By Heather Harper Medley, MA, LPC, CPCS, ACS

We had been in the store for about 20 seconds when one of our children began asking repetitively for a new toy. I glanced over at my husband to make sure we were on the same page and then kindly announced to both children that we were not getting any new toys today. I took a deep breath and prepared myself for the parenting moment that was sure to follow. As my child began to wail, I knew I wanted to respond in a way that would attend to the behavior without squelching the spirit. 

Any parent that has passed the toy aisle of a department store knows the scenario I am talking about. In spite of said scenario being a familiar, even common experience, it can be a very difficult one to navigate. When our children display big emotions we can quickly become overwhelmed with our own thoughts and emotions. We may find ourselves peaceful and happy one moment, then our child acts out in some way and all of a sudden our insides are churning and we find ourselves disrupted and/or angry-trying not to explode! An experience such as this is most likely revealing an emotional “trigger.” A trigger is something that happens around us that would not ordinarily be considered “a big deal,” but for us, it evokes an emotion and reaction that affects us to the degree that we are altered emotionally, mentally, and even physiologically – which is a very big deal. Triggers often elicit strong emotions such as fear, shame, anger, sadness, or powerlessness. When “the thing” that occurs involves a parent and child, that particular trigger is referred to as a “parenting trigger.”

If we merely react to our kids (as opposed to responding) these strong feelings inside us can come out in ways that are often harmful to the child and leave the parent feeling frustrated with the relationship, discouraged with their parenting skills, and disconnected from their child. So where do these triggers come from and how do we navigate these situations in which we find ourselves?

A trigger begins and takes root because a particular experience evokes intense emotions. That trigger develops and the root deepens when those emotions have yet to be processed to the point of bringing healing or being reconciled. When we do not fully process an experience it can get “stuck” in our brain, dragging with it all the emotions we felt when that painful experience took place; then up and out they come when something in the present feels similar to that past painful moment. For example, if crying was seen as weak or bad in our family of origin, seeing our child cry could elicit feelings of anger or shame and we may react very strongly in an effort to shut down the tears (whether our own or someone else’s). Another example is if anger was used to scare you as a child, you may panic if your child expresses anger and try to overpower their expression or cower in the shadow of it. These examples are not healthy for our kids because rather than helping them learn how to well navigate their emotions (self-regulate) they are left to develop unhealthy coping skills such as acting out or becoming numb, shutting down, or withdrawing when they feel distress.

The healthy goal is to effectively manage our emotions when triggered so that we behave in ways that generate connection and provide a sense of safety to our children during “high stress” moments. In addition, as we attend to our triggered hearts and navigate our own emotions with care and wisdom, we gain confidence in our ability to hold, or, make space, to care for the emotions our children express. This offers hope that as we pay attention to our own heart and learn how to navigate it wisely, we will most likely avoid the passing on of ineffective parenting patterns to the next generation.

Returning to the toy aisle scenario, here is an example of what an unhealthy and a healthy scenario can look like: When my child begins to cry, I can have a strong urge to quiet him because of the powerlessness I feel in the moment. If I react to him by saying, “Stop crying, or I will give you something to cry about!” I am teaching him that it is not okay to feel what he is feeling. 

Instead, I want to be able to hold space for him to feel whatever he is feeling and teach him how to regulate his emotions on his own. I want to say something like, “I know you are sad because I said, ‘No.’ That makes sense to me. I will sit here with you while you cry. I understand that you are sad: Your feelings matter to me.”

Easier said than done, right?

Thankfully, research shows that our kids do not need us to be perfect parents: They just need us to be “good enough” parents. This means we just need to show up well part of the time. Phew! What a relief! So, how do we show up well?

Neuropsychiatrist, Dr. Dan Siegel, suggests that the best predictor of a child’s security of attachment is the parent’s own self-understanding. So basically, parenting work is actually self-work. Once we become aware of our parenting triggers we are in a better position to respond (think through how we want to intentionally behave) rather than react (behave without assessing the possible damage or consequences) to our children. Slowing down our inner upheavals of emotion and thinking through our responses will begin to create safety in the parent-child relationship.

What modern research shows to be a healthy parenting model reminds me of the model that God has given to us in Scripture. Zephaniah 3:17 tells us that He will quiet us with His love. A parent’s ability to remain loving and calm in the midst of their child’s chaos will help to usher in and restore internal peace. 

If you are interested in getting better at navigating your parenting triggers and promoting an atmosphere of peace in your home and connection in your parent/child relationship, a helpful “next step” is to slow down and pay attention to the parenting moments that generate stress for you. Make a list of these moments and become curious about when in your life you have felt these things before. You may then want to consider beginning to share and process your thoughts and feelings with a trusted friend or counselor. As you pursue getting some understanding about what is going on in your heart, I believe you will find the changes in your parent/child relationship (as well as in yourself) are worth whatever effort and energy you invest.