The Wonderful Thing About Triggers

Triggers are wonderful things. I almost forgot that yesterday. I’m still reeling from the drama.


Yesterday my thoughts triggered me. And I yelled.


Here’s what happened: Dalia stayed home from camp because she had a high fever on Saturday night and Sunday morning. I was excited to spend the day with her and the morning went pretty smoothly. We played games together, watched a movie together, and ate lunch together. Then it was time for a nap.


Anyone who knows me well knows that I love to nap. I am a hard-core sleeper. Dalia can be, too. Until a few months ago, she would nap for 3 hours and then go back to sleep from 7 to 7…a parent’s dream! Now, naps are less frequent, but she still loves to sleep and her naps still last about 3 hours on the weekends (when she takes them).


She had napped pretty well the last couple of days because she was ill, so I figured she’d nap again yesterday. Around 1pm, I tucked her into bed and told her that I, too, would be going to bed. We exchanged “good nights” and I climbed into my bed and closed my eyes. Ahh! So cozy and snuggly. I had just started to drift off when I heard, “Mommy!”


“What?” I called.


“I need to tell you something!” she cried.


“Hmm. The old ‘I need to tell you something’ tactic,” I thought. “This is when Dalia lures me into her room under the pretense of telling me something that absolutely can’t wait until later, only to say something completely random and insignificant (to me), such as something funny her stuffed animal said or that she saw a bug on the playground or about an episode of Yo Gabba Gabba (her favorite show).” I usually try to act interested and hide my impatience, while gently reminding her that it’s time to go to sleep.


She did this yesterday and I honestly can’t even remember what it was that she “needed” to tell me, but I restated it was naptime and that I was going to sleep, too (hint, hint, kid).


About ten minutes later, I heard little footsteps entering my room. Without opening my eyes I said in a tone that conveyed I was bothered, “Yes, Dalia?”


“Mommy, I need you to wipe my poopy.”


I told her to go to the bathroom and then call me when she was finished.


Once again, I tucked her in…said goodnight…and got back into bed.


As I was settling into my sleep, there came another “Mommy!” It startled me this time and I woke up with a pounding heart. I shouted, “What?” crossly.


“Can I read a book?” she asked.


“Dalia, you can look at one book and then it’s time to go to sleep,” I snapped.


“Ok!” she happily agreed.


The next time she woke me, I lost my temper. I didn’t have any more patience. I was tired and annoyed and just…wanted…to…sleep. I barked at her to leave me alone and let me sleep. She didn’t cry, but walked out of the room with her head down, looking discouraged. For a moment, I felt compassion for her, but I also felt justified in my angry response.


Dalia left the room long enough for me to fall back asleep before coming in and waking me AGAIN! I shouted that I was angry because I wanted to sleep and she kept waking me. As I attacked her with my words, I felt like I was abusing my power as a parent, but I didn’t stop.


I warned her not to come back into my room until the first number on her clock read 3 (it was now 2:33, so naturally she got excited when she saw the 3 and thought it was time for me to wake up. I then had to explain the clock to her).


She finally left my room and went to look at some books in hers, but by this point I was so agitated I couldn’t fall back asleep.


I called her into my bedroom and invited her into bed with me. I hugged her and apologized for yelling at her. I explained how I get cranky when I don’t sleep and that I had really been looking forward to a nap.


We were on better terms now, but I felt uneasy about what had taken place. I thought, “Why did I react that way? Sure, she was ignoring my requests and kept waking me up. But she’s 3, for Heaven’s sake! I had an agenda for our afternoon, and clearly, it differed from hers. My reaction seemed out of proportion to the situation. Where did my angry feelings come from? It wasn’t like I was sleep-deprived from a lack of self-care. I just like to nap in my comfortable bed whenever possible. What can I learn about myself from this interaction?”


Here’s my short answer: Dalia was doing things that I, as a child, got in trouble for doing. I vividly remember waking my mother and getting punished by my father for it. I remember learning how to navigate the bathroom and kitchen so that I wouldn’t make a sound. I remember my father banging on the wall between his room and the den as a signal to turn down my Saturday morning cartoons so he and my mother could sleep in.


The little girl inside me was reacting to Dalia’s behavior as if to say, “Hey! We’re not allowed to do these things. Stop it!”


I seem to be struggling with the way I was parented vs. the way I choose to parent my own kids. I feared my parents’ power as a child, and I learned that it’s a parent’s job to be in control. My childhood beliefs and emotions have been hiding in my subconscious mind. My thoughts about Dalia’s behavior “triggered” my feelings. My automatic thoughts were:  I’m the parent now. It’s my turn to make the rules. My time to exercise my power. I get to decide whose needs come first.


What I’m doing is re-creating the same dynamic of power and control I experienced as a little girl. Even though my conscious, adult self makes an effort to parent differently, my subconscious beliefs are still sometimes more powerful.


My challenge now is to confront my beliefs and create new standards of behavior and expectations for my family so that I don’t perpetuate the pattern.


Triggers are wonderful things because they give us opportunities to grow and heal ourselves.


Bonnie Harris, parent educator and author of When Your Kids Push Your Buttons And What You Can Do About It writes: “When we can give what we did not get, our giving comes back to us. But if we protect our buttons and keep our wounds hidden, we pass the hurt on to our children and stay attached to our past. We cannot use our children to fix our problems, but we can use our children to help us heal.”


But the most wonderful thing about triggers is…


…I’m NOT the only one!


What are your triggers or “hot button thoughts?” What can you learn about yourself from your reactions to your child’s behavior? Your insights are appreciated and may help other parents reading this so please leave a comment below.


Showing 5 comments
  • karenperrycreates

    I just started a no yelling challenge for myself and have been discovering all my triggers. Lack of sleep is definitely one of them. My biggest trigger is when I feel like my kids are pushing me around and bullying me, which is tied to being bullied as a kid. Today is day 7 of my challenge and I’m so glad I’m doing it.

    • Pam Howard

      Hi Karen!

      Lack of sleep definitely makes us more susceptible to being triggered, as does hunger and feeling sick. I can totally relate to your trigger of being pushed around and bullied! That is a huge one for me, too. Good luck with your challenge and please keep coming back so we can hear how it’s going! xoxo

  • Emilie

    hope dalia is feeling good again!

    • Pam Howard

      Thanks, Emilie. She is. Back at camp today:)

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