My third grader struggles with her math homework. She has learning differences and an ADHD diagnosis and her cycle of struggle around arithmetic often leaves her flooded and dysregulated. She gets snippy and irritable. She often storms off. Sometimes she cries. Almost always there’s a shrieked accusation about how I’m “NOT BEING HELPFUL!!!!!” In short, she has big feelings. And boy do I get triggered by her big feelings. “Wait…you’re a therapist,” you might say, “isn’t it your job to be able to stay regulated in the face of others’ big feelings?” Good point, reader. That is my job. When I’m at my job. I mean, yes, ideally as the adult in the relationship I would be the one to hold a safe container around my kid’s dysregulation. But any parent knows that some feelings or behaviors in our children send us to the land of Not Our Best Selves despite how well we love them and in spite of all the things we know about how to be a “good” parent.
What I’m curious about is why I get so triggered in these situations. When the 4-year-old loses all her bones and thrashes around on the floor screaming because she’s been denied a second dessert, it’s easy for me to calmly acknowledge her anger and ask if she wants a cuddle. When the aforementioned 3rd grader very loudly informs me that I’m THE WORST MOTHER EVER because we will not get her a fitbit even though ALL the other kids have them (seriously though—what??) I hold my boundary without internalizing her accusation. So why is it that when she tears up over multiplication tables it’s all I can do to keep from rolling my eyes at her “dramatic manipulation,” and when she throws her workbook at the wall all I want to do is book a one-way ticket to Anywherebuthere?
This is what I believe: when I am triggered by my child, there’s a little kid deep inside me who is asking for attention. The buttons our children push almost always steer us toward a pain point, left over from long ago, that needs tending to and healing. I was good at math in school. I was good at school in general. I was teased for being nerdy during the day and felt lonely during homework time because, knowing I rarely needed help, my parents disengaged from me. When my child has big feelings about homework, my inner child resents that she has a mother who stays with her and helps her work through both the task at hand and her feelings about it. That lonely, insecure kid inside me grieves all the moments when my grown-ups didn’t show up and asks, “why does she get it (love, attentions, safety, etc) when I didn’t get it?”
If I don’t stop to acknowledge the needs of my inner child, my young wounds take over and I show up in a way that’s harmful to my kid. So, in these trigger moments I pause, breathe, and ask myself, “what did I need in a moment like this when I was her age?” Did I needed my mother to roll her eyes and call me dramatic or manipulative? Nope. Did I need her to withdraw from me, absorbed by her own ego and her own flooded nervous system? Definitely not. It’s my job in these moments to re-parent myself so that I can effectively parent her. The act of showing up for my child as the parent my own inner child needs is both helpful to my kid and healing for me. It’s a practice for sure, but the simple question “what would I have needed,” in the moments when I’m most triggered has changed the way I show up for my children and the way I show up for myself.