Trigger Happy: Tapping into Better Parenting
Do you find yourself having serious, off the richter type reactions to certain people or circumstances? When you know that your reaction was disproportionate to the event, what is driving you in that moment? Where is all that emotion coming from?
Emotional and behavioural triggers work much like the mechanism on a firearm. Their job is to kickstart a series of steps that lead to an explosion. The difference with a firearm is that once triggered, it cannot be stopped. You, us, me, on the other hand, being the complex humans that we are, have some options. Good to know, right?
For me, it’s my 4 year old daughter. Surprise, parenting will out your flaws like nothing else! After a recent battle of wills where she had a tantrum and I lost my tempter, I tuned into the questions that were swirling around in the aftermath. Where is all this coming from? This doesn’t happen anywhere else in my life, only with her. What is it about her, or my relationship with her, that is triggering these feelings? And what are these feelings exactly? When this question enters my head, I give myself permission to just say whatever comes to mind, without judgement, as if no-one is listening. We are our own worst enemies when it comes to judgement. How ridiculous is it to be ashamed of thoughts in my head, that no-one else can even hear, so much so that I won’t even utter them to myself, such is my concern for what others would think? So, I asked the question and answered in heartbeat, screaming with rage that ‘she’s disobeying me!’.
There, I said it.
Now, those who have been before me know that there is zero point in having an issue with disobedience when your child is 4 yrs old, because you will spend the entirety of your waking hours in misery, trying to enforce obedience. There is also the part of me that disagrees with the whole notion of ‘obedience’ - a) dog’s require obedience training, not people, and b) I think it’s a bit of an insult to the innate intelligence that we all possess. We are learning beings that can make complex and comprehensive analytical and emotional assessments of environments and stimuli, we don’t need obedience, we need to sharpen our skills.
All well and good if we were operating in each moment, without influence from ALL our previous moments. That’s right, if you take just that snapshot of the issue, then a nice, neat, rational response is to determine that it is not logical to expect obedience from a 4 yr old. In turn, I would ‘let it go’ and promptly ‘calm the f*ck down’.
But that’s not how it works is it? That’s not how WE work. Our present experience is inherently influenced by all our previous experiences. In some cultures, the experiences of generations before us are also included in the frame of reference for our current behaviours. So, we have to look at all our experiences and ask, is there something in my bank that ties to this response that I’m having in this situation. Let me be your guinea pig.
My father was a very violent man. Think black eyes, split lips, bruises, choking, intimidation, manipulation - and that was just towards my mother. As a child I learned very early on that if you did the wrong thing, bad things happen. When children experience trauma, the emotional responses become hard-wired in the body. Up to the age of 7 yrs, brain waves remain in Theta state, meaning that they are basically sub-conscious, or without the filter and protection of the conscious mind. Everything goes in. As we grow and start to lock down our neural pathways, those learnings become hard-wired and part of our programming.
In my case, the emotions stored are fear, intense fear. When my daughter is being truly ‘disobedient’, that is to say that there is not something else going on with her like sickness, or anxiety, she’s just deciding in that moment to put her foot down and exert her will, a rage swells up inside me. I can hear my authoritarian parent screaming in anger to ‘just do as your told!’ - even if I haven’t uttered those words. For the most part my analytical brain manages my responses and we get out of the situation. But sometimes it doesn’t and I can feel rage consuming me, I walk away from her, slam a door and release the pent up energy in a safe way.
When this happened recently, I decided to tap on it to see if I could connect with whatever was going on in my inner kingdom. And this is what came up:
- my anger is partly me projecting my learned parental behaviours onto my child
- under my anger lies my latent, intense fear that rises when my own inner child relates to what she is experiencing. Eg., when Eadie is disobedient and risking trouble, I am triggered and my own inner child freaks out in preparation for what lies ahead.
So I decided to tap on it, and here’s how it went:
- Round 1: Tapped around my feelings of anger, shame and guilt, and about wanting to understand these feelings and their origin better. This round helped to reduce the current emotional charge I was feeling, so I could think more clearly and be open to receiving answers to my questions.
- Round 2: I then tapped about being open to understanding where the anger comes from, and being open to other solutions. I knew my response was related to my experience of my father, that as a little girl, I didn’t do the wrong thing because bad things would happen. There was a constant threat of bad things happening. As I tapped around this, staying open to receive insights, I realised that those behaviours were not mine, that story was not mine - it was my fathers. If I can release ownership of that story and associated behaviours then the following thoughts came to me, ‘What if bad things didn’t happen? What if it was ok to not have control all the time?’
And that was my ‘aha’ moment. My realisation that my responses were all about control, fear of losing control. Not really a surprise as control issues are prevalent for children who have grown up in unstable or unsafe environments! A revelation nonetheless. As a parent I tend towards control. I set rules, boundaries and expectations so that my environment remains stable and safe for me to operate in. Of course this provides plenty of fodder for my children to rage against as they try to forge their own identities and master their kingdoms. Writing this I see what an absurdity it is! Not only is it not necessary, but it is also completely unachievable. I can be fearful that if I dial back the control, then they will run wild. From here I quickly realised the answer:
- Round 3: Maybe she won’t feel like she’s got control of everything. Maybe she she’ll just feel like she’s got control of some things. Maybe she’ll feel empowered, and she'll relax a little because she doesn't have to fight so hard just to get a little bit of independence.
This is also not a surprise. My daughter is anxious by nature (yes, I know where that comes from). Part of her anxiety comes from not trusting herself. Part of the reason she doesn’t trust herself is because I (and her father) am too controlling, we don’t let her take enough risks. We offer her a lot of choices, but not necessarily a lot of independent decision-making, they’re two quite different things.
With a background in psychology it's easy for me to articulate many views on parenting and appear as though I execute this extraordinary privilege perfectly. Far from it. It's important for me to share with you the ways in which I learn about my own behaviours. None of us, I repeat, none of us, are fully aware of our beliefs and behaviours. In general, there is quite a discrepancy between the thoughts we think but keep to ourselves, the ones we share with others, and our actual behaviours. What we actually do in the moment, day to day. The trick is though, that it's our behaviours that our children (and others) experience of us. It's our actions that move our bodies, and interact with our minds to create our Self. Developing awareness is crucial to growth. Looking in the mirror and seeing your Self, your actions, hearing your thoughts and feeling your feelings is INTEGRAL to growth. It will not happen, if all you do is think your thoughts without question, without enquiry and exploration, or validation.
So, now I realise that perhaps allowing her to make more decisions will actually empower her, and it won’t destroy me in the process. Because even though I may not be able to control everything, it will be ok. For so many reasons, it will be ok!