Understanding Emotional Triggers

Posted October 20, 2015 by

Photo of mstephens

You specifically told your daughter to be home by 9pm. It’s almost 10 o’clock, and you’re sick with worry.

As you pick up the phone to call her again, the front door opens. You can’t contain your emotion…

Where have you been? Do you realize how worried I was? You never answered your phone! I said to be home by 9, not 10!

Feeling like she’s under attack, your daughter fires back.

Why are you making such a big deal out of it? I was the last one to get dropped off, and my phone died. It’s only been an hour…who cares?

You care. Cheeks flushed with heat, you give enough consequences to last until your child’s 18th birthday.

If you can relate to this challenging parenting scenario, you’re not alone. It’s common for parents to go from 0 to 100 when their values are compromised. In this case, the parent values safety, communication and rules around curfew. The parent feels like the daughter’s response mocks these values, which triggers a strong emotional reaction.

You can plan a more calm, effective response to your child’s behavior when you recognize your emotional triggers.

Are you angry because your daughter appears to take curfew lightly? Do you feel hurt because your daughter doesn’t acknowledge your worry? Are you concerned with safety because of something that happened to you when you were young? These are all good questions to ask yourself. Additionally, being aware of what “pushes your buttons” will help you recognize when you’re in danger of overreacting.

There are also physical sensations that come with being triggered (i.e., heat rushing to your cheeks, tense muscles and ringing ears). If you feel these coming on, it’s a good time to put some distance between yourself and your emotional response to your child.

You can say to yourself, “I don’t have to fix this right now. I can talk about it tomorrow, when I have a clear head.”

Going for a walk, talking with a friend or spending some quiet time alone are also good ways to decompress. For more help with losing your temper, check out How to Stop Yelling at Your Kids: Use These 10 Tips.

Hang in there – you are not alone. We’re here when you need to talk!

All the best,

Marissa S., Empowering Parents Coach
Learn more about 1-on-1 Coaching

“Often without realizing it, we are parenting from a sense of panic, urgency and fear; we are reacting to triggers that are continually setting off internal alarms.” – Debbie Pincus, MS LMHC, Creator of The Calm Parent AM & PM


Marissa is a proud mom to two boys, age 10 and 5. She earned her degree in Sociology from Saint Joseph’s College of Maine and has been a 1-on-1 Coach since 2011. Prior to coming to Empowering Parents, Marissa gained experience working as the House Manager of a group home for teenage boys, as a Children’s Mental Health Case Manager, and also spent several years working on the Children’s Unit at a Psych. Hospital.

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  1. goodguyhere7 Report

    Such problems do not develop in a vacuum. As the old saying goes, “It takes two to tango.” Be open to the fact that perhaps you are not being the kind of parent that you ought to be and seek to change where you can. Be receptive to grace and to listening to God. Rediscover the dream you first had for having children. I have seen the advice given on this site work for families who are willing to change, but it’s not easy. It means that everyone gets involved in creating a family ideal. I have found that kids who are disrespectful and disobedient really do love their parents on a deep level, but the kids have been hurt on some level by their parents as well. Nobody (myself or my child) can change without God’s grace. I have been able to bring my family back from total insanity, but it’s really hard work and began with a change of attitude on how I showed respect for my kids. Try to meet them at their level for once. If your son won’t talk to you in person, text him. I’ve had great conversations with my kids that way after trying many times to sit with them  in a room for an hour and they wouldn’t respond. I also realized that my kids live under my roof and that if I choose not to argue, I can always find a better time to discuss hot issues dispassionately. Whenever I lose my temper, I apologize first. For me, it’s not a matter of demanding respect from my kids, but being the kind of dad that has earned respect. I never say negative things about my the choices my children make, either. Instead, I say something like, “So, you spent all your savings on your new phone, are you still happy with that decision?” And I give them the space to be themselves and to realize the consequences of their own actions. I know that my 15 year old daughter has a hard time getting up in the morning, so I don’t talk about anything serious then. While I have a son who, like me, wakes up in a good mood and can handle heavy stuff in the morning. I realized a few years ago that I had to stop wanting my kids to be like me or their mom and allow them to develop into the people they want to be. Sure, I have limits and I view my job as being required to stretch them sometimes, but I also know how to bide my time and wait for the teaching moment. I’m not in this to win a battle today, but to have the sum total of our family experiences create kids that are self-assured and self-motivated. 

    I hope this makes sense. My basic message is that it’s important for parents to get the big picture. Find out what’s underneath their bad behavior and address that concern. There’s always something. I don’t know of any families (my own included) that didn’t have a secret someone was hiding. Until that secret was exposed to the light, nobody was happy. In our family, it took my apologizing to my kids for several years of selfishness before they were willing to listen to me. I also worked on a daily basis to point out to them that I was acting for their own good. Eventually, they believed me. I thank God for the family I have and for the children I have. Peace be with you all.

    • bridgeciaj Report

      Thanks for your words.  Certainly we as parents (speaking for myself here) have made mistakes.  My husband and I had many bad years together, but we worked it out and are celebrating 26 years of marriage this year.  That still had an impact on our kids and I realize that.
      I think many of us are on this site looking for solutions and support because the issues are beyond a discussion with our kids.  In my family I have one kid who is doing well and 1 who is tearing us apart.  The discussions have taken place but depression and drug use have changed our other child to the point where discussions have little effect.

      I so agree with you about the demanding respect from your children vs. earning it.  While we want adults and people in authority to be automatically given respect because of their position; in the closer relationships of life, the real respect is given because we actually FEEL respect for the other.  I in turn actually respect my children.  I realize that I am ultimately raising adults and that should be my goal.  I seek to give my children the opportunity to make choices and live with the consequences both good and bad.  To have the opportunity to make mistakes while still under the my protection. 

      And of course God.  I would not survive parenting or marriage or life without a relationship with Jesus.  No preaching here, but sincerely… some of these are God sized problems and belong in God sized hands.  I’m grateful that is where I can put them.

  2. Marina Report

    Agree with Carriekemp.  It’s over simplified.  We keep our cool and by tomorrow it’s yesterday’s news and their not paying attention. Kids have no worth while consequences as they are so adaptable.  Consequences are practically meaningless – a temporary inconvenience.

  3. Carriekemp25 Report

    This article covers the scenario of a one time event. It doesn’t touch on a reoccurring one and how to deal with a child (and or teen /young adult) who doesn’t seem to learn or acknowledge the consequences. I have one who says, (ok! Or I will!) when they do the same thing over and over. I will say, “no, it’s not okay.” or “but you don’t!” I’ve been trying to get her to take responsibility for years and now she’s 18, thinks she can do and go where she pleases because she has money now, no car, no rent, no nothing. Is beyond culpable and It’s aggravating.

    • bridgeciaj Report

      Carriekemp25  You know the answer to that is charging her rent and giving her the responsibility of being an adult.  I am almost there.  March my son will be 18.  I’m SOOOO ready for him to be on his own where he has no choice but to grow up.

  4. AngelaBabbBennett Report

    Ok so after you take a walk , cool off, get back to the house and you are faced with the child that was disrespectful and got home late…What do you do? Smile and act like nothing happened while they scream or pout? There has to be consequences…I’m reading these articles and they sound great in theory but have they been tried in REAL LIFE?

    • Empowering Parents Coach drowden Report

      You ask a great question. It can be helpful to keep in mind
      that disconnecting and walking away from verbal disrespect is how a parent
      handles it in the moment. The idea is to decrease the chances the situation
      will escalate. When you walk away, your controlling what you have the most
      control over – how you respond to your child’s behavior. It is also going to be
      important to go back after things have calmed down to talk with your child
      about his/her choices and also hold him/her accountable with a task oriented
      consequence. Megan Devine gives examples of how a parent can address acting out
      behavior after things have calmed down in her article http://www.empoweringparents.com/authoritative-parenting-consequences.php. We appreciate you writing
      in. Take care.

    • bridgeciaj Report

      AngelaBabbBennett  I don’t think the article is saying no consequences.  I think the article is about kids who are not so far down the “bad behavior” road as some of our kids are.  For more of the occasional issues and helping a parent not over react and then have to retract over punishing.

  5. scar7200 Report

    I need advise bad! I’m so emotionally drained from trying to raise my 13 year old boy. We fight constantly. All he wants to do is stay on the computer playing the violent games with God knows who. Our most recent problems are getting him to get moving and get ready on time in the mornings. When he does get up, he goes in the bathroom and pretends to be in the shower by letting the water run while he lays on a towel in the floor and to sleep more! Then takes 30 minutes or longer in the shower. Never do we agree on anything. If I say it’s black, he says it’s white! Will not pick up anything in his room. I end up having to do it, or keep on at him, until he gets it done. I don’t want to have to threaten him every time I want him to do something responsible, but I do. Threaten to take his phone, threaten to take away his computer. It would just be so nice if he could show respect, but not sure he knows how, or the meaning!? He pretty much gets the things he needs, and wants. I’m sure we have spoiled him, but that is what you end up doing with an only child, right ?!? I’m just so exhausted, he wants to go to a football game tonight, and I told him no, because of his attitude yesterday, and the fact that we already have plans as a family, that he was told about on Wednesday. He’s hates that I’m not giving in, so now I’m hearing….” I can’t wait until I’m 16. Maybe I just don’t know how to handle a teenager?? My heart hurts from all of this, and I want a good relationship with my son. I know from hearing other ppl talk, you can’t be friends with your teenager, I just want to have a healthy relationship. I was so sad after dropping him off at school this morning, so this is why I am on here. I don’t want to feel this way anymore!

    • Barbara Report

      Scarletann This behavior is very reminiscent of my daughter when she was about 14-15. The only reason she went to school starting at about 15 was to connect with her friends.  Then they’d ditch classes and hangout in the girls bathroom or behind a secluded area by an athletic outbuilding. It was here that she was introduced to pot, so she’d go back to school to make the connection and get more pot, all the time telling me she needed ten bucks for lunch. We have had family counseling for 2 years, a WRAP Team of counselors and early this year her psychiatrist recommended residential treatment facility. She was there for 8 months and turned 18 just prior to returning home October 1st.  I can’t give you any advice, my heart breaks over my daughter, I love her so much it tears me apart. Tuesday night she let a ‘homeless’ teenager sleep in her room while she slept on the living room couch. I didn’t know this intoxicated young man, but discovered him by accident when I went to put her shoes in her room. This has happened at least 10 times and she knows it is a violation of house rules. I tried to wake him to tell him to leave, and the odor of vodka overwhelmed me.  He woudln’t wake up.  I called the police to  have him removed, cited for trespass and transported to a hospital if necessary. Later that day I found the empty vodka bottle and several empty beer cans in the flower bed under her bedroom window. Evidently she woke him up while I talkd to the police officers and helped him out the bedroom window and into the backyard.He must have jumped the fence because the police officers didn’t find him when they went through the house and backyard.  My daughter, at 16, demanded that I emancipate her.  Yesterday she exploded at me, threw phones and remotes at me as well as other objects. I was very angry and shouted that if she didn’t like the rules here, she could leave, she is 18 now. Even though the police had recommended this, it isn’t what I WANTED to do.  She grabbed few things from bedroom and bath and shouted she’d be back today for the rest of her stuff.  I’m so lost, I just don’t know what to do anymore. They smoke pot on my driveway, her friends leave trash and cigarette butts all over the front of our home, She feeds her ‘homeless’ friends with meals I’ve bought and prepared from our fridge. I love  her generous heart, but I can’t afford to feed the waifs she continues to bring here daily.  She never asks, she just takes as though she’s entitled to feed from our family meals and share the warmth of our home with whomever. My best advice for you is to get him into treatment immediately. Insist on a therapist expert in treating Oppositional Defiant Disorder. Have him tested for ADHD. The Total Transformation Program is a wonderful resource, but it will only help you if you address his diagnostic issues as you go through the program. I hope we both have success with our challenged teens, Blessings and best wishes to you.

    • Empowering Parents Coach drowden Report

      I’m sorry you had such a tough morning. No one should have
      to start there day in an argument. You bring up a good point – parenting
      a teen can offer some challenges. It may help to know that the behavior you
      describe is normal for a 13 year old. He’s beginning to phase of development
      called individuation – he’s starting the process of pulling away from his
      family to become his own person. Janet Lehman describes the changes that can
      happen between parent and child when the child enters adolescence in her article
      http://www.empoweringparents.com/adolescent-behavior-changes-is-your-child-embarrassed-by-you.php#ixzz3pPsWUXz5. Carole Banks offers
      some great tips for dealing with the verbal disrespect you describe in her
      article http://www.empoweringparents.com/do-you-personalize-your-childs-behavior-when-he-disobeys-you.php. For example, one technique we
      find to be effective with verbal disrespect is setting the limit and walking
      away. When your son starts to say mean, hurtful things, you can respond with
      “It’s not OK to talk to me that way. I don’t like it” and then turn around and
      walk away. Remember, as James Lehman points out in the Total Transformation
      program – you don’t have to attend every argument you’re invited to. I hope
      this information is useful for your situation. Be sure to check back and let us
      know how things are going. Take care.

    • bridgeciaj Report

      Scarletann  Do you have the Total Transformation Program?  It is worth every penny.  Listen to it twice as soon as you can.  Then start implementing.
      Until it arrives and you can do that, my first recommendation is for you to know and understand that your son’s behavior is NOT PERSONAL towards you.  He is trying to assert his own control over his life and the world.  The TTP will help you.
      Calm down, down take it personally, think about natural consequences.  You can get through this.

  6. whattodo Report

    What to do when 14yo spirals out of control, male, wants to go out, friends more important than family, personality changes, doesn’t get to school on time, doesn’t return from school on time even though school is down road. Is becoming abusive. Has 3 other siblings.  Being mentored cant live with his mother they clash.  Wants to finish school and continue to do university.  What to do?  Tried telling him to leave, destructive never physically.  Found weed and cigarettes in bags threw them out, alcohol in bag.  Where is he getting this supply?  He works but gives us the money?  How can he afford to buy this stuff.

    • Empowering Parents Coach drowden Report

      Thank you for reaching out to Empowering Parents for help
      with what sounds likea very challenging
      situation. From what you have written, it sounds like there are a lot of
      different issues going on. It’s going to be best to pick one behavior to focus
      on at a time. Carole Banks give some suggestions for how to do this in her
      article http://www.empoweringparents.com/My-Childs-Behavior-Is-So-Bad.php#ixzz3pPzlYLzi. Another article you may find helpful is http://www.empoweringparents.com/my-child-is-using-drugs-alcohol-what-should-i-do.php#ixzz3pQ0LkRmq. In it, Kim
      Abraham and Marney Studaker-Cordner give some great tips for what parents can
      do when they find out their child is smoking pot or drinking. We appreciate you
      writing in and wish you all the best moving forward. Take care.

    • bridgeciaj Report

      @whattodo  My son doesn’t even have a job and he affords this stuff.  I don’t know how.  Stealing is certainly part of it.  Our son sold everything he had.  Stole from us.  I don’t keep cash on hand anymore.  We’ve locked the other 2 bedroom doors.  He also feeds his friends in exchange for drugs.  Weed is cheap too.
      Do you have Total Transformation Program?  They have one dealing with drugs too don’t they?  It really does help.  It helps the parents have some level of sanity even if the kids don’t do a 180 in behavior.

  7. ildiko719 Report

    When I was 16 I dropped out of high-school on my 16th birthday and started working. My parents expected me to give home half of my paycheck every two weeks. I partied on the rest of it almost every night. At 22 I got my GED and started college. Joined the air force reserve to help with the cost of college. I graduated with honors at 28. Got commissioned at 30. Got my Masters at 35. I am 40 now, still in the air force. There is always hope. I think it helps teenagers to go work and pay bills. They will see how little money they make without a college degree. They can always go back to school. If life experience is what they want, I say support them in that. Just don’t finance mis behaviour. If they live in your house charge them market value for room and board. Give them a fair share of chores. If they don’t like it they can move out and experience LIFE. once they get tired of being broke they can decide to go back to school. Or to continue to be loosers. You can’t force them to do what you want them to do with their lives. Just support good decisions when they make them. My parents let me move back to get my college degree.

    • bridgeciaj Report

      ildiko719  It is very kind of you to share your success story.  I swear, I LIVE on these stories.  That our situations with our kids while they go through this aren’t hopeless is such an encouragement!!!

  8. Lindilou Report

    What do I do if my 16 yr old daughter refuses to go to school once or twice a week?
    ?? I just got a letter of warning of truancy!!!

    • bridgeciaj Report

      Lindilou  is there a continuation school in your district?  We ended up with our son going there.  These are some of the most dedicated and kindest teachers I’ve ever met.  They have helped our son tremendously just by their continual encouragement.  I don’t love the other kids that go there, I won’t lie, but my son probably falls into that category for all the other parents too. 😉  The best thing about it (and seriously I never thought I’d be saying something good about a continuation school) is they do everything in their power to help your kid graduate. 

      My son is still a major problem in our home.  But he’s set to graduate high school and actually signed up for community college on his own.  (Proof that there is a God.♥)

      Hang in there.  You’re not alone and this won’t last forever!

    • Empowering Parents Coach Marissa Stephens, 1-on-1 Coach Report


      It can certainly be a challenge when your teenager http://www.empoweringparents.com/what-can-i-do-when-my-child-refuses-to-go-to-school.php. You are not alone, here, as we hear from parents daily,
      with similar behaviors. While you can’t physically make your child go to
      school, you can have the expectation that she goes, and hold her accountable when
      she doesn’t. It can be helpful to contact the school and let them know that you
      are doing your part to get her up and going, but she is still refusing. You may
      also find out if the school has a truancy officer, and let your daughter know
      that you will call him/her when she refuses to go. If there are consequences
      from the school, let her deal with those. Best of luck to you and your family as your
      continue to work on this with your daughter.

      • Barbara Report

        Marissa EP Lindilou
        My daughter passed out on her way to school one morning, She was 16 at the time. Since that day she has only stepped foot in a classroom when she was in residential treatment program for severe depression and her ODD issues. She only went because she knew she couldn’t come home unless she had ‘regular’ attendance at school.  Since she came home (Oct 1st) she has been spiraling out of control. While in residential treatment she went AWOL and was intercepted by a police officer responding to the facilities call. When he ordered her to stop, she slugged him.
        Yesterday we had a major blowout because she let one of her ‘homeless’ friends that I don’t know stay overnight in our home. I woke up, went to put something in her room, and there I found an incredibly intoxicated teenager in her bed. She was asleep on the couch in the living room. Since this wasn’t the first time this has happened with various teenage girls and boys, I called the police to have him removed, cited and transported to a hospital if necessary. As I spoke to the officers, she booted him out a bedroom window and he wasn’t given the necessary attention he needed.
        She exploded, threw objects around the living room at me (the remote, a slate coaster, a the cordless phone on the end table, a magazine). I explained that since she is 18, if she doesn’t like the rules here, she is welcome to leave. Her comments were ‘Thank God you finally did it”. I was taken aback by that comment, it’s like she’s been goading me into kicking her out. Now I’m so at a loss, I don’t know what to do. The police officers told me that I should put her out, so I did, but I’m regretting it feeling it may be the death nell to any potential healthy relationship. We’ve been dancing this dance for two years, I’m tired of conflict, tired of trying to enforce house rules, She’s had 3 years of counseling, 8 months in a residential treatment facility and we are still at square one. I want her back, I miss her but I don’t miss the conflict and animosity she shows me. What can I do?  She feels like a failure, I feel like a failure and we have both lost a valuable and at least for me, treasured relationship.

    • christina1974 Report

      Your the mom with the power. Goto the school and ask for help. See if they can offer any advice. At least let them know the trouble your dealing with.

    • Diane Report

      Yes! I’ve been to court at least 4 x over this with my 17 yr old son and I’m going again on Monday. I sure would like to know. It takes time out of work, cost me money I don’t have and doesn’t seem to deter my son enough to motivate him to get up for school. He’s 17, 6′ and 180lbs. I can’t pick him up and out him in my car. There’s no help for this, it’s infuriating!!

    • lovinlife29 Report

      Lindilou My son did the same thing. You want to nip it in the bud before they turn 18 as then you won’t be able to do anything. I called the school a few times and the principal sent the police over to get him out of bed. That worked until he was 18, then he dropped out completely. After about 2 years, he went back and completed his last 2 credits somewhere else and graduated. He is now in the Navy. Don’t give up on her. It’s a horrible phase but I would talk to her and find out what the issue is. Could be something going on at school. Maybe some counseling would work. I’m not sure when they get to that point if the tough love thing will work. She needs positivity in her life, encouragement, support etc. Best of luck to you. My daughter is 13 now and I pray everyday for guidance.



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