Have you ever heard the idea that if someone’s behavior is bothering you, that you should look within to figure out why? Or that if there was something that you didn’t like about someone, that it is likely that other person’s behavior is triggering something within you?
The idea is that someone can only trigger you if there is something unhealed within yourself. Often, we can trace our strong emotional response back to messaging we received in childhood or in previous relationships.
When we find ourselves triggered by our children, it’s often a sign that our children are exhibiting an unmet need that is lingering from our childhood.
Unmet Needs in Action
I was the oldest child of three. My parents divorced when I was 7. As a result, I was thrust into the caretaker role for my brothers while my mom worked multiple jobs to make ends meet. I was responsible for not only myself and my belongings, but also those of my brothers.
Every morning, I would make sure my brothers were dressed, fed, and had their teeth brushed before I walked the older of my two brothers to the bus stop. Before leaving the house, I had to run down a mental list of things that we both needed for the day to make sure we didn’t forget anything. My mom was often out of the house at her first job of the day before we left for school, so if we forgot something, it was “too bad.” I became a very responsible young child after learning the hard way that forgetting an item at home meant we were unprepared for the day ahead. Some days, I’d miss eating lunch because I forgot to grab my lunch from the fridge.
My daughter, now 9, splits her time between my house and her dad’s house. He lives about an hour away from me, so if she forgets something at his house, she must go the week without it. More times than I can count, she has left part of a uniform, her school shoes, or her school iPad or headphones at his house. And every time we make the discovery that something was left behind, panic sets in.
The immediate spike in anxiety causes my chest to tighten. My breathing becomes labored, and I am irate. As hard as I try, I cannot control my anger in these moments. My anger is not at my daughter, but she certainly bares the weight of my emotional outbursts.
Becoming a better parent starts with me
Why does my daughter forgetting something at her dad’s house trigger such a reaction in me?
It is not because I am angry with her for being forgetful. It’s not even that I am angry with her dad for not helping her pack her things to make sure she doesn’t forget anything.
It all stems from my own childhood, when forgetting something often meant me or my brother paid the consequences of being unprepared. If I forgot to pack our lunches in our backpacks, it meant we didn’t eat lunch that day. If I didn’t grab his science project off the dining room table, it meant that he missed his presentation that day. If I lost a mitten, it meant that my hands were cold for the remainder of winter.
And my daughter forgetting an item brings feelings of shame and unpreparedness to the surface. It reminds me of the days when there was no one there looking out for me. I am sad that my daughter has to go to school looking like no one at home is looking out for her.
How to Become a Better Parent
To become a better parent, we must heal ourselves. Inner child work is important so we can uncover the childhood messages that we carried with us into adulthood. The greatest clue that we have work to do is that we are triggered by our children. This is a sign that their behavior sparks something within us, sending us back to our experiences as a child.
By doing the work and healing ourselves, we are better able to connect with our children and help them through their difficult and complex emotions, thus becoming a better parent. When we don’t understand ourselves and our own emotions, we are unable to be authentic and help our children.
When we focus on our healing, we’re able to connect with our emotions and garner a better understanding of why we do or say the things we do. We can take a birds-eye view of our habits and connect them directly to messages we learned as a child and have a better chance of changing our behavior.
Now, mama, don’t get me wrong. This is not me saying that your child’s behavior is all your fault. Not even close. What I am saying is that to help your child, you first must help and understand yourself. By healing yourself, you are able to show up differently for your children, becoming a better parent.
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