“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. It pays to be able to tame our tantrums—for them and us.
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.”
You can tame your tantrums. Here are eight things you can do when you’re in the grip of anger and need a time out.
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.
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.