The subject of ‘triggers’ has been on my mind a lot today. We all have triggers, things that just ‘push our buttons’, or ‘set us off’. I spend quite a lot of time trying to work out what has triggered certain behaviours in Tickle or Alex, but unusually for me today, it’s not triggers for my children’s behaviour that I have been thinking about – it’s my own.
When you’re a parent to a traumatised child, day to day life can be somewhat emotionally fraught. Some days I’m quite good at riding the wave, but other days less so and on those days there are a couple of things that will instantly flip my switch. Borrowing my husband for an example, one of his main triggers is when Tickle goes a bit loopy and starts to chase the cat.
I can’t tell you what it was that set me off today, because it’s more specific than Husband’s example and I want to respect Tickle’s privacy, so I’ll just say that there is something he sometimes says that just presses all my buttons. I know, rationally, why he’s saying it. He’s exploring an idea, based on things that have happened to him in his early life. I talked a bit in my book about how Tickle’s brain was shaped by his early experiences, so he is essentially having to re-learn everything he thought he knew about the world, and completely re-programme his brain. It’s a big job, so it’s not going to happen overnight, and we are going to have to go over and over a lot of things repeatedly. I know this in my logical brain, and on a good day I can probably swallow down my instinctive response and talk him through it. Today was not that day.
It’s in situations like this that I am very grateful to be co-parenting with a loving and understanding partner, who can whisk Tickle away and distract him with CBeebies to give me a chance to calm down. (I like to think I can do the same for him sometimes!) I’m not beating myself up about the fact I got cross with T, because I’m only human, and when you’re doing the sort of parenting that pushes your emotional limits it’s only to be expected that you will stumble upon the edges of those limits from time to time. That doesn’t mean I never feel bad about getting cross with Tickle, because I do – but I can forgive myself and focus on the repair.
The other reason I don’t beat myself up too much about these things is because – in attachment terms – the quality of the parent-child relationship is actually predicted more by the capacity to repair than by the lack of breakdown. (Unfortunately I can’t remember where I read this, so if you’ve got a reference handy do let me know!) Putting it another way, in attachment terms it’s better to be good at the ‘kiss and make up’ part of an argument than it is to never have the argument in the first place.
I have certainly found this reflected in my experience with Tickle. In the early days Husband and I would strive to keep calm at all costs, regardless of Tickle’s behaviour. When we finally allowed ourselves to be cross with him I think there was relief on both sides – I do believe that he was pushing and pushing us because he wanted to find the point where we would ‘break’, and it was incredibly powerful to show him that we could be cross with him but we were still not going to hurt him.
So anyway, back to my triggers. What to do with those? I have to accept that I can’t stop Tickle from ever saying things that will trigger me, so it’s up to me to find a way to cope.
I think the most important thing I can do is recognise when my feelings are being triggered, and I am feeling or acting disproporationally – much the same as we are trying to teach Tickle to do. Just as we are encouraging him to stop and think before reacting, I need to do the same, and I need to recognise when I need to step away – remembering that I can always repair later on. If you don’t have a partner who can help in these situations then perhaps you can find another way to ensure your child is safe and allow yourself to disengage for a while? If you can’t physically move away from them could they play on an iPad or watch TV while you concentrate on your breathing for five minutes? Easier said than done, I know.
Anyone who regularly interacts with traumatised children, on a personal or professional level, needs to be aware of their own issues, and have the ability to reflect on them. Self care is a big part of this – if we are not looking after ourselves then we’re not going to be in a position to support a child with extreme emotional needs. My reaction today tells me that I may need to top up my own self care pot a little, which is partly why I am writing this post. I find writing very cathartic, and writing through my feelings in this way definitely helps me to work through them.
And finally – and this might be the hardest bit – it is always worth having a good hard look at your trigger, and deciding whether it’s something that you really need to be getting hung up on. Can you work out why it’s triggering you so much? Can you talk yourself through it? My trigger today was based on a fear reaction, a worry that Tickle might one day do what he talks about. However, I have to recognise that he hasn’t ever done it, and we as parents can (and do) take steps to ensure he isn’t in a situation where it could happen. I’ll be honest, it’s not going to go away overnight, but I can definitely try to apply the same process to dealing with my emotions as I‘m trying to teach Tickle to do with his. I think it’s the least I can do..!