“The more helpful response to being triggered is to recognize your emotional charge as a signal that something is amiss within you. In other words, emotional reactivity is a reason to go inward, focusing on your own growth. Once you realize there are no enemies, only guides to inner growth, all who play a part in your life become mirrors of your forgotten self.” –Shefali Tsabary
My father was a rager. The littlest thing would set him off—a toy left on the table, too much giggling at dinnertime, a disrespectful look. One day he got so mad at me that I could hear the ice cubes rattling in his glass of water as he shook with rage.
As I got older, I realized his rage wasn’t about me. His childhood had its share of trauma and instability. My grandfather, a union organizer, endured frequent police beatings and moved his family frequently to dodge the Klan. My father also endured a difficult weeklong hospitalization as a child—coming home after a week strapped to a metal bed with a thin mattress. Parents were not allowed to stay in the hospital with their children in those days. When he finally saw his mother, my father dug into her and wouldn’t let go for days.
So, my father brought more than a little baggage to our family. The fear and anger he carried with him spilled over into his relationships with us. He had a short fuse, and my brother and I had to tiptoe around the house to avoid being the spark that set off his next big explosion.
Parenting can trigger every fuse you have—even ones you didn’t know you had. The problem is, when we unleash that fury on our children, it deeply frightens them. Children are sensitive: they are born with emotional brains already developed and primed to pick up on our tension and anger, even in infancy.
But, although our children notice when we yell, scream, or grab too tight, they are not at fault. As psychologist Laura Markham notes, “…no one ever really ‘triggers’ you. They’re your triggers, from your own childhood, from other traumas, or from your current stress. Your child has simply unearthed them and is giving you the opportunity to heal them.”
WHEN PARENTS NEED A TIME OUT
You can make a commitment to tame your own tantrums. Here are some things you can do when you’re in the grip of anger and need a time out.
- STOP what you are doing. Don’t talk, don’t yell—just stop. Focus on your breathing if you can. This is not easy! But it’s one of the first things you need to do when you’re in the throes of a tantrum. Like other stress reducing routines, this one takes practice. But when you bring some consciousness to your anger, over time, you’ll find the grip begin to loosen.
- STEP AWAY. Tell your child you need to take a break and step away from the situation for a moment: “Mommy is upset. I need to cool down.” That might mean going to the bathroom to have a short cry, finding a pillow to scream in, or stepping outside for a moment to change scenes if there is a calm adult nearby who can stay with your child.
- LIE DOWN ON THE FLOOR. Yes, on the floor! Patty Wipfler, founder of Hand in Hand Parenting, suggests that you stop what you’re doing and lie down on the floor. It’s a powerful way to take a break from a situation that’s got you steamed. Sometimes when you’re locked in a power struggle with your little one, or about to blow your top, lying down can help reset your emotions and break the power imbalance between you and your child. Your little ones may come around and be curious or climb on top of you. Lying down allows for a fresh start, helping you stop whatever you were doing that wasn’t working.
- DO SOMETHING DIFFERENT. Sip a glass of water slowly, put some music on and dance with your children, step outside for some fresh air, change the scene. This will temporarily abate the frustration that arises, while you work on a long-range plan to tame your tantrums.
MAKE A LONG RANGE PLAN
- GET HELP WITH THE HARD TIMES. Notice the times that are particularly hard or stressful with your children and find someone who can pitch in. A mom in one of my classes had to take her daughter to school each morning after her second child was born. The baby would scream the entire 20 minutes in the car, each way. Everyone arrived to school frazzled and out of sorts. After a couple of weeks of this the mom was at the end of her rope. She asked a friend to take her daughter twice a week, and the other days, her husband managed to drop her daughter off earlier on his way to work so mom could stay home with the baby.
- HAVE A REGULAR PLAN FOR SELF CARE. As parents, some days it seems impossible to care for ourselves, but it’s important to find something we can do each week to lift the stress of constant caregiving. Whether it’s exercising, a regular walk or coffee date with a friend, or a monthly mom or dad’s get-together, make self-care a priority as often as possible. Even small daily habits of self-care, like taking a short nap or sitting down to just breathe for five minutes, can make a big difference.
- CREATE A PRACTICE OF RELAXATION OR EXERCISE. Nowadays it’s hard to dispute: a regular practice of meditation, breathing, or exercise (even just ten minutes a day) is a powerful way to shift your mindset and bring a deeper level of relaxation and well-being to your life, so that you can be more pleased with yourself and your children and less reactive.
- FIND SOMEONE TO TALK TO. Getting support by sharing the challenges and joys of parenting with another parent is an important tool in the Parenting by Connection practice. Find someone that you can call each week, and split the time evenly, whether it’s 30 minutes or an hour. Whoever is on listening duty at a given time should listen without giving advice or suggestions, and create a space where the other parent can feel safe sharing her darkest moments and thinking through how to move forward.
The moments when we lose it with our children can be an opportunity to heal the wounds that can keep us from connecting with them. And when we attend to our wounds, sometimes, miraculously, our child’s behavior shifts as well. Laura Markham explains: “The paradox is that the child seems to be creating the problem, but when we work on our part of it, the problem always diminishes. Is that because once we come to peace with the issue, we can set firm but kind limits and help our child with his emotions, instead of adding fuel to the fire? Regardless, once we melt the tangle in ourselves, our child so often makes a breakthrough too. We both heal and grow.”
So write down the ways in which your child triggers you and where the roots of that distress might lie. With a good listener, explore the anger, frustration, embarrassment or hopelessness that emerges when your child acts in a way that troubles you. And make time to notice the feelings that arise. As we express and work through those feelings, we not only change ourselves; we change our children in the process, too.