How to Stay Grounded When Your Toddler Unknowingly Triggers You
As a licensed marriage and family therapist and a new mama, I've had personal and professional experience working through the challenges that come with parenting a toddler. In my professional capacity, I often worked with parents who grew up in unhealthy households and are now trying to navigate the ups and downs of raising their own family. This is a huge challenge for those who have had strong negative experiences with their own parents, as it can create a lot of anxiety, worry, and fear around having their own child or children and raising them without allowing their past traumas to creep in.
Toddlers, as cute as they are, act very similarly to adults who have personality disordered traits — they can be self-centered, inflexible, quick to anger, and may have violent outbursts. Although this is developmentally normal for a little one, if your parent acted this way, it can feel a bit overwhelming, especially when your own toddler begins to remind you of scary or unpleasant childhood experiences. When feeling triggered as an adult, it is very easy to unconsciously slip back into the childhood defenses you used to survive your own household. This can include feeling intense emotional reactions, dissociating, fleeing, freezing, shutting down, and trying to appease. Even though these protected you when you were a little one, they aren't especially useful when you are the one trying to parent. Focusing inward can help you better connect with yourself, understand why you feel triggered, and learn which exercises work best when it comes to grounding yourself. If this continues to be an issue for you, if you're experiencing flashbacks that feel real, or if you're dissociating, reach out to a counselor who can help you process your childhood so you can focus on enjoying your time with your child. Here are my tips for dealing with common triggers to help get you started.
Hitting, Kicking, and Biting
Hitting, kicking, and biting can be extremely triggering for all parents, and especially so for those who grew up in abusive households. To work through this trigger, create a mantra for yourself that reminds you that you are the adult, that this is just a difficult moment, and that you have the amazing opportunity to teach your little one about compassion and kindness.
Lack of sleep can trigger early childhood feelings of boundary violations, or mean a lack of time for much needed self-care or privacy. To cope with poor sleep, ask for help so you can prioritize your mental well-being and continue to remind yourself that this is a phase that will pass. Be kind to yourself and check in with yourself regarding what you need to be the healthiest version of you possible.
If you are feeling triggered by your little one's meltdown, take a few deep breaths before making any decisions. Try to visualize yourself radiating soothing energy and picture something that brings you a feeling of peace. Speak to your child in a gentle manner and remind yourself that they are frustrated and this is developmentally normal for them to experience.
Testing the Rules
At some point, your child is going to begin to experiment with how much agency they have in the form of rule testing. Getting frustrated takes up way more of your energy than remaining calm does. Even though this can be tricky, practice grounding yourself through your breath or by doing progressive muscle relaxation so you can enter into the triggering situation in a calmer way.
To cope with the triggering nature of your toddler being inflexible, reframe the given situation as an opportunity to teach your child about options. This can be very healing as an exercise for a parent who wasn't given many choices growing up and who may have longed for some semblance of independence. You can also try doing a body scan and notice where you feel any tension. Visualize yourself breathing relaxation into those tense areas of your body.
If you grew up in a home where boundaries were often violated, having a toddler crawl all over you all day can feel incredibly activating. Take a moment to remind yourself that this is just a phase and at some point they will crave more independence and be less interested in hanging all over you. Reaching out for help, even if it's just for a few-minute break, can make a huge difference too.