This is the 11th part of a series we have titled “Concepts and Skills of Parenting.” It is adapted from the book Healing Parents: Helping Wounded Children Learn to Trust and Love. To read Part 1 — which provides a look at secure attachment at the start of life — click here. Part 2 explores the core concepts of child development. Part 3 examines the importance of trust and reciprocity in the formation of secure attachment. Part 4 provides an overview of the developing brain. Part 5 explains the importance of parenting with a mindset focused on opportunity, not crisis. Part 6 explains why it’s important to be a calm parent. Part 7 provides parents guidance about how much structure and freedom to give their children. Part 8 explains why children need chores — and accountability. Part 9 provides a look at a better way to discipline than timeouts. Part 10 recommends that parents become a “secure base” for their children.
Not taking your children so personally really is easier said than done. Parents often tell us: “It happens so quickly; before I know it, I’m yelling, frightened or just wanting to leave. I know I should do better, but I just can’t seem to control myself when my child acts up.”
To be a healing parent, you need to look in the mirror. Knowing yourself is the first step toward creating a healing environment. Be aware of your:
- Mindset — Your belief system or internal working model;
- Self-talk — What you tell yourself about yourself, others and situations;
- Emotional reactions — Feelings that are triggered;
- Attachment history — Relationship patterns learned in the past;
- Body signals — Physical reactions, especially in response to threat and stress; and
- Coping strategies — Typical ways you respond to situations, such as rejection, confrontation, anger, disappointment and frustration.
Know your triggers
Emotional triggers are strong reactions associated with past experiences and memories. You cannot avoid bringing emotional baggage into your relationships with your children. Your parenting style, attitudes, and reactions are heavily influenced by your own attachment history — including expectations, patterns of relating and unresolved wounds. Your own issues can get in the way of being a healing parent. For example, if you experienced a good deal of rejection during childhood, you might overreact when your child emotionally pushes you away. If you were an abused child, you might panic when your child is aggressive.
Wounded children are experts at provoking reactions from parents. Getting angry, frustrated or scared heightens their feelings of power and control and keeps you at an emotional distance. There are three ways to know if you are being triggered:
- Reactions are excessive and out-of-proportion to the situation. When we enter adulthood, we bring along our unresolved conflicts, fears, hurts and expectations. These old feelings become indistinguishable from current emotional reactions. A “stacking” of emotions can happen, where an event in a current relationship triggers old feelings, creating a confusion of powerful, old hurts and new ones. If your emotions in a situation are greater than what the situation calls for, you are probably bringing up an old hurt.
- Reactions are a knee-jerk response. At times we all have intense and abrupt responses to a situation. If you trace a knee-jerk reaction to its root, you will often find a past experience or trauma. What sets a knee-jerk reaction apart from other triggers is the immediacy of your response. The impulsive nature of your reaction does not allow for a well thought-out response.
- Patterns are continually repeating, even though you consciously desire another outcome. The tendency to unconsciously repeat patterns based on the past is called reenactment. This drive to repeat familiar patterns, no matter how painful or self-defeating, is very powerful. It is no coincidence we often find ourselves in situations similar to the scenarios in which we grew up. For example, adult children of alcoholics frequently marry alcoholics. Abused children often grow up and create familiar levels of high stress and conflict in their marriages and with their children. Parents of wounded children also repeat negative patterns because of secondary traumatic stress. They become depressed, hopeless and burned-out.