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 at the end of a hectic day—it’s turned into a nightly saga of chasing, nagging, whining, negotiating, yelling and, on really bad days, some crying. I start to feel anxious as soon as dinner is over and it’s time to go upstairs and wrestle the little Tasmanian devils to bed. After bath time, I can anticipate the arguments between my girls, aged four and six, about which stories we’re going to read, who gets to sit on my lap and when, the exact order of songs I must sing and childhood anecdotes I have to recite before they have deemed my job done.
While 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 innocent antics are irrationally triggering to me. 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, threatening to take away their “story privileges” which just makes us all feel terrible. It seems like they know all of my buttons to press, and they’re playing me on repeat. It’s a pattern that makes me feel weak and helpless, and I need to figure out how to fix it.
What are parenting triggers?
“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. “So we act in a way that’s not necessarily 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 you tell your kid eight times to come to the table for dinner), it will activate that old story. “What happens when you’re a child who didn’t feel listened to? You feel alone, you feel powerless. You feel angry, frustrated,” says Markham.
These old, visceral feeling 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 even a sibling. “But the most common trigger is that the child reminds you of yourself, the very things that you don’t like about yourself. Being super aware of that is really important,” she says.
However, Kolari says that you don’t need to dig too much into your past to figure out what’s really bothering you to be an effective parent, as long as you can learn to recognize your triggers. “There could be little things that are deeply triggering because of your own childhood issues or trauma 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.”
Here are six of the most common parenting triggers and tips on how to deal with them:
Whining or not listening
“Whining is also a big one because it grates on our nerves and we want our child to be happy—so we can be happy. But it’s also often when you have tons of things to do, that can be really, really aggravating,” says Kolari.
When it comes to any trigger, including whining or not listening, Kolari says the first step is to check yourself, bring your awareness to your trigger and then show self-compassion before you try to fix the situation. 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 be like, ‘Wow, you really hate this so much that you don’t ever want to brush your teeth again. That’s terrible. You do have to brush your teeth, because you know what happens if you don’t? Your teeth 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 downstairs in the kitchen? That’s a better response than forcefully 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 that feels more powerless, and then they’re more likely to assert their power against yours in the future. Again, by being disrespectful.”
“I hate you”
“Parents freak out when kids say I hate you,” says Markham. “It’s more than disrespect—it’s a trigger on its own, 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—which is probably what you’re hearing. What they’re really saying is I’m so angry, I’m afraid I can never work things out with you. An appropriate response? “Acknowledge that your kid must be really mad. You say, ‘You can be as mad at me as you want. I will always love you, no matter what. And you still can’t have another cookie (or whatever the child is asking for), I’m not going to change my limit, no matter how angry you are at me, but you can be as mad as you feel, and that’s OK.”
Being physically hurt
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 will go to great lengths sometimes 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, as long as you repair the relationship later. “Healthy adversity and natural bumps, like somebody screaming at you when you’re nasty to them, is kind of like, life. There are consequences,” she says. “Those triggers are totally normal human responses. And they have nothing to do with being a bad person, or even tired or mean or traumatized or anything else. 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 I have a few minutes of one-on-one time with both of them before our story time, so they feel connected to me and won’t have to compete for my attention.
Spills and accidents
This particular bad habit 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. As a kid, my husband would start crying as soon as it happened because he knew he would be yelled at.
When it comes to spills and accidents, Kolari says that, “If your response is to immediately blame and criticize, then you want to practice a different response. She advises taking a second to relax your breathing, drop your shoulders and have something rehearsed that you have literally practiced saying. “Something like ‘It’s OK guys, spills happen, right? Or this happens to everybody, we’ll clean it up’. When you practice that a few times it will start to be a response that’s fairly automatic. Then later you can say, ‘Hey, is there something we could have done to prevent that spill? Could we look where we’re going or slow down? Could we think before we put things down? Problem-solve with your child.”
Kolari recommends starting out with just one trigger, and working to change that hard-wired reaction. “Pick one thing you’d like to change and set an intention for a week or two. You’re just going to try to have 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 because I’ve planned for it. “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 each time I correct my reaction, I’m lessening the power of the trigger. “Every trigger we have will tap into some issues that can go very deep. And for every human, those deep issues are somehow that we are not enough, we are not good enough. And therefore, we are not lovable enough, and therefore our very survival is at stake,” says Markham. “But do you have to at the moment when you’re having this problem at that time, get into that stuff? No! Would it be good if you talk to a counsellor? Sure, but the truth is, we all have the issue of worthiness so we can all work on that all the time. What parents need in that moment is a tool to use to stop from flying off the handle. They need to stop escalating the drama.”
I’m making structural changes to our routine, setting limits and reminding myself that it’s normal to feel frustrated and that this too shall pass—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 lala land. It’s time to acknowledge my triggers, move on and enjoy my children’s sweet smallness while it lasts.