What does it mean to be 'triggered'?
Updated: Dec 31, 2021
There can be plenty of challenging times in parenting, from having to put a child's socks on - take them off - put them back on they way our children wanted; but didn't previously communicate, or arguing over how many bananas it is ok to eat in one day, to more serious breakdowns in communication.
Being triggered accesses a whole different level of pain. Our children are mirrors to our unresolved childhood pain, or more accurately, childhood traumas. Traumas are stored as body memory, and the body is vulnerable to re-experiencing sensations and emotions from all the way back to the 3rd trimester in pregnancy. There are triggers in the environment that push the button and suddenly parts of us are experiencing emotions or physical sensations of things we have lived, it can be beautiful things like music that floods us with loving memories, or pain, terror, frustration, horror, helplessness, nightmares, emptiness, disappointment etc. Without the vital information that this challenge exists, we can easily degenerate into a never ending battle with our children, with a perception that it is their behaviour that is at fault.
Traumas are not necessarily as obvious as something along the lines of an injury requiring medical attention or being beaten or physically hurt in anyway. A trauma can occur from our birth experience, by being left alone, left to cry, not validated over something that was important to us at the time, and it can reverberate throughout our entire lives. The memory may not be remembered but the sensations are. We can often be flooded with emotions that we do not know the story for. and that can result in self punishing "why am I reacting this way?"
When I talk to people about trauma, so often do I hear phrases such as "my childhood was fine, I didn't have any traumas". On a short investigation it usually unfolds that this isn't quite true. Perhaps the pregnancy was in times of stress (which impacts the unborn child), or I am told "my parents only smacked me when I deserved it", "my Mum had depression but it didn't affect me", "my parents used to send me to my room when I was angry, I would probably do the same", "I was sleep trained and it didn't do me any harm" and so on.
As human beings we seem to be hardwired to be blindsided by any discomfort in our past, or childhood conditioning, or maybe we cannot bear to see our parents in a negative way. We often look at others that had a harder ride than us and feel that we really have nothing to grumble about in comparison. It doesn't make the trauma any less real, and all trauma - acknowledged or not - will cause a disproportionate response to our children when we are triggered; our childhood trauma reignited with its full force.
For example, leaving a child to 'cry it out' alone when sleep training can lead to insomnia in later life, and expressions of anger being denied can lead to depression. There are numerous examples and everyone's trauma experience can be wildly different from each other's.
As children we had certain rights of passage:
The right to exist - from conception to approximately 6 months
The right to need - from birth to 18 months
The right to have support - 10 months to 2 years
The right to freedom - 2 and 4 years
The right to love - 3 to 7 years
If our parents did not have the knowledge or ability to support us through these times appropriately, it is entirely possible that trauma could have occurred that became the basis of our very persona. We are likely to have formed coping mechanisms / automatic responses to any situations that remind us of the painful childhood experience(s).
A family where anger was not an acceptable emotion - the child could have been repeatedly shamed, resulting in pushing down those angry feelings in order to protect his attachment to his parents. Now in adult life his very own child is expressing anger which is unconsciously programmed as an unacceptable emotion, and feelings of "how dare they be angry!" come up as it is reigniting the childhood wound.
A child being disempowered by a parent when helping with cake baking. "You can't do that, let me, you're too small, you cannot do it well enough" in later life when cooking with their own child that is pushing for autonomy can bring up the pain of the belittling, shaming, creative crushing that the parent endured. If this is unconscious then the trigger is pulled and anger can erupt at the child and shaming or punishing actions can ensue.
If the trigger is recognised, it can be great to work with. We can investigate the mechanism behind the trigger, what pain are we carrying, defusing the pain and improving our relationships and overall health. If we do not work on these triggers we simply blame the person triggering us which is not a solution and will perpetuate the cycle of trauma.
This triggering mechanism is at play in our lives as a whole, not only in parenting. We can set our lives and relationships up in such a way that we control the triggers and are able to push down the discomfort, and continue on oblivious to the dysfunctional way we experience the world. We can quit, blame and eventually make our bodies ill through its attempts to deal with all of the stress that entails. Along comes a child, oblivious to the unspoken 'rules' in our lives and walks all over our childhood pain! For that I am immensely grateful.
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