Navigating Parenting:

How to Manage Triggers from the Past 

Parenting can be one of the toughest and most rewarding journeys of our life – a journey filled with joy, challenge and, ultimately, self-discovery.

Effective parenting is not about achieving perfection because, as Stephen Hawking pointed out “The universe doesn’t allow perfection”. Instead, it is about learning and growing together through our imperfections.

It can be particularly challenging for us, as parents, when we encounter triggers from the past. By this I mean that we may encounter moments or behaviours that stir up powerful emotions in us, which can be disproportionate to what is actually happening in the here and now. Sometimes these emotions can be traced back to our own past experiences and these are what therapists commonly refer to as “triggers”

In this blog I will look at how triggers can impact your parenting and what you can do to navigate this difficult terrain so that you are able to understand yourself better and respond to your children with patience and compassion.

Recognising triggers

The first step to becoming a more effective parent is to recognise triggers and understand what they are. Triggers are emotional reactions that stem from past experiences, often unrelated to the current situation. These unresolved emotions from our own upbringing or life experiences can resurface when we are faced with similar situations - when parenting our children, for example. If you grew up in a household with strict rules and constant criticism, you might react strongly when your child challenges your authority. This is an example of a trigger.

Notice when you have strong emotional responses to certain situations and ask yourself whether this might be an unresolved trigger from the past.

How triggers impact our ability to parenting

Unresolved triggers from the past can have a significant impact on our ability to parent effectively. If you are triggered you may find yourself:

  • Overreacting – your response to the situation may be more intense than the situation actually warrants, and this can cause confusion or fear in your children.
  • Being inconsistent – you may vacillate between being overly permissive or overly strict in your responses to your children, for example. Inconsistency in your approach to discipline or boundaries can be disorienting and unhelpful.
  • Emotionally distancing – when you react to a trigger from the past, your children might not understand why you are so upset and this can lead to problems with communication and trust. Ultimately, an emotional distance may develop between you.

What to do when you’re triggered

Once you’ve learned to recognise when you’re triggered, it’s a good idea to develop some strategies to help you to manage these triggers from the past. As a therapist, I advise my clients to use:

  • Self-reflection – Pause and take time to reflect on your own upbringing and experiences from the past. Notice what situations or behaviours trigger strong emotional reactions in you and ponder why that might be.
  • Practice mindfulness – Mindfulness techniques can help you to say present in the moment. When you feel yourself becoming triggered, take some deep breaths and remind yourself that the present situation is not the past.
  • Communicate openly and honestly – This is important to avoid confusion and help your child to understand that they are not to blame for your responses. Explain your feelings and reactions to them honestly.
  • Take a break – When you feel a trigger arising within you, it’s a good idea to take some time out. Step away from the situation, calm yourself down and return to things when you’re feeling more in control.
  • Seek professional help – A therapist or counsellor can help you to identify and work through unresolved issues from your past. If you feel that past triggers are having a particularly detrimental impact on your ability to parent, then seeking professional help can support you to develop greater understanding and an ability to manage your triggers more effectively.

I tell my clients that parenting is simultaneously challenging and rewarding but that by developing a greater insight into your past triggers and learning how to navigate them, you can take a positive step towards becoming the parent you want to be more consistently. It is not a failure to seek out therapeutic support – far from it. By working on your own emotional wellbeing and understanding how to communicate better with your children you can create a nurturing and supportive environment which promotes positive relationships and healthy development. You don’t have to be a perfect parent but striving to become more self-aware and responsive is a positive step for any parent to take.

As Martin Luther King Jnr said: “If you can’t fly, run. If you can’t run, walk. If you can’t walk, crawl, but by all means keep moving.”


For more information about therapeutic support for parents, contact me.