Attending to our triggers

I can remember so well the moment when I stumbled across the realisation that as parents, not only can we be triggered by our sweet children, we can also trigger ourselves. That’s right, I discovered I was fully capable of activating the self-trigger. Let me explain.

I was busy in the kitchen cooking dinner and I needed my daughter to come and set the table. She was upstairs in her bedroom when I started calling out in my calm tone. After many attempts at calling out, with no encouraging sound of footsteps arriving to say “Mum, what can I do to help?’ (we can always hope, right?!), I could feel myself getting somewhat frustrated with my daughter. If my tension could be measured on a scale of 0-10, I was about an 8 when I decided I would march up the stairs with gusto. I swung open her bedroom door and was immediately confronted with how messy her room was, not to mention the fact that she had her laptop open to Netflix. Triggers everywhere and the whole scene was suddenly unacceptable. This was no longer about simply wanting to get the table set! Let’s just say it was not one of my best parenting moments. My request to help with dinner got lost under the weight of my triggered frustration, an outcome that could have been avoided.

If I’d had the chance for a replay, after calling out the first time I would have calmly popped upstairs while I was low on my tension scale and explained what I needed. The outcome and atmosphere in the home would have been different and I would have avoided self-triggering.

What is a trigger?

To be triggered is to have an intense emotional or physical reaction to a situation or event. For parents, this often looks like a reaction to the way our children are behaving, to how they respond to our parental guidance or requests, or to a ‘final straw’ kind of moment when life/work/parenting is already demanding. Triggers come in all shapes and sizes. You could say a trigger is a warning sign to focus you on what you are really needing deep down. Here are just a few triggers you might recognise, along with some strategies for a calmer response:

‘I feel powerless’
Trigger: A sense of overwhelm because you feel like you don’t have the strategies to parent well in the season you find yourself in.
Response: My encouragement is to get the support you need, to book a coaching session or read a relevant article on parenting. There are some great resources out there that help provide fresh ideas and strategies to support us on our parenting journey. Each age and stage will present its unique set of challenges and rewards, so it’s perfectly acceptable to ask for help along the way.

‘I feel disrespected’ 
Trigger: Kids resisting boundaries and pushing back against our guidance and requests.
Response: Firstly, understand that kids often push back. When we expect it as a normal dynamic and remember that it is not personal, it’s a little easier to navigate. Remember that our kids are busy trying to work out what emotions and behaviours will get them another biscuit or a little extra screen time. Hold your line, even in the face of push-back, and you will gain respect in the long run.

‘I feel manipulated’ 
Trigger: Kids are trying to assert control as they look for a spot on the parenting team.
Response: We need to hold our lead in the family. Show your kids that you know the way – that they can have some choice and control, but only within the boundaries that you have set. If we get our kids involved in parenting decisions or offer them too much choice (eg what’s for dinner, how much sport will they play or how long they spend on technology) we can make our parenting lead harder. We know that if kids are lead with confidence (even if you have to fake it till you make it), they feel safe and secure.

Press pause

A good rule of thumb is that if it’s all too much, simply slow things down. We often feel we need to sort things right away and put a tidy little bow on a situation. But what really helps is giving ourselves some time to attend to our triggers before they attend to us (or our partner or kids!). I can imagine the nods right now. Walk away – check the letter box for the 8th time, take out the recycling, or simply step outside and take 10 deep breaths, and then come back to the situation. ‘Strike while the iron is cold’ we like to say. Engaging in a tension or conflict when we’re feeling triggered seldom (never!) ends well.

When we feel triggered it helps to stop and ask ourselves, what else is going on here? Our Pause, Hold, Engage tool is really helpful when we feel triggered.

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Behind the trigger

As you pause and hold, ask yourself why you’re feeling triggered. The answer will vary, depending on what else has been happening to you that day. You might be coming home from work on empty. You might have some big unmet expectations on your children and how they should be behaving. You might be comparing your kids to your own childhood or another family. Maybe the kids next door are all outside helping their parents with some gardening together and the family seems to have it all together… We know that comparison will certainly steal your peace and trigger you in those moments when you ask your kids to help out and they push back with negativity.

What my triggers are telling me will be different from what yours are telling you, but the consistent thing about our triggers is that there is always an emotion lurking nearby. I don’t want to turn this into a counselling session but if you can understand what it is that you are actually feeling, be it anger, stress or resentment, then you’ve taken a step closer to understanding your emotional response and what it is you really need in that moment.

Maybe it’s resentment that the kids are not helping, and what you really need is for all members of our family to help out. When the iron is cold and emotions aren’t all stirred up – sit the family down and reset your expectations. Remind them of your family culture with statements like ‘In our family we help out’ and ‘We’re a team’.

Your triggers might be telling you that you need to take time out and top up your emotional tank, remembering that you are not just a parent, but a person who needs to relax, catch up with friends or do something that makes you feel good.

Maybe your trigger is telling you there is an area of your past that needs a little healing and some tender loving care is required.

Triggers are part of everyday parenting life – they are here to stay. You can’t stop triggers from happening, but you can control how you respond to them.


Looking for more personalised strategies and solutions for your family? 

Our Family Coaches bring their extensive training and experience to help uncover new insights, ideas and practical solutions to parenting and relationship challenges. Through one-on-one support (in person, via Skype or email), you’ll be provided with take-home strategies to bring about the positive changes you desire for your whānau.

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About Author

Bridget Gundy

Bridget believes that no matter what the family situation, finding someone to talk to can make a world of difference. An experienced counsellor, Bridget has worked at Women’s Refuge and now helps parents through family coaching and facilitating Toolbox. Bridget has navigated complex parenting moments, having started her parenting journey as a single parent and then going on to co-raise four children in a blended family. She’s passionate about seeing people thrive, not just survive, in their role as parents. You can book a Family Coaching session with Bridget here. 

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