3 Surprisingly Effective Ways to Reduce Parenting Triggers

Finally understand why your child triggers your anger & what 3 simple but effective strategies help you reduce parenting triggers for good.

By Dr. Tamara Soles, Child Psychologist and Parent Coach

Parenting Triggers

My fit bit is lying to me. I’ve been using it to track my sleep, as sleep tends to be the thing I sacrifice when busy, a harmful habit I’m trying to shift. This time however, my sleep score is not the culprit. It’s the “stress management” feature. Yesterday I got a score of 94 which is an A+ by any standards and yet all it took was a quick scan of some post-birthday clutter around the house and a day of sick kids and my trigger was ignited. It was a C+ day at best.

I know that overwhelm is a trigger for me but like most parents, knowing my triggers isn’t enough. Parents need effective strategies to first recognize their “trigger signature”- a term coined by psychologist, Dr. Susan Campbell, and then to reduce the heightened, almost-automatic nervous system response.

Strategies to Reduce Parenting Triggers

Here are four strategies to develop and practice with parents in order to reduce their trigger reactivity and calm their nervous systems:

  1. Practice reflective parenting. To downshift from a triggered state, parents need to get curious about what their child’s behavior is trying to communicate as well as what it means to the parent specifically. Parents are not reacting to the child’s tantrum or whining or clutter, they are reacting to what those mean to them. Psychologist Peter Fonagy described reflective parenting as the ability to consider what is going on in a child’s mind while at the same time being aware of one’s own thoughts and feelings. This reflective parenting has been shown to promote a secure attachment, stronger social skills and improved ability to manage and regulate emotions.

You may suggest parents start by keeping a journal in which they jot down a few thoughts whenever they find themselves getting angry or having an intense response to their child. Encourage them to note what led up to the event and over time they may begin to notice trigger themes. This can also be done together in therapy, as it can be helpful to have a therapist facilitating the identification and interpretation of trigger themes. Knowing their trigger signature can help parents create an environment in their home that better meets their needs while also satisfying the needs of their children. 

  1. Safety Reminders. When a child hits, kicks or pushes, it can send parents into “fight or flight”. It’s a natural human response to perceived threat. This reaction will be even stronger for parents who’ve experienced trauma. Parents should start by responding to themselves with compassion, not shame, and thank the parts of themselves that are trying to keep them safe. Parents can gently remind themselves that they are safe now and don’t need that protection anymore.
  2. Repeat “This is not an emergency”. When parents react to triggering situations without first pausing to regulate, they are setting themselves and their children up to fail. Parents often feel it necessary to address situations immediately because their brains have told them this is an urgent situation. If they follow this urge, they end up reacting instead of responding to their children. Parents can try saying aloud to themselves, “This is not an emergency.” Then tell their child, “We will talk more about this when I’m calm”. If a situation arises that a parent can’t handle calmly in the moment, they should leave it be. Even if they never return to it, if it is an actual problem, it will show up again and if it doesn’t, perhaps it was never really a problem in the first place.
  3. Deep breathing. Taking deep breaths is cliché for a reason a neurobiological reason. It is part of a biological chain reaction that initiates the rest and relax function of the nervous system. It is a neurobiological signal to bring oneself back to a safe zone. For some variety, parents can try alternate nostril breathing (you can watch a quick tutorial here)

 

These surprisingly simple but effective tips will help parents explore their triggers and slowly change how they respond. By going beyond behaviors, we can support parents in reflecting on what these behaviors are communicating on behalf of the child and how parents are interpreting that message through their unique trigger lens. The result is a more intentional parent with a strengthened and more harmonious parent-child relationship.

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