Illustration: Chloe Cushman
I dread putting my daughters to bed. Instead of the idyllic magic hour it used to be when they were babies—with story time and snuggles and songs that lull them to sleep—it’s turned into a nightly saga of chasing, nagging, whining, negotiating, yelling and, at times, crying. I start to feel anxious as soon as dinner is over. After bathtime, I’m already anticipating the arguments between my girls, ages four and six, about which stories we’re going to read, who sits on my lap, the exact order of songs I must sing and childhood anecdotes I have to recite before they have deemed my job done.
While I know a lot of my parenting challenges come down to not being assertive enough with my strong-willed children, I also feel like some of their developmentally appropriate antics push my buttons way more than they should. When they fight for my attention and don’t listen to me, instead of going into problem-solving mode, I feel instantly defeated and lose my temper. This pattern is getting us nowhere—it makes me feel weak and helpless, and when I resort to threats and taking away privileges, we all feel terrible. I need to figure out how to fix it.
“A trigger is anything you experience in the present moment that activates a feeling from the past,” says Laura Markham, a clinical psychologist, parenting coach and author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids. “We then act in a way that’s not in keeping with the present.”
A trigger often activates an old wound from our childhood, like not feeling heard or respected, says Markham. Because that wound is a story we tell ourselves, like “No one ever listens to me,” we’re always looking for confirming evidence that that’s the way the world is. When something happens where we feel not listened to (like we tell our kid eight times to come to the table for dinner), it will activate that old story. “What happens when you’re a child who doesn’t feel listened to? You feel angry, frustrated,” says Markham.
These old, visceral feelings from the past can affect your mood, make you irritable and resentful, and stop you from connecting with your child because when they trigger these angry feelings, you see your kid as the enemy, Markham says.
Jennifer Kolari, a child and family therapist and the author of Connected Parenting: How to Raise a Great Kid, says your child could even remind you of someone in your life that you have a difficult relationship with, such as a mother, father or sibling. “But the most common trigger is that the child reminds you of yourself, the very things that you don’t like about yourself.”
However, Kolari says that you don’t need to dig too much into your past to figure out what’s really bothering you in order to be an effective parent. You do, however, need to learn to recognize your triggers. “There could be little things that are deeply triggering because of your own childhood trauma or issues that touch a deeper nerve,” she says. “But parents can find their kid’s behaviour really triggering without it necessarily touching these deep issues. Nobody likes not being listened to. Nobody likes doing something for somebody and then never getting a thank you. There are universal behaviours that would drive everyone crazy.”
Finding you’re losing your cool more than you’d like? Here are six of the most common parenting triggers and tips on how to deal with them:
Let’s face it: You’ve got to be pretty zen not to be bothered by whining. “It’s a big trigger because it grates on our nerves and we want our children to be happy. Whining and other frustrating behaviour like not listening also often happens when you have tons of things to do and that can be really aggravating,” says Kolari.
When it comes to any trigger, Kolari says the first step is to check in with yourself, acknowledge that you’re being triggered and show self-compassion before you try to fix the situation. For example, if your first instinct is to yell, notice that. “Tell yourself: ‘This is just a program. My brain has been firing this way my whole life. It doesn’t have to keep firing this way,’” she says. You’re not naturally wired to lose your temper and yell; you can choose different behaviours. The more you do that, the more that becomes a neural pathway as well, she says.
“Many of us were disrespected as children, and when our kids are disrespectful to us, that trigger gets activated,” says Markham. “Your three- or four-year-old might say, ‘No, I won’t brush my teeth! You can’t make me’—because at that age, their major job is learning how to use power.” When a parent gets triggered by disrespect, they get locked into an unnecessary power struggle, Markham explains. “If you weren’t triggered, you would go into problem-solving mode,” she says. “You’d say, ‘Wow, you hate this so much that you don’t ever want to brush your teeth again. You do have to brush your teeth though, because if you don’t, your teeth can fall out because they get germs eating away at them. So we need to figure this out.’”
You might also give them choices about where they want to brush: in the bathroom or in the kitchen? That’s better than holding your kid down so you can brush their teeth, which is what our parents often ended up doing, says Markham. “Every time you get into a power struggle, you’re creating a child who feels more powerless, and then they’re more likely to assert their power against yours in the future—by being disrespectful.”
“Parents freak out when kids say, ‘I hate you,’” says Markham. “And yet it doesn’t mean a thing. The child is reaching for the most explosive, meanest thing they can say to you, because they want to show you how unhappy they are.”
But Markham explains that hatred is not actually a feeling; it’s a stance. When a child says, “I hate you,” they’re not writing you off as their parent. What they’re really saying is, “I’m so angry; I’m afraid I can never work things out with you.” An appropriate response? “Say, ‘You can be as mad at me as you want. I will always love you. And you still can’t have another cookie (or whatever the child is asking for).’”
When kids do anything physical to you, whether it’s to get your attention or by accident, parents often really lose it. “When they’re kicking the back of your seat when you’re driving or pulling on your sweater... kids can go to great lengths to get our attention,” Kolari says. Or when your kid is flailing around while you’re trying to get their jacket on, or you’re trying to get them in the car seat and they head-butt you in the face. “You have a flash response, which is totally limbic,” says Kolari.
And it’s OK to get mad sometimes, says Kolari. The important thing is to repair the relationship later, once you’ve had a chance to calm down. “Healthy adversity and natural bumps, like somebody screaming at you when you’re nasty to them, are part of life. There are consequences to your behaviour,” she says. “Those triggers are totally normal human responses. They have nothing to do with being a bad person, or being tired or mean or traumatized. They’re just crappy things that make you feel terrible.”
Another really big trigger is when one of your kids is being aggressive or rude to the other. “Especially if one is really targeting the other or being unreasonable; that tips off the mama bear response,” Kolari says. Or maybe it has to do with your childhood family dynamics, where a sibling of yours got away with things that you didn’t. Again, responding in a protective way is natural. There is room to be both compassionate and defensive. “We really have to trust that our children are stronger than we think, so we don’t have to feel guilty if we get upset with them.”
Markham adds that when it comes to one sibling constantly creeping on the other and annoying them—like when my four-year-old won’t let my six-year-old have her “turn” on my lap for story time before bed—that’s when you rely on limits. “Your job is to protect the six-year-old and to set limits with the four-year-old.” She also recommends a few minutes of one-on-one time with each of them before story time, so they feel connected to me and don’t compete for my attention.
This particular common occurence doesn’t bother me at all, but it drives my usually calm-and-collected husband crazy. “It’s a great comparison because we assume that everybody has the same responses, but everyone’s triggers are different,” says Markham. She says it would be helpful for my partner to look back on when he was a child and somebody spilled something. “It was probably treated as an emergency. Is it actually an emergency? No. Somebody spilled something; you clean it up.” In fact, I asked my mother-in-law about it, and she admitted that spills were a big deal in those days, especially when things broke. She recalls that my husband would get yelled at and cry.
When it comes to spills and accidents, Kolari says, “If your usual response is to immediately blame and criticize, then you want to practise a different response. She advises taking a second to relax your breathing, drop your shoulders and have something that you have literally practised saying. “Something like: ‘It’s OK, guys; spills happen, right?’ or ‘This happens to everybody; we’ll clean it up.’ When you practise that a few times, it will start to be fairly automatic.” Later in the day you can problem solve with your kid about how spills can be prevented in the future.
To try to reduce how much your triggers affect you, Kolari recommends starting out with just one trigger and working to change that hardwired reaction. “Set an intention for a week or two. You’re trying to create a a different set of responses in order to build new neural pathways.”
After working on my biggest trigger (not feeling heard), I don’t dread bedtime as much as I used to—and I’m definitely not as provoked by their badgering as before. “The most important thing is just to notice when you get triggered and use your pause button: Stop, drop your agenda, take a deep breath and start over,” says Markham. Markham says that each time I correct my reaction, I’m lessening the power of the trigger. “Every trigger we have will tap in to some issues that can run very deep. And for every human, those deep issues are about how we are not good enough. And therefore our very survival is at stake,” says Markham. “But do you have to—at the moment when you’re having a problem with your child—get into all that stuff in your head? No.” Instead, we need to rely on tools to stop flying off the handle, says Markham.
I’m making structural changes to our routine, setting limits and reminding myself that it’s normal to feel frustrated at this stage of parenting. They won’t always be desperate little monkeys climbing all over me, and they definitely won’t always want me to help them drift off into la-la land.