Disciplining My Preschooler Is Triggering Me

by Stacia Fleegal
Originally Published: 
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I do not want to yell. Yelling triggers me.

As both a child and an adult, I have been on the receiving end of some thunderous, abusive, relentless rage. Especially in recent years, I have become more aware of my physiological and emotional responses to raised voices. Until I began parenting, however, I did not realize that my own raised voice is part of that trigger.

My son Jax will be 5 years old this fall, and he is overall a well-behaved and happy child. He went through brief and age-appropriate phases of biting, hitting, and tantrums. I dealt with those phases by instituting “time-ins” (essentially timeouts, sans isolating or shaming him for having strong feelings), redirecting his energy, and calling upon reserves of patience I did not know I had. Patience is a gift my son has given me; it is also one he taketh away, on occasion.

I want to say outright that I do not smack, strike, or restrain my son because I do not believe in hitting children. I do not believe in hitting anyone. I do not believe in any unwanted touch at all. In fact, I never force Jax to hug me, and I will not force a hug on him or shame him for not hugging someone else.

But I do have to raise my voice sometimes, and I don’t like it.

When I lose patience, the cause usually concerns some issue of safety or a repeat offense (i.e., something Jax has been told dozens of times not to do, something he knows better than to do). When outside in our yard, Jax knows he has to stay in the grass. He is not allowed to linger on the driveway or go down to the road. When he ambles toward pavement, I steer him back. When he does it again, I steer him back and remind him, “We stay in the grass. The road is for cars.” When he does it again, I steer and remind again.

When he does it yet a-freakin-gain, I raise my voice. I do it because it works — Jax looks startled, runs back to “safety,” and apologizes. I wish my calm voice worked, but it often does not.

What nearly destroyed me, though, was the day Jax looked up at me, screamed, “Nooo!” and hit me hard on the arm.

I know small children do these things. I am not suggesting my son is being abusive toward me, or even that his behavior reminds me of abusive behavior. Being “reminded” of abuse is different than being triggered. I am saying that having to grab his hand to keep him from hitting me again, lean in very close, and raise my voice to say, “We do not hit ever. No hitting!” was a little traumatizing for me.

I felt my throat close, my chest tighten, my mouth go dry, my ears ring, and my hands shake. Even when I lowered my voice to add, “Hitting hurts people, and it’s never okay to hurt people,” and when he continued to wail in frustration as I calmly and softly repeated, “There’s no need to yell. Use your words. Why are you upset? Let’s try some deep breaths,” it felt too much like pleading with someone to stop directing their rage at me, to listen to reason, to please let me walk away. And you usually cannot walk away from your 4-year-old.

To have been abused is to have been traumatized, which means our central nervous systems might still be trapped in the fight, flight, or freeze pattern of coping with imminent danger, even if the danger has passed. Our stressors and startle responses are working overtime. We are pure reaction, and we are reacting to the coded memory of a threat as if it were the threat itself.

Dutch trauma psychiatrist Bessel Van der Kolk, MD, wrote a book called The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, and it has become a kind of bible for me. Maria Popova reviewed this book for Brain Pickings and summarized, “In trauma survivors, Van der Kolk notes, the parts of the brain that have evolved to monitor for danger remain overactivated and even the slightest sign of danger, real or misperceived, can trigger an acute stress response accompanied by intense unpleasant emotions and overwhelming sensations.”

You might not think it would be helpful for me to learn that my trauma-induced anxiety (my “intense unpleasant emotions and overwhelming sensations”) has been coded into my brain’s processing system, but that knowledge has actually been empowering. Dr. Van der Kolk insists not only that our bodies code and translate abuse and trauma into physiological responses — anxiety, panic attacks, outbursts of rage, periods of sullen withdrawal, carrying tension in certain parts of our bodies, etc. — but reminds us that because this is “a body thing,” that means we can change it. Just as we can lose weight, gain weight, build muscle, increase flexibility, and learn new things, we can un-learn trauma-induced anxiety. Just as we were conditioned to be afraid, we can recondition ourselves to let go of that fear.

I can feel my patience erode into desperation when I or anyone else is yelling, and I have to remind myself that it is not the same desperation as being afraid of someone. I have to remind myself that my son and I have escaped our imminent danger. I have to remind myself that I am teaching Jax to be considerate and well-mannered, not begging him not to hurt me. I have to remember that Jax will learn, that he is a child testing boundaries for the first few times, not an adult testing them for the thousandth time. I have to remember that I can cause myself and others harm with my own voice. I do this reminding through the same methods I have learned to control my anxiety and manage my other triggers: sensory grounding (distracting oneself by observing what you can see, hear, touch, smell, and taste in the present, safe reality), ritualistic grounding (specific yoga poses and stretches that help me center and find literal balance), and deep-breathing techniques in which I focus on exhalation and visualize expelling negativity with breath.

Still, healing can be slow, difficult, and lonely, so I often look to blogs to find others who are writing through similar issues.

In “Parenting with Trauma,” a guest post by Frances Rae on the blog The Belle Jar, the author speaks about her own daughter’s tantrums and admits that, “The most difficult thing for me in those situations is how much my daughter’s response to anger and frustration and disappointment mirrors the behaviour of adults with whom I have been in abusive relationships in the past.” Yes.

Rae continues: “It is so frightening to be the parent, where all of those vulnerabilities in another person are my responsibility, and feeling the memories of trauma telling me that I’m the one who is vulnerable in this moment.” Oh my, yes.

In “Anxious All Over” on the site Stigma Fighters, writer and mom Shawna Ayoub Ainslie writes movingly about her struggle to not become an abuser herself: “I can’t tell you how surprised I was to have to fight that impulse. I can tell you it was nowhere near as jarring as falling into a flashback, striking my child, starting therapy, digging in deep to that healing, and still having to fight daily to not see my child as my abuser. To never strike my child again.”

I am grateful to these mother-writers for broaching this topic because it is not an easy one, as evidenced by how little parents seem to be talking about it (both Rae and Ainslie lamented the lack of material on this subject in their respective posts). The field of psychology offers more understanding on trauma survival than ever before, yet so much of the aftermath of trauma is still being narrativized by those of us who offer our experiences in the hope of finding explanations, coping mechanisms, and new acquaintances who understand and might offer support. In living with abuse and with triggers after abuse, we had to find our own way.

I think many people might believe that identifying potential triggers is about making a list of topics or situations they intend to avoid. I disagree. When it comes to parenting, I try not to raise my voice because I don’t want to reinforce a might-is-right dynamic between me and my son. The worst experiences with being triggered that I have ever had — well, I don’t want my son to see me like that. I don’t want to cause him distress in a sudden moment of my own anxiety, fear, or audio-sensory overload before I remember to ground myself. And on that topic, I am more than willing to raise my voice.

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