Have you ever lost it with your child over something and not understood why? Why your son’s clinginess at separation drives you crazy, why something inside you snaps if you see your oldest daughter hit your youngest?
When emotions flare up, seemingly from nowhere, you may have stumbled on a trigger from your own childhood. Perhaps you had a hard time saying goodbye at drop off. You might have been the younger child getting hit, you may have been the older child doing the hitting. You may have witnessed your two cousins fighting and then them getting punished.
How The Brain Stores Memories Causes Parents to Flare
Because of the way the brain stores these memories, when they are restimulated our systems become overwhelmed with feeling. Those feelings may include anger, fear, helplessness, and more. They flare with great intensity, often taking us by surprise.
“Past hurt doesn’t have to come from a big trauma, although it can do,” Sandra Flear, a psychotherapist, mother of two and Certified Hand In Hand Parenting Instructor, says.
“A past hurt can stem from any experience where the relational support to be able to process and shed the feelings at the time they occur wasn’t there,” she explains. These experiences can happen at any time, anywhere, from encountering an aggressive dog to living with tense or distracted parents, experiencing yelling, bullying, rejection or more.
When a child experiences pain and isn’t heard, they are held in the brain in a different way from other memories. “The brain releases a chemical to put them into storage where they are mostly out of awareness but not completely,” says Sandra. “These overwhelming experiences continue to color our perceptions and can flood us at times.”
Often becoming a parent stirs these memories. We flare simply because of something our children do or say. Parenting is a particularly potent evoker of stored feelings because the demands we have as parents are constant, and because our children so often remind us of ourselves as children or other people from our childhood, Sandra says.
When something in the present feels similar to an early negative experience our neural networks are tugged we are flooded with feelings. We find ourselves responding to our children in ways we don’t like. We might become enraged and yell, issue threats, or handle them more forcefully than we’d like. Later we are consumed with guilt about what we feel must be an overreaction but are in fact stored hurts.
How Releasing Stored Hurt Helps Us Move Through
In the moment, it can be helpful to notice when we become flooded. Taking a minute to feel those sensations and acknowledge them can be calming. Ultimately, though, we need to do more than access the stored feelings. What is far more helpful is releasing them.
One way to do release our stored hurt is to revisit it with someone who can respond more positively. Slowing down enough to be with the early experience, as the child within, brings the experience back into our awareness and allows it to intensify. If we can receive the empathy, warmth, welcome and understanding as we relive the experience, the neural network can actually be modified. The memory returns to our brain’s long-term storage with the new, warmer reaction attached to it and lessons the restimulation.
Because shedding these hurts can leave us feeling exposed, the listener should be one that can that can remain calm, regulated and attuned towards their partner’s emotional state, and that can direct their partner toward and stay with the emotional part of what they are experiencing. When there is safety, there is freedom to relive and shed the hurt.
During this healing listening, a parent may cry, rage, sweat, laugh, shiver or say things that they needed to say at the time of the original experience. They also may need to simply stay with the experience and share it with their listener, without words or by describing it, they may be able to do that for a certain amount of time before they can receive confirming messages or things that they needed to hear at that time:
- It wasn’t your fault
- You are worthy
- You are good
- You made it
That leads to a feeling of relief. “This is a very vulnerable thing for parents to do but it’s full of opportunity for healing,” Sandra says. During the listening session, or after it, the parent may feel calmer. They may also experience a reduction in the intensity of the feelings that typically come in their interactions with their children and be able to be more available to their children.
Meet the Instructor
Sandra Flear, RP, DipTIRP, CPI is a mother of two from Canada, a registered psychotherapist and Certified Hand in Hand Instructor. You can read more of Sandra’s stories here. This post was inspired by a recent live call Sandra co-hosted on Parenting Triggers. Listen to the whole talk here.