Your Triggers Are Trailheads

When parents overreact to their kids, they've found a place that needs healing.

Posted Aug 01, 2019

Every loving parent has to face times when they have messed up with their kids. What now? Do we simply try harder next time? So often, the harder we try to hold on to our self-control, the bigger the mess-up when we lose it. Is there a better way?

Dr. Richard Schwartz, discoverer of the IFS model and adjunct faculty in Harvard Medical School’s Psychiatry Department, would say that too much self-control empowers our inner managers and makes us lose touch with our true selves. Instead of better self-control, Schwartz wants us to see the times our kids “trigger us” as trailheads that lead to the places inside us that need healing.

Confused? The first article in this series looked at what the IFS model is and explains ideas like “parts” and “managers.” In the second article, we looked at how our parts show up when we interact with our kids.

Treating our bad behavior as trailheads

When our kids bring behaviors out of us that are extreme or shaming, they are inevitably touching into something vulnerable in us. If we follow the trail, we may find young parts of ourselves, waiting for us to listen to their story of pain.

“You do it with permission from the protectors, rather than trying to master them. There'll be parts that aren't necessarily buying it that you're a good person and will try to interfere if you just try to push them away,” Dr. Schwartz explained.

Photo by Ahmad Kadhim on Unsplash
When we overreact, we might find a trail that leads to a young memory.
Source: Photo by Ahmad Kadhim on Unsplash

What Schwartz means is that our manager parts work hard to keep us from getting near the hurt "exiles" inside us. They are not going to let us talk to the exiles unless they trust us, any more than you as a parent would let someone you didn’t trust near your child.

“So you go to them [the managers] and listen to them and be compassionate with them too. And also if you can identify your exiles who also need the compassion, then it’s much more concrete, what you're giving it to.”

Dr. Schwartz is talking about a kind of healing conversation we can have within ourselves. The trick is listening to our parts, instead of fighting with them for control. When we practice compassion toward our parts, we tend to bring our core self to the surface. The Self with a capital S has a way of approaching our parts with curiosity rather than blame.

This all sounds very conceptual. What would it look like to do this kind of work?

The picky eater and the parent

It is rare that a day goes by in my pediatric practice when a parent does not ask me how to fix their picky eater. Truthfully, this issue comes up at the majority of checkups. Even though I share the research evidence that encouraging our picky eaters to eat only makes it worse, I have known less than a handful of parents that were able to let go on this issue. I myself find it very hard to let go on my son’s picky eating.

Let’s look at a sequence of what might go on inside a parent at a typical family meal with a picky eater. On this particular occasion, he’s been given a simple meal that is one of his favorites. But tonight, he takes a few bites, and then makes a face and pushes his plate away.

His parent calmly reminds him to eat a few more bites, even as the inner critic reminds that the research says not to do this. Next, the child makes a disgusted noise. Now the parent’s chest feels tight. “But it’s your favorite!” says the parent. The child sits stubbornly. Meanwhile, the parent’s head also feels tight as the thought “Don’t turn it into a power struggle” plays on repeat.

By this point, the other parent has chimed in with a disapproving tone, “Just eat it! Don’t be so fussy.” Before they know it, the child is making dramatic gagging noises on the bite they have insisted he put in his mouth.

Later, when the kids complain about loading the dishwasher, the harried parent explodes and starts yelling. While this brings momentary relief and a sense of power, guilt at the overreaction comes next. The parent ends the interaction feeling like a guilty failure.

What would the inner work look like?

The picky eater triggered the parent to overreact. If we see this as a trailhead, where might it lead? Underneath the two arguing managers is an exile. One manager believes the child should just do what they are supposed to do, and the other believes that the parent should follow the research advice.

If the parent can find calm and curiosity (a sure sign that the deeper self is emerging), the work can begin. The parent might ask the managers if it would be okay to talk to the exiled part, or if they had any concerns to share. Very likely, the managers would share the concern that letting go would lead to bad behavior. Bad behavior would lead to the exiled part being hurt and punished again.

What do they mean, punished again? Suddenly the parent is reliving a night from their own childhood.  Cooked carrots had tasted disgusting and made them gag. Their own parents chastised them for being difficult. They punished and made to sit at the dinner table until they finished choking down every single carrot. Perhaps even now they feel nausea at the smell of them. The shame comes up sharply.

As parents, we tend to treat our kids like we treat our own exiled parts. Instead of deciding to back off because we know what it feels like to be pushed to eat as a child, we enforce the same rules our own parents did.

When the child part was satisfied that the carrot story had been heard, unburdening becomes possible. The parent might ask the younger self if it would like to let the burden go now.

With a sigh that sounds like a happy child, the anxious part lets go of the memory it has been carrying for more than 30 years. It feels like letting the air out of a balloon. The internal dynamic changes and the parent no longer feels a compulsion to force that picky eater to finish.

Healing creates more behavioral change than trying to manage ourselves with shoulds

The next post in this series looks at why shame works to control our kids, and why that’s a problem.