You can always find the support you need to help you do hard things.

Here’s your blueprint to heal a trigger.

 

1. Get yourself as centered as possible.

 

Imagine a place where you feel completely safe. Let that safety soak into your being. Remember three things you’re grateful for, which will increase your sense of well-being and inner resourcefulness. Fill yourself with love and compassion. Surround yourself with light. Your goal here is to start from a place of safety, which keeps you from getting re-traumatized by those feelings.

 

2. Now, think of the recent event that triggered you.

 

You don’t need to know what the old trigger was, just think of the recent event that set you off.

 

3. Resist the urge to rehash the story of what happened.

 

Noticing the feeling does NOT mean getting all tangled up in the story line and your judgments about what happened. Thinking about the story of what happened will just mire you in the muck. We feel emotions in the body. So noticing the feeling means noticing the sensation in your body.

 

4. How does that feel in your body?

 

Recall the way your body felt during the recent event that set you off. For instance, maybe your child screamed at you and your body cringed. Maybe your child rebuffed your hug and you felt frozen inside. Maybe your child cried and your body mobilized as if it were an emergency, with every nerve taut.

Just notice where you felt discomfort in your body. Breathe into those places.

Notice that as your body feels these sensations, it doesn’t feel safe. You may want to run (flight) or eat something (freeze) or call someone to tell them off (fight). Resist all that. When you want to jump up and check your phone, don’t. When you feel an urgent need to clean the kitchen, don’t.

Just keep breathing. Give yourself a hug and keep noticing the way that sensation feels in your body. As you allow yourself to feel it, the sensation will change.

 

5. Simply observe.

 

If you can stay in your observer self, it keeps you from getting hijacked by the emotions. When we observe the sensation from the calm, safe perspective of our conscious adult self, it begins to evaporate. The key is helping ourselves feel safe during the discomfort by consciously extending love and compassion to ourselves.

 

6. Give yourself an antidote.

 

For instance, if you got triggered and screamed in your child’s face, and now you’re remorseful and terrified that you’ve damaged her for life, maybe your antidote is “She’s okay. I can repair this with her. I’m a good parent.” Imagine your child, happily smiling at you. (Your imagination is powerful. You’re programming your subconscious for repair.)

Every time you do this process, you diminish the emotional charge of that trigger. The next time this same old trigger is activated by some new event, you’ll notice that it has less power. Eventually, you’ll be able to stay calm in the face of an event that would once have triggered you.

As you experience these old emotions, you’re calming your reaction to stressors that come up in the present day. You’re also healing the old event that created the trigger. Scientists don’t yet know for sure, but it seems that by deactivating the emotional charge, you allow your brain to finally process the old memory. So if your old trigger was being yelled at by your parent, you may still remember your parent screaming at you, but your takeaway will be that your parent was having a hard time, not that you were unlovable. You’ll feel understanding for your parent, and compassion for yourself as a child, instead of shame. Your takeaway will be an ability to stay more calm when your child is upset.

I think of this as shining the light of consciousness on the memories that we’ve pushed into the dark basements of our psyches. Simply shining our own loving awareness into the shadows melts them away. One by one, we process the memories, remove the charge from the triggers, and they resolve. They no longer pop up to derail us as we go through life. When we unpack our old baggage like this, we feel so much lighter, happier, less anxious, able to stay calm. And our children don’t have to carry it.

Are all triggers from childhood? No, of course not. Traumas can happen to us throughout life. But the childhood traumas are usually the ones with the most power, because that’s the time when we’re most easily overwhelmed by our emotions. And many of the traumas we experience in later life are re-enactments of our earlier traumas, that we seem to create in the subconscious hope that they’ll give us a chance to heal.

You may be thinking that it will take your entire life to heal your triggers. And you’re right. This is the work of a lifetime. But don’t worry. The good news is that every step you take makes you feel better. Every time you feel those big emotions but resist acting on them by lashing out, you do some healing of that trigger and reduce its power. Over time, those triggers get deactivated.

The even better news is that healing your triggers makes it easier to choose love with your child. And every time you choose love with your child, you touch your child’s heart in a deep way. You strengthen your relationship. Your child gets easier to parent. And you send positive ripples into the world that will play out for generations.

 

 

Published with permission from Aha! Parenting by Dr. Laura Markham. 

Dr. Laura Markham trained as a Clinical Psychologist, earning her PhD from Columbia University.  But she’s also a mom, so she translates proven science into the practical solutions you need for the family life you want.

Dr. Laura is the author of the books Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting and Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings:How to Stop the Fighting and Raise Friends for Life. For more information, visit ahaparenting.com

 

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