This morning I was triggered. I reacted instead of responding. It started out as a great morning! My eldest, who usually struggles a little in the morning, had nightmares the night before, because his Dad was away. I was expecting a tough morning, but he woke up saying he had the “best dream.” He had dreamed his loose tooth came out at school, how exciting! Mornings have been challenging for us in the past, and continue to be, but I was so relieved when he woke up happy. My youngest, on the other hand, he was sick, cranky and screaming at me because I ran upstairs for 5 seconds to get socks. Then he was mad because I came back downstairs.
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I sat down beside my eldest on the couch and said “boy, he is not in a good mood.” Well, my eldest was watching the TV, so he only caught a snippet of what I said. He thought I said he was in a bad mood. He said with great defence “I am not in a bad mood, I am in a good mood.” I said “I know, I said D is not in a good mood.” He said “then why did you say I am in a bad mood?” At this point he is starting to get frustrated and the wonderful mood he was in begins to fade. He is frustrated that I have accused him of being in a bad mood when he clearly woke up happy and expressed it.
I, however begin to have my own emotional experience. I feel gaslighted because he is insisting I said something I know I did not say. This is something he does often. He seems to get confused by what people are saying and takes offence to it. Because it triggers feelings of being gaslighted, I often struggle to stay calm. Sadly this time, I did not. After a few more rounds of he-said she-said, I stood up and turned off the TV, as I often blame the TV for distracting my children (for some reason this feels less harsh than blaming them for being distracted, I doubt it actually is). He melts-down, and starts apologizing and begging for the TV to come back on. You would think that would snap me out of it but sadly it did not. I tried a few more times to explain my point of view, how I feel attacked for something I did not say. But he was still confused and panicking that I turned the TV off. Because I was still angry about feeling gaslighted (or at least that was my perception), I could not explain my point of view without it seeming like an attack. I just silently and angrily continued to pack his lunch.
The worst part is, he came to me in the end. A few minutes later he walks by me and gives me what I perceived as a dirty look. I say one more time “you got mad at me for something I didn’t even say.” He sits down on a stool and says “I’m not mad. I just needed to sit for a bit.” Well, for some reason that caused me to deflate. This sweet boy had more ability to calm down than I did and that just did not seem fair. Obviously he misunderstood, that was neither of our faults. Assigning blame to every situation is such a hard thing to rid yourself of.
Now I had to figure out how to reconnect. I started with an apology; “I am so sorry that I got so frustrated with you. You do not deserve that. I know we were both just confused and I am really sorry that I did not stay more calm.” Then I asked if we could sit down and talk about what happened. A year ago, he would not have been able to have this conversation. Just his ability to focus and try and hear what I was saying felt momentous; for our relationship, his cognitive abilities and self-regulation skills. I asked him if he wanted to talk about how he was feeling. He said he felt so mad when I was saying he “was a liar.” I empathized and admitted how I could see how it would feel that way, because I was kind of feeling the same feelings.
My eldest is almost six and around this time, children begin to realize that others can have different thoughts and feelings than they do. Up until this point they have been very egocentric so they do not understand perception. The concept is much too complex. My child is just reaching this part of cognitive growth. It can possibly be explained to him but he likely would not realize on his own that people have different perceptions. Even some adults have a hard time understanding perception. So I explained “You know two people don’t always hear or see the same thing. We may both be in the same place but what we saw or heard was different. It does not make either of us wrong or liars (my son uses this word a lot so I know it is meaningful to him, otherwise I would not use it), it just means we saw or heard something differently, does that make sense?” He said “yeah.” At this point it seems like the information is going in but who knows, right?
Explaining What a Misunderstanding Is
I moved on to say “I have noticed that this happens sometimes with us, and we both get very frustrated because we feel like we are being accused of lying and we know we are not lying. That feeling is really hard for me since it reminds me of all the times people said I was lying and I was not.” For some reason, that seemed to strike a chord with him. I think he felt empathy. His body language conveyed compassion for me. I said “I know for you, it’s so frustrating because you feel like we are accusing you of lying. But you know what this is called, when two people see or hear something differently? It’s called a misunderstanding and it does not mean anyone is wrong or lying, we just saw or heard it differently and that’s ok. So what we need to do then is figure out what each of us heard, said or saw and then find a way to understand each other. If we are having one of these moments, would it be ok if I said ‘C, I think we are having a misunderstanding’ and then we try and figure out where the mix up is. Would that be ok?” He said “yeah, that would be ok.”
Letting it Marinate
I think many parents would walk away saying ‘did that register or…?’ But I know that the information I just told him is a huge concept. I know my child with a huge concept, he says “yeah” and then takes his time to process the information. He may ask questions later, he may not. We will likely need to continue to talk about this concept of perception and misunderstandings as it is a complex concept for a child, but I do feel the conversation was beneficial. His body language seemed like he was listening, even though he did not make eye contact the whole time, that is actually not the way HE listens best. If he is staring into your eyes, it’s usually because he is excited and trying to tell you something. When he is listening, he usually likes to look away. That does not matter to me, I am able to read his body language by now.
- I need to try and be more mindful about labeling my children’s moods as “good” or “bad.” He thinks not being in a “good” mood is a “bad” thing. This is a hard narrative to break and I am sure I contribute to this by being frustrated about my own irritability and emotional moments. This is not the message I want to send though.
- I am pleased with the way the reconciliation went. I think I was able to repair our bond and possibly we both learned something. We developed a new strategy to work through these moments together, so that was a really positive outcome.
- I commend myself for resisting the urge to go over what we both said again that caused us both to feel gaslighted. By this time, you could tell that neither of us cared about the “bad mood” comment and it was more about being told we were lying. So I am happy that I could see that was irrelevant at this time and did not feel compelled to be “right” or have him understand my point of view. I think this possibly could have caused the ‘fire to reignite.’ He may have been emotionally triggered again by me saying that I said something different than him. The meaningful learning lies in beginning to understand the concepts of perception and misunderstandings, not continuing the he-said, she-said.
- When I spoke to my husband about it, he said “yeah I just let him think he’s right.” I said “of course you do, for some reason that is so much harder for me because it triggers that gaslighting feeling.” What I take away from that is, not everyone is triggered by this. Many people may be able to brush it off, like my husband (although, I will say, he is not like that with me). But for people who have experienced this type of interaction before, and it caused an unsafe feeling, they are thrown back to that moment. Because this is a fear response (fight), it is sometimes hard to regain control of your behaviour and emotions. Having a plan for when you feel this is happening, can really help prevent the escalation.
Preparation is Crucial
You know what I’ve discovered after helping families for a few years?
So many of us online parenting mentors are gaslighting and invalidating parents concerns by not taking into consideration the context of their mental health, when offering advice.
“Lower your voice to hear your words”
“You can do hard things”
May be helpful for those who are consciously withholding love and using aggressive tones to mould their child’s behaviour.
But more often than not, what we are dealing with, are parents who are coping with trauma and/or mental health challenges. They want desperately to do the things we advise them to do, but they are struggling to because of their other challenges.
We find this out and we recommend therapy which is basically brushing them aside. Saying your problem is beyond the realm of “normal.” Even if they are able to seek therapy, often the therapist has no knowledge of child development so that piece is missing. Therapy is often necessary but parenting tools specific to those parents struggling with emotional triggers, is also a necessary piece of their healing journey.
❤️ We need to offer different tools to these parents.
❤️ We need to meet them where they are at and help them build from there.
❤️ We need to teach them how to give themselves grace.
❤️ We need to give them permission not to be perfect.
They look to us for guidance and we fail them when we only offer an idealistic view of parenting. We fail them when we say “it’s all about connection.” Parenting is filled with emotional triggers that you never expected and it takes some people years to deconstruct, decondition and develop emotional intelligence skills, rather than avoidance skills.
This Guide to Survival Mode Plans was written as a tool for these parents.
A Survival Mode Plan is a Responsive Parenting Tool for parents who find emotional triggers and parent anger is causing them to react, more than respond. This tool helps parents learn how to use Preparation, Reflection and Reconnection to survive some of your most challenging parenting moments. While also growing and learning from these experiences; and over time, thriving, more than surviving.
Looking for co-regulation exercises you can do with your child? Click here
Would you like to become a Member of our Responsive Parenting Community on Patreon? Click here to get access to all the workshop sessions and resources including access to a private Facebook group.
This PDF guide will help you prepare Survival Mode Plans and give you reflection tools and insight to support your healing and parenting journey.
Thank you so much for this article. I’m feeling seen in a way I didn’t realize I needed. I have struggled with mental health issues for most of my life and parenting has definitely brought up old wounds and trauma in unexpected ways. Particularly, feeling ignored and not believed in or validated. So whenever I feel my child or spouse is intentionally ignoring me, I’m triggered and often respond emotionally. I also have similar misunderstandings with my child that you describe here and I’m so thankful to have an example of effective repair. Rupture and repair is too common in my house and I so badly want to heal myself and be able to control the way I speak to my loved ones. This really makes me feel less alone and ashamed in that process.
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Rupture and repair is a necessary part of building secure attachment ❤️