The Real Reasons You Feel Triggered by Your Child’s Behavior

Do you often find yourself exploding with frustration over your child’s behavior?

Many parents have said things to me like:

“Why do I feel so triggered by my child’s behavior?”

“When will my child grow out of this behavior that drives me up the wall?”

“Nobody can say I yell as much as my Mom did, but why can’t I stop doing it?!”

Wondering why you can’t stay calm in those challenging moments? You’re not alone. Many parents share similar struggles, feeling triggered by their children’s actions. Those triggered reactions aren’t your fault, but they are your responsibility. You’re the only person who can change them. Let’s explore the real reasons behind these feelings and how to navigate them more effectively.

Understanding the Root Cause

You might think your child’s behavior is to blame for your triggered feelings. If they would stop doing the thing you find triggering, everything would be better! But it’s not that simple.

Often, these reactions are linked to traumatic experiences that haven’t been healed. These old wounds resurface when your child’s actions remind you of events from your past you may have tried to forget.

Trauma responses don’t always follow a clear pattern. Some people bounce back from significant trauma, while others are deeply affected by what might seem like smaller events. If you’ve had experiences that felt traumatic to you, you might find yourself constantly feeling stressed for ‘no reason.’ Then, when your child acts up, it can push you over the edge.

Shifting Perspectives: Challenging Societal Messages

Everywhere you look, society sends messages that parenting is a constant struggle. TV shows, movies, and magazines paint a picture of parents barely keeping it together, always on edge and frustrated. It doesn’t have to be like this.

Once you understand why you’re triggered, you can start to heal so you can parent the way you want. You don’t have to walk on eggshells all the time. You can create a loving environment for your child and build a healthier relationship.

Personal Insights: Navigating Triggers Effectively

Looking back on my own life, I’ve found that my triggers as a parent often go back to my childhood, especially my relationship with my dad. He would lecture me about my perceived failings, and I wasn’t permitted to give my side—so I would pretend I was somewhere else. Years later, I would explode if my husband interrupted me, and one day, when I accidentally did it to my toddler, she shouted: “Don’t interrupt me!”

It wasn’t until I discussed this with an expert on intergenerational trauma that I saw where my triggers came from and could begin to heal. Now, I’m still irritated when my husband interrupts me—but I no longer explode.

The Role of Knowledge and Community

Information is an important part of healing from our difficult experiences, but often, knowledge alone isn’t enough. (If you’ve read all the parenting books that say “connect first,” seen all the script-alternative memes on Instagram, and your therapist has told you to pause before you react but you still can’t stop yelling at your kids, you already know this). Information is necessary, but not enough.

THE BASICS

When we process that information with others, we defuse the shame we feel about our difficult interactions with our children. When we see we’re not the only ones who are struggling like this, we find space for self-compassion—which then helps us to change our behavior.

How to Identify the Source of Your Triggered Feelings

Our triggered feelings can come from a variety of sources. Here’s a non-exhaustive list:

  • Big-T Trauma experienced as a child: Experiences like physical or sexual abuse, or the death of a parent.
  • Big-T Trauma experienced as an adult: The sudden death of someone close to you, working in a field where you experience constant emotional strain, witnessing or experiencing violence.
  • Little-t trauma experienced as a child: Serious but not life-threatening illnesses/injuries, bullying/harassment, lots of family conflict. Each of these events becomes more difficult when a loving adult wasn’t available to help you process them.
  • The trauma of unmet needs in the past: Even if we had a ‘good childhood,’ our parents may have said things we found difficult to hear, like “Stop crying,” “Don’t make such a fuss,” or “Are you sure you want to eat that? You’re getting fat.” They may have tried to make up for a lack of connection with you by buying you gifts or rewarded you by showing love when you hid parts of yourself they didn’t like.
  • The trauma of unmet needs now: Because we weren’t encouraged to express our needs when we were young, we forget how to even recognize them. We may chronically lack rest, movement in ways that feel good to us, and self-care. We might sense that something’s off or feel completely overwhelmed but not know how to change things.
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The Two Paths to Yelling

Yelling (or walking away, or shutting down) at our children comes from one of two paths. The first is that we tend to do what our parents modeled for us in childhood. If your parent yelled at you for making a mistake, you might find yourself yelling whenever your child makes a mistake.

The second is that when we had difficult experiences, especially when we were young, we developed coping mechanisms to help us. Maybe we yelled back, or walked away, or froze—and we continued to use whatever method kept us safe later in life. We aren’t in that situation anymore, but our brains haven’t caught up. We still perceive any threat as being like the unsafe situation from our childhood and react accordingly.

Embracing the Journey to Healing

Understanding the root causes of your unique triggers is the first step to healing yourself and your relationship with your children. It’s not about blaming yourself; it’s about breaking free from old patterns that aren’t serving you anymore.

The next step is to process your learning in community with others. You could work with a therapist, a friend, or a community of parents who share your values and who are all on similar journeys. This healing, along with new tools to help you meet your needs more of the time, may help you feel triggered less often. Then you’ll be in a space where connected relationships with your children, even on the most difficult days, is possible.

To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.