All of us get dysregulated at times when we are engaging with our children. If you don’t, then you are a unicorn. There is annoyance and frustration with present events, and then there is reactive projection from unresolved past transgressions. Relationship damage is caused when your reaction soars way beyond the seriousness of the infraction.
Measured or Triggered
Here is a typical situation: Johnny, for the 4th time this week, has left his bike in the driveway, so that you are inconvenienced, again, on your way home from a long day at work. You have to get out of your car and move the bike before you can drive into the garage. Here are two responses to consider: 1) You are pretty darned annoyed by the situation and after taking a breath you decide Johnny needs to lose the privilege of riding his bike for the rest of the day or even the week (if that makes sense in the context of the situation), and 2) Upon seeing the bike, your blood pressure spikes; you feel like a bull rushing a red cape. Blind rage takes over. You jump out of the car and throw the bike out of the way before slamming the car into the garage. You are fighting mad, running things through your mind like: He is so f***ing disrespectful; he never listens to anything I tell him; he doesn’t care about me at all; I’m so tired of this; he is self-centered and irresponsible; where the hell is he–because he’s toast.
The former response is measured in response to the repeated misplacement of the bike and the frustration of not being able to effect change; the latter is likely a triggered reaction that far outstrips the seriousness of the crime.
Justifying Triggered Reactions Is Dangerous
Before you go justifying the second response as appropriate to the weight of the crime, let me say this: Cool your jets–your lid is flipped. For traumatized, attachment challenged (and even attached) children, leaving a bike in the driveway every day is fairly normal. Having to talk with a child about something over and over is typical parenting. A kid not thinking about your eminent arrival home is usual. I grant you that traumatized, attachment challenged children’s behavior differs from normally attached children’s behavior in intensity, duration, and frequency that would make the most securely attached parent tested to the nth degree. Your reaction, however, is triggered and you are projecting a world of emotional baggage onto this traumatized child’s act which is making it seem heinous, untenable, and deserving of your swift, wrathful intervention. That’s your problem, not your child’s.
3 Ways to Identify Being Triggered
You Feel Wronged Beyond Belief: If you feel hurt and personally wounded by the behavior of your child, you are likely triggered into projecting something from your past. This is also known as personalizing.
You Feel Self Righteous: If you only see how right you are and how wrong your child is, your self-righteous indignation will likely lead to an intimidating, hostile stance with your child. This is a big sign you are triggered. Intimidating a child is a form of emotional child abuse.
You Feel Life or Death: When a bike in the driveway leads you into a fuming fit; when a bike in the driveway has you feeling like you are going to split a gut if this doesn’t get resolved right now; when a bike in the driveway, has you feeling like your child is getting away with murder; when a bike in the driveway, has you jumping into action like you are chasing a proverbial bad guy down the streets of Baltimore, a la The Wire, then you are triggered and projecting the feelings from another intense time in your life onto the present situation.
When Triggered, What?
Dan Seigel, a renowned attachment researcher, says you have to name it to tame it. If you are having any of the three triggered states listed above, stop:
- Name it. “I am triggered.”
- Do not speak to your child from this emotionally triggered place. “I need to calm down.”
Talk to someone else about your feelings first. Beforehand, make a mental list of three people you can trust to listen and who will not fuel your reaction. “I’m triggered and having a flood of mixed feelings.”
- Regulate. Get your lid back on. “I need to breathe, take a walk, take a shower, go for a run, talk to a friend, get a hug, make a cup of tea, write down my feelings…”.
- Formulate a plan. “I’m going to talk reasonably with Johnny about my frustration, problem-solve for change, and give measured consequences for being irresponsible with his bike. I am going to care empathically about his feelings when I give him the consequences.”
- Let it go. Let it go. Let it go. I assure you; the bike will show up in the driveway again. Since you can predict it, you can prepare for it. If you cannot stop justifying and rationalizing the magnitude of your upset, then you need help from a therapist to heal some of the wounds getting triggered and projected onto your child. Your baggage does not need to be carried by your child who likely is carrying baggage of his/her own.