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Tips for parents who feel triggered by their child's behaviors

Photo Credit: Claudia Wolff for Unsplash

Nothing feels worse as a parent than losing your cool. Yelling or acting out in response to your child's outburst never feels good and never helps the situation. But how can you control something that feels outside of your control? It's easy to feel triggered by a child's behaviors especially aggressive behaviors or seemingly defiant behaviors. Here are some tips to help.

I lost it today and yelled at my daughter. The literal most important person, the paramount love of my life. It feels shameful and shitty.

As an Autistic (and ADHD) parent with a trauma history, I have to work harder to stay calm when everything feels like chaos. And sometimes, I don't. I keep working at it, and my skills have grown. It's absolutely worth the work to increase your calm--as a parent and in every aspect of your life.

Research shows that parent stress increases with child behavior issues and that parenting stress increases child behavior issues! I write about Autism and ADHD, but parental stress, trauma triggers and behavior issues don't need to be disability related to have an impact. In fact, parenting stress has increased since COVID and hasn't returned to "normal." This article is for all parents who feel triggered by their children.

There's nothing worse than the feeling of losing control. Here's how to prevent more of these moments and how to recover.

#1 Attend to your needs.
You are less likely to be able to stay calm when things go sideways if you're tired, hungry, feeling overwhelmed, have missed your meds, or are thinking about all the things you should be doing. I know you can't always be Zen. Sleep isn't always in your control, especially if your child has sleep issues. Not feeling overwhelmed is a pretty tall order, and there's always something you should have already done. I get it. I see you. Me too. Pay attention to the subtle messages you are getting from your body and mind that you need to take some time to meet your own need. Self-care is required to care for your child.

#2 Attend to your child's needs.
Your child is less likely to have outbursts if their needs are met. So, just as for yourself, try to make things happen to address the basic needs and any specific needs they have such as sensory needs.

#3 Cultivate your calm
This is a background task (yes, another thing to add to your to-do list). A daily mindfulness practice can make a difference. I like using guided meditations to help bring my pinball brain back to the moment. There are guided meditations and guided imagery exercises available on YouTube or on paid apps like Calm.

Create calm in your home if possible or a calm space that is quiet and peaceful where you and other family members can take a moment to breathe.

#4 Take on your healing
If you have a trauma history, make it a priority to work out your thoughts and feelings. Therapy is an excellent option. If that's not available to you, there are self-help books available to help you do this work and plenty of social media accounts run by licensed professionals that can give you places to start on where to direct your resources as well as make you feel seen and understood. This can help you learn what your triggers are and the all-important WHY of the driving feelings behind the triggers. You may be responding to fears of being rejected or unloved by your child or dealing with the fear of physical violence.

#5 Co-regulate with your child
Use your calm as a tool to soothe your child. Successfully easing your child's pain and sadness will also bring the same to you.

In the moment
#1 be mindful of your potential to be triggered
If trouble is brewing, brace yourself.
  • Breathe. Take a breath before you respond each time. This simple pause can give you the space you need to think and respond versus reacting.

  • Realize that your brain is in a better place to control emotions than your child's.

  • Recognize that this moment will pass. Staying calm will allow for faster and fuller healing for your child AND for you.

#2 When they dial-up, you dial down
When your child's jet engines are starting to roar for take off, sit, breathe and unlatch the personal from whatever is about to happen. That is, tell yourself that their big feelings aren't your fault or their fault. Let them be. Acknowledge them. Accept them. Say fewer words than you're inclined to. Say something caring to your child. For example, "hey, I can see you're mad I said no. I understand that was really important to you right now, and that's ok. I love you, but we still can't do that right now. Take your time with these feelings. I'm here."

#3 Try to avoid a strike
If your child is prone to aggression, keep a distance while you hold space for them and speak. You're less likely to be triggered if you aren't thrown into Fight/Flight by physical aggression. If it happens, back up instead of going forward. Tell your child "we need a break." Retreat to another room or across the room. Have other children leave the space.

#4 Always favor connection or correction
The most important part of life is our loving relationships. Always, always, always chose to connect with your child over anything thing else. It's very likely that any errors they have made are already known to them. You shouldn't focus too much on correcting anything right now. Not in this moment where they need to know you love and accept them as they are--even at their worst.

#1 Complete the stress cycle
You and your child now have stress sitting somewhere in your body. It has to be processed through exercise, love, or rest. Drs. Amelia and Emily Nagoski take about completing the stress cycle in their book Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle. They share that completing the stress cycle requires endorphins from physical exercise, oxytocin from a hug or other physical contact for at least 20 seconds, or a reset through a good night of sleep.

#2 If you were wrong, yelled, or lost your $#!+, apologize
I don't believe my mother ever apologized to me as a child though there were plenty of times she should have. I think that would have done a lot to repair our relationship if she had.

Admitting we were wrong models the behavior we want to see from our children, reinforcing the concept that no one has to be perfect or right all the time, and that our mistakes will never get in the way of our love. You can go back and so, "this is what I should have said (or done)."

#3 Hold yourself accountable
If you messed up, how can you do better next time? Attend to those items listed above that you've been neglecting. Seek out community and social supports to give you the opportunity to have breaks.

#4 If your triggers are causing harm
If you are losing control regularly and yelling, saying hurtful things, or using physical punishment, these are signs that you need more support, breaks, and healing. You aren't alone. Don't let shame keep you from asking for help. Seek out a family therapist to help you work through these issues to bring peace to you and your family. You all deserve it.

We all come to parenting with history and experience as well as expectations. Let go of the expectations, heal your own wounds, and embrace the unique beauty of your life.

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