Why is it that our children, the people we love the most in the world, can trigger us so easily?
We all have hot buttons — situations or events or even words our kids say to which we react strongly, or even overreact. One second, we feel calm and at peace. The next, we are flooded with emotions and spinning out of control.
Often, we feel ourselves behaving in a way that is irrational. The triggers might even seem absurd. We cannot pinpoint exactly why we feel so angry over seemingly trivial things that our children do or say, but nonetheless, our emotions are hot.
Other times, our triggers feel justified. We can support and justify our anger with example after example. Nonetheless, we dislike feeling so angry and out of control and would rather respond to our children calmly.
Why is this? Why can things our children say and do make us overreact? And what can we do about it?
Fortunately, when we understand why triggers occur, we can take steps to eliminate them so that we can respond to our children more calmly and respectfully.
Why Do Triggers Occur?
The first step toward understanding triggers of any kind is to explore the relationship between thoughts and emotions. Namely, consider that behind every emotion is a thought or a belief. Your emotions, with very few exceptions, are responses to your thoughts or beliefs.
You feel happy when you think all is well. You feel angry when you think you are being mistreated. You feel scared when you think you are in danger. (Sometimes the “fight or flight response” kicks in without you actually thinking about the danger, but for the most part our thoughts determine our emotions.)
The corollary is this idea: It is not the situation that causes us to suffer. It is our thoughts about the situation that cause our suffering.
We might think that we are suffering because our child is misbehaving or failing in school or struggling to make friends, but we are really suffering because of our thoughts about these situations.
Here is an example: Let’s say that a teenage child, who plays baseball, breaks his arm. Clearly this is a stressor, but how much he suffers will depend on the thoughts he thinks.
He could think: “This sucks. Now I can’t finish the season. My life is over.”
Or, he could think: “I’m going to get a lot of attention for this! I’ll get some kids to sign my cast, and I’ll cheer on the team from the sidelines. Maybe my coach will take notice of my great attitude, and next year, I can be team captain.”
Variations exist between these two extremes, but the point is that the thoughts and not the stressor itself is what will determine how much the child will suffer.
This also means there are thoughts behind triggers. Our big emotional responses and overreactions are caused by something we are thinking, whether consciously or subconsciously.
In the midst of a trigger, you might not even know what your thought is. This is common. Most of us have subconscious, unexamined beliefs that inform our emotions. Oftentimes, the beliefs have been ingrained in us through past experienced that created filters and thought-patterns that occur behind-the-scenes.
To get to these beliefs, then, we have to intentionally explore them when we notice we are triggered. The simplest way to identify the thought or belief behind an emotion is to finish this sentence:
Whatever follows “because” is the thought behind your emotion.
Identifying the thought is helpful. However, when we’re talking about overreacting to triggers, we have to take it one step further and explore what we are taking the situations to mean about ourselves. Let me explain:
The reason certain things trigger us is because the thoughts behind the triggers are not solely negative judgments about others or the world, but rather, they are judgments about ourselves.
You might want to read that again. Triggers occur when people or events or situations cause us to judge ourselves negatively, either consciously or subconsciously.
It helps to give an example.
Let’s say that your best friend flubs a work project. You might feel empathy for her. Then, she acts foolishly in a social situation. In this case, you might feel empathy and a little bit of embarrassment on her behalf.
You probably are not triggered by either of these situations. After all, your best friend’s behavior has nothing to do with you.
Now let’s say that your child flubs a test. You might get upset, even angry. Then your child misbehaves in public. Again, you might get angry.
Your best friend and your child both did the same things, but you are triggered only by your child.
Why? Because deep down, you think that your child’s behavior is a reflection on you.
This is common. Parents are often triggered by their children because they believe their children’s bad behavior makes them look like bad parents.
If parents could look at their children’s behavior as disinterested parties, as they usually do with their friends, their children’s behavior would not have any power over their emotions. But, because parents judge themselves in the process of observing their children, their children’s bad behavior stirs up their own negative emotions.
And here’s the even more interesting thing: We won’t be triggered by our kid’s bad behavior if we are secure in our belief that we are good parents and that their behavior is consistent with the behavior of children who have good parents. In other words, we only get triggered because a part of us is buying into the belief that we might be failing as parents in some way.
You will not get triggered if your child flubs a test if you believe you are doing a great job of teaching, educating, and preparing your child for the future. (You might be surprised, disappointed, and even upset—but it will not trigger you.) You will not get triggered by your child’s foolish behavior in public if you are completely secure in the belief that the way you are parenting will eventually lead to a child who has great social skills.
Just to be clear, it’s normal to get irritated and angry when our kids make a scene, but that isn't the same as being triggered. You get to decide what constitutes a “trigger” for you. Only you can know when your reaction feels inappropriately over-the-top.
This is true of other triggers as well. We feel triggered when someone we care about disrespects us only if the underlying thought is, “Wow. The fact that this person is treating me this way must mean I am not worthy of respect.”
Let’s take an example that is outside the realm of parenting. If you are triggered by your boss, you might think, “My boss is a jerk!”
This might be true, but the reason you are triggered is not because your boss is a jerk. There are tons of jerks in the world who do not trigger you, so why does your boss?
Likely, if you explore, you will find that you are triggered because you think you should be able to command more respect and there must be something wrong with you that you don’t. Perhaps you are blaming yourself for allowing someone to treat you that way.
The same is true if your child is disrespectful. If this triggers you, you are likely thinking something like, “What have I done wrong that my child doesn’t respect me.” Or: “What’s wrong with me that I’m raising a disrespectful child? I am clearly failing as a parent.”
Only you can find the thought behind the trigger, but to be sure, it will include a negative judgment about yourself.
For another example outside the world of parenting, consider this: If your spouse wants to take a trip with friends instead of with you, you might explode and call your spouse selfish. If you explore the trigger, though, you will find all sorts of other thoughts: Perhaps you wonder why you fail to inspire appreciation and devotion. Perhaps you are worried that you are no longer loveable. Perhaps you are afraid you are not a good judge of character because your spouse so often disregards you.
One way or another, you will find that you are judging yourself.
When your child’s behavior or attitude triggers you, you might not realize you are judging yourself. In fact, in the heat of the moment, you probably say things that indicate that you believe your strong emotional response is the child’s fault. However, if you dig deep enough, every trigger will point you toward a negative thought you are having about yourself, your choices, or your life.
The reason you feel intensely and irrationally upset with your children is that you interpret situations as meaning something negative about yourself. And these triggers are particularly strong in the realm of parents. We all want our children to be happy and successful, and we want to feel like good parents. We can’t stand the thought of failing, so when we see evidence that we are falling short, our emotions run high.
So, what do you do about your triggers?
When you are triggered, you have some soul searching to do. Turn the lens on yourself and explore the deeper layer of thoughts. If you are triggered by your children, ask yourself what you think their behavior means about you.
This is not easy to do, but it is empowering because it puts control back into your hands.
Once you identify the thought, you get to decide what to do about it: Change your behavior, or change your thought.
1. Changing your behavior
You might identify the critical thought and realize that it is an accurate and true representation. In this case, you can change your behavior over time, cultivate your own self-worth, and eliminate the trigger.
Let me explain.
Sometimes, the critical thoughts that you have about yourself are a true and accurate representation of your failure to meet a value. Perhaps you are failing to teach your children in some area that you value.
We all have things we value — things like respect, education, productivity, or whatever it might be. Yet, we commonly neglect some of these values in the day-to-day struggle to get our kids fed, out the door, and to their activities on time.
Neglecting these values impacts our self-worth. We feel bad about ourselves when we aren’t living up to our own standards.
If you value education, for instance, and you never read to your children, rarely help them with their homework, or fail to expose them to new ideas and ways of thinking, then it makes sense that when your child fails a test or receives poor grades, you will feel really bad about it. Subconsciously, you will believe that your child’s failed test represents your own failure, and this will very likely trigger you.
If you value respect, but you fail to model respect and, instead, yell, speak to your children in a rude tone of voice, and are frequently short-tempered in their presence, then of course you will feel triggered if your children are disrespectful to you! It will seem like you are mad at your kids when you are really mad at yourself.
If you value independence, but you regularly do things for your children that they could do for themselves, you will very likely be triggered if your kids do not pick up after themselves, forget their sports gear, or don’t complete their homework unless you are hovering over them.
Why will all of these situations trigger you? Because they act as evidence that you have failed to live up to your own values.
In these cases, you can begin to change your behavior, taking small — or big — steps toward demonstrating your own values. You can spend time educating your kids. You can take steps to be more respectful to your children. You can begin teaching your kids how to take care of themselves. As you do this, you will start to earn your own self-respect. Your behavior will align with your values, and this will alleviate much of the tension related to your triggers.
When you know you are doing everything in your power to educate your children, poor grades will not trigger you as much. Yes, you might still be upset if your child comes home with a failed test. Negative emotions are still a part of life. But, you will not feel the same out-of-control rush of emotions as you did in the past. You will know that you are on a better path and doing what you can do to help your child become a better student. Your thoughts will be different. You will think about the next steps you can take and how to shift the course for better results.
2. Changing your thought
At times, we find that the critical thoughts we have about ourselves are not accurate representations of the truth, of what we value, or of what we want to believe.
This happens because many of our beliefs are inherited from our parents and carried around for year without being examined. While most teens and young adults question some of their parents’ beliefs, many beliefs slip through the cracks undetected. The same way the fish does not know it swims in water, many of us fail to consciously understand the belief systems we have been marinating in since childhood.
Imagine that your child fails a test, and you are triggered. Once you examine your reaction, you realize that your strong emotional response was based on this critical thought: “I am failing as a parent because my children have two working parents. My children are going to fail in life because neither parent is a stay-at-home parent.”
When you examine this thought, you realize that it is not a true representation of what you value or of what you want to believe. It’s a holdover from your parents’ generation. You, on the other hand, know that tons of people with two working parents have well-adjusted, successful children.
Beyond that, the idea that you’re failing as a parent is a clear overreaction to the situation. It’s not even true. Your child failed one test, not every test. Maybe your child was sick. Maybe your child was having a bad day, or perhaps your child is struggling in a subject, and the failed test was your indicator that he or she needs a little extra help.
Furthermore, your child has other fantastic qualities and skills. You know that tons of research shows that emotional intelligence is a bigger predictor of success than grades, and your kid’s EQ is off the charts. Plus, you are an entrepreneur, and your child is learning all about business, communication, and innovation. Employers will be knocking down doors to hire your kid, but that won’t be necessary because your kid will be the employer.
This line of thinking might even make you realize that in today’s world, education is not the biggest indicator of success. You might think: “Most jobs of tomorrow have not even been created yet. Why am I worrying about this one test?”
As you examine your thoughts, you will find lots of better-feeling thoughts that you actually believe and that soothe the trigger. This self-awareness will allow you to replace the triggering thought with one that will make you feel optimistic and empowered instead of angry and demoralized.
Let’s give another example. If it triggers you when your child disagrees or won’t back down when arguing her point, you might realize that you hold this "unexamined" belief: “Children should not argue with adults.” You might come to realize that every time your children argue with you, you feel triggered because you were raised to believe that children should defer to authorities.
As you examine this belief, you might come to realize that it did not serve you. Because you were taught as a child that you must be deferential, you found yourself afraid to speak up when you were being mistreated by others, and this lasted well into adulthood.
You might come to realize that you actually want children who aren’t afraid to speak up and challenge other people. You might come to realize that as long as you speak respectfully to your children, they will eventually be respectful in turn and able to differentiate situations that call for respect and situations that call for loud voices.
All of these thoughts will eliminate the triggering thought.
And what about children who aren’t independent? Well, if you examine your beliefs, you might realize that you have an unrealistic belief that you should be able to tell a child something once and have that be the end of it. You might realize that you subconsciously feel your mother’s disapproving stare every time your child leaves a wet towel on the floor. You might come to realize that children’s neural pathways are still being formed, and that until they have formed a habit, they need firm but gentle reminders to pick up after themselves. All of these thoughts are bound to help you stay calm in the face of a child who sheds clothes behind him as he walks down the hall.
The long and short of it is this: If the thought behind the trigger is accurate, you need to change your behavior. But if the thought behind the trigger isn’t true or isn’t serving you, change your thought.
Only you can decide whether your thoughts serve you, and whether they are true and accurate representations of the paradigms and values you want for your life.
The good news is this: Once you are self-aware, you cannot go backward. When you bring the triggering thought or belief into the light, you can take control of how you respond to it. You can replace it or you can use it to realign yourself with the values that serve you.
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