Toddlers are triggering

Raising toddlers is hard.

This is not a radical statement, nor should it contain information new to anyone who has had toddlers, met toddlers, read about toddlers, knows the word toddlers… Point is, it is a well-known and thoroughly-accepted truism.

But why?

I’m not trying to challenge the truth of it: while I think many mainstream-Western parenting practices and philosophies do make the toddler years more difficult (for just one example: by pushing infants away when we should hold them close, then hovering when we should let them explore), I am not about to play a round of Blame the Mother and say it’s our parenting that makes it so. Raising toddlers is hard, challenging, difficult, demanding, requiring us to stretch our minds and our hearts — and our lungs, whether to yell or take yet another deep, supposedly-calming breath.

I think I’ve figured out at least part of why. (And you know I’m gonna say kyriarchy is at the root of it.)

What I’ve realized is that toddlers are triggering. They have almost no sense of body-boundary, feel free to climb and touch and grab whatever part of us they please, they don’t listen to our Nos, they refute our (and the obvious-to-us, “objective”) reality, they ask and ask and ask again, yell at us and throw a completely out of proportion fit if they don’t like the answer — and then try to do it anyway.

Even if you — like me — have been lucky enough to have escaped being raped thus far in life, I don’t know anyone who is not a straight white well-off cis male (and very few of those) who hasn’t been abused in some form; and what I described above, in any other context, would be recognized as the actions of an abuser.

I’m not calling toddlers abusers, of course. I emphatically do not subscribe to the school of thought that we enter the world as little monsters/devils/dictators/savages who need to be “civilized” (or worse, “whipped into shape”) by adults. Rather, we enter this world primed to attach to and learn from the older humans around us, and all of childhood is naught but practice at adulthood. That’s why playing “house” and pretend “work” are universal, why toddlers start mimicking us as soon as possible, why they always want to “help” (no matter how much their “help” is actually a hindrance).

No, the problem is not with toddlers, who are doing exactly what they’re supposed to do, but with the triggers we as parents have brought to this gig: the problem is that we were abused in the first place, that our bodies were not considered ours, that our nos were ignored, that others felt free to violate us, that those who should have protected us instead turned aside and pretended not to see. And for that, of course, I blame the kyriarchy.

In my case, my triggers almost all originate in childhood: a 7-years-older brother who wouldn’t stop tickling me and wouldn’t believe my shouted “NO” (and would use his greater strength to prevent escape or retaliation); the other children (“friends”, supposedly) who would throw away food/treats/toys rather than share with me (just to deny it me); more obscurely but perhaps more universally, regularly not being heard or listened to or believed or obeyed or respected, because I was a child (and a much younger child, at that, surrounded by adults and near-adults); and the laughing — always, the laughing, the laughing when I was hurt, the being laughed at for being me, the laughing at jokes at my expense, the laughing and making it my fault I wasn’t laughing too, the laughing and making me laugh even as I cried, even as I raged inside.

There is an overarching theme here of powerlessness: I was frustrated in the exercise of my own power, abused by those wielding power over me, so when I am confronted with a toddler just learning to exercise his own power, my memories are activated — triggered.

The Boychick doesn’t do those exact things, of course. That’s why they’re triggers, not further abuse and trauma. (And let me take a moment here to recognize just how easy I had it compared to some. I will not dismiss or belittle my own real pain, but I know that too, too many had it — have it — so, so much worse.) Others are attacked by their children, have their children do things that were shamed or beaten out of them (wasting food, talking back, refusing to pick up), hear words and phrases that deny their reality in ways that abusers did to them.

These things are rarely problematic in themselves (even children prone to violent outbursts rarely are capable of actually damaging us, more than superficially at least), but they come too close to sore spots in our past, and suddenly we are back there, we are back then, we are back to being who we were back then, we are powerless, we are young and small and weak in a world of the old and big and strong. And to seek to protect ourselves, our hurting selves who deserve so much love and care and gentleness, we make ourselves the old, the big, the strong, and we lose sight of the reality of our comparative sizes and strengths and knowledge and experience, and we attack back — we yell, we spank; we punish, we shame, we mock; we grab and shove and force; we withhold our love and our approval and the connection all children crave. We hurt our babies because we were hurt, are hurting.

This is almost the definition of — perhaps the origin of? — kyriarchy: creating hierarchies out of whole cloth, using our oppression to justify oppressing others, becoming bullies from a well-intentioned but inevitably inimical desire for self-protection. It is “us v them” because we are too damaged to see — and let ourselves a part of — a healthy whole human “we”. And so the pain is perpetuated.

In such a cycle, it can be hard to be optimistic. There are ways to mitigate — disrupt — this cycle: by recognizing that our reactions are not rational, and not really in response to our toddlers’ actions; by identifying their real origins; by practicing mindful breathing and mindfulness meditation and playful, joyful parenting; by directing our real and righteous anger about our pain at the appropriate sources — our abusers, the onlookers who did not come to our aid, and ultimately the society that allowed and encouraged those actions and inactions — rather than our innocent toddlers; and eventually, gradually, eliminating the triggers of their power over us altogether.

But we are human, imperfect, imperfectable. We will continue to be triggered, with and without recognizing it as such, we will continue to become infuriated, to respond inappropriately. Are we dooming our children to a lifetime as kyriarchs? I am not so pessimistic: from my own life, and in my observation, I think it matters at least as much how we talk about, and what we do about, our less than ideal behaviors. We must not fall into the abuse-apology trap, in which “I’m sorry” is just so many words, and works only to ensure that the abused will stick around to be hurt again. But there is something to be said for modeling making amends, teaching through demonstration (if too-oft repeated) the process of acknowledging and naming our past pains, our current flaws, and taking the steps necessary to reduce our risk of being so hurt — and acting out inappropriately — again.

Toddlers are triggering, yes. But this means we are daily — hourly, constantly — offered opportunities to practice being better people, showing our children what it means to live in kyriarchy without consenting to its further creation.

Not one said it would be easy, this parenting gig, this anti-kyriarchy work, this life. But I cannot stop believing that it is ultimately so worth it.

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32 Responses to Toddlers are triggering

  1. Arwyn, this is such a truthful, honest and powerful post. It really resonates with me, as I’m struggling with my own burgeoning toddler and what was done to me and the ripples that is causing in both our lives. Thankyou!

  2. Oh, this is fascinating. Toddlers are hard, especially the screaming. So. much. noise.

    I feel less like my children trigger me as victim than they trigger me into the position of the abuser. I don’t feel attacked, I feel like attacking. I don’t attack – let me be clear – but when my kids startle me into a flashback of my childhood it’s the anger I feel that’s overwhelming, rather than the hurt.

    I’d forgotten how hard it was to have a toddler, and even an infant until reading – there’s really no one else you’d let howl at you, near you, for hours except your own frustrated kid.

    Hang in there.

    • Oh the noise. That’s its own damn post there! (Surprisingly, although I have both migraines and mild sensory issues, it’s The Man who deals least well with the constant noise. Not that it doesn’t bother me as well…)

      My point with the triggers is that when our victimhood is activated, we react by becoming attackers (or having the urge to). My rage at my toddler is often completely out of proportion to anything he actually did — except when looked at in the context of my history, and the abuse I was at the receiving end of. It is the rage — the urge to attack — that is the proximal problem, but the previous pain that is ultimately the root cause. Without addressing the root, I don’t think we can eliminate the rage.

      And thanks: I’m trying to!

    • I’m with Courtney. I don’t feel triggered into a victim, I feel triggered into being the abuser. For me, I know that’s my outward projection of being abused, but I think I would rather battle feeling of hurt than the feelings of wanting to hurt (for me, personally). Though it all sucks.

      Thank you for writing this. It’s almost not allowed to be spoken, that our kids could be triggers.

      • Summer: I agree that it all sucks. I also try to first battle the trigger into being the abuser. Then, if I have anything left I try to use it as a teachable moment to try to teach my children to respect others, including me. If I can manage both, I’ve hit the jackpot. But I have to remind myself that even getting half way is pretty good.

  3. This is bloody great. And thank you for starting to work towards a way of talking about what toddlers do that is triggering, without blaming or demonising them.

    In terms of actual hurt, though, the most serious injuries I’ve had in the last few years have been from my children – bites and scratches that drew blood, a black eye from a headbutt. And I have had to offer my nipple again to a child that bit a hole in it. That really did feel like abuse, whether his or mine I’m not sure. Where is my self-respect there? Where’s my hard-won bodily autonomy? Hmm. There’s a post in that…

    • I guess my point about the damage isn’t that they can’t do any — and some serious, like bite wounds or black eyes — but that we are not actually in danger of our lives from our tantruming toddlers, like we would be (like we might have been) at the hands of an adult abuser.

      And yes, there’s definitely a post there. My inclination is that we would be able to be more serene about the body-boundary-fluidity of raising toddlers if we didn’t have to fight so hard to win body-autonomy from the kyriarchy in the first place.

  4. Great post as usual Arwyn.

    Courtney – I agree about the noise. My instinct when my children get overly loud, either high pitched squeals of joy or temper tantrums, is to tell them to shut up and go and hide my head under a pillow somewhere. Instead, I am trying (but am not always successful), to encourage them to express themselves but to gentle encourage them to find quieter ways to do so.

  5. What a tremendous post. You manage to articulate a difficult phenomenon in such a balanced, thoughtful way — not easy.

    P.S. What you described from childhood is what’s known in DBT-speak as an “invalidating environment.” Paired with biological sensitivity, it can make emotional regulation reaaally hard. Sad thing is, most of us grew up in those environments — even though the intentions of those invalidating may have been good. (Can you tell I just had group last night? :P)

  6. Wow, this post is amazing. Yes. All of it.

    If he catches me off guard, my five-year-old can often reduce me to quivering rage by a particular sort of mocking behaviour – which of course he now pulls out when he wants to have that effect. I take a little comfort from the fact that when I lose the rag and roar at him he reacts not fearfully but with indignation. I hope this means he understands that he in no way “deserves” to be shouted at.

    For me, I know this pattern goes back at least into the nineteenth century. My great-grandmother’s memoirs were published a couple of years ago, and there’s a chilling anecdote about when she was having her second child and left her first child in the care of her (violent, controlling) mother. The child arrived back rather subdued, and the mother said, “She defied me, so I had to break her spirit.” My great-grandmother never found out exactly what had happened. But I feel the echo of that incident over and over again, as the impulse to break my child’s spirit wells up in response to some defiance.

    Noticing it helps. I hope.

  7. I remember feeling triggered when my son was about 10 months old and learned that he could see ‘my milk’ by grabbing my neckline, yanking it down, and sticking his hands into my bra, despite my sometimes desperate pleas to be gentle and to ask. He’s 2 now and still rarely remembers to ask before grabbing at and pulling my breasts out to nurse. It feels very strange to clutch at my shirt, holding off a screaming male (toddler, yes, but still male), and telling him, “No, not now. Please wait a little while. Please?” And usually get screamed at in response.

    I wonder if it’s different with daughters…

  8. Thank you. I really needed to read this today.

  9. Very thought-provoking post.
    I too am raising a toddler and, yes, it’s really hard. But I don’t feel like it’s about being triggered, at least for me personally – though perhaps I’m not recognising it as such. I have no doubt that toddlers are triggering for many people, but even without triggers, I still think raising toddlers is extremely challenging. I am lucky enough to never have been sexually abused, but I still often find it difficult and sometimes even infuriating on those days when Wren keeps pulling at my top, grabbing my breasts. I still find it drives me crazy when he absolutely refuses to get dressed, get in the car, or asks for food then throws it on the floor or squashes it into the chair. Of course, there have been plenty of times in my life where I’ve felt like I haven’t been listened to or respected, but I don’t think his behaviour needs to trigger that to be difficult to deal with.
    We can still blame the kyriachy of course, as I think it’s more about being the primary carer 90% of the time and getting very little support, which makes me more tired and less patient. Perhaps also, there just isn’t much knowledge or modelling of really good communication in our society, so we more easily revert to anger/abusive behaviour when things get tough.
    Still thinking about all this…

  10. I never thought of it that way – but it makes so much sense! I am only at the beginning of the toddler stage and imagine it will get a whole lot more challenging as my daughter gets older.

    But I agree that it’s all about my emotional baggage and nothing at all to do with her. The times were I’ve lost my temper have been entirely disproportionate to what actually happened and have been mainly about feeling like I just wanted 5 seconds to myself.

  11. Wow…fantastic post. I’ve never read your blog before today but I’m hooked. Thank you for articulating this “phenomenon” so eloquently!

  12. Hi! I think I found you through MDC and I have been reading you quietly for a while. This entry in particular really spoke to me and I was wondering if you would be ok to me linking to it. :)

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  15. Nice work Arwyn. You may be earning wages from society for your important work in the afternoon, but I am sure they are a pittance compared to the value of your writing.

    I just encountered your use of the word kyriarchy. I was unaware of this useful neologism and will make a point of learning its subtleties and using it appropriately. My formation of this concept of coercive ordinate relations began with my introduction to Riane Eisler who, in the forward to “Chalice and the Blade” makes reference to a dominator sub-culture that has been on the ascendant across the globe since at least the Bronze Age. I have been finding the word patriarchy increasingly problematic and “adherent to dominator sub-culture values” too awkward. Kyriarchy cuts to the quick of the problem with destructive power imbalances in relations between adults, and hints at the back story, that you explore so adroitly, of the self perpetuation of the sub-culture with abusive child rearing practices. It also helps broaden the concept of abuse to include institutionalized abuse, such is so common in our schools.

    I hope it is taken in the vein it was meant when I provide a few credentials in support of my evaluation of your work. I am a pediatrician of 30+ years with extensive experience in the child abuse field and the care of incarcerated minors. In this work I have continued to be frustrated by the very problem you identify (adults traumatized as children and usually amnesic to some degree for the events) acting out these unresolved traumas in relation to children in their care (usually when at the same age as they were when they were abused). Parents who fall into this pattern are capable, as you point out, of great restraint but even the most vigilant such person tends to act out in traumatizing ways at times when triggered. When there is little or no restraint and harmful child rearing practices that they experienced as children are transmitted down the line of progeny, we witness the phenomena of “The Cycle of Violence In Families (substitute your favorite word for Violence),” but it is generally unrecognized that these families are only the tip of the proverbial iceberg, and that vast numbers of families are influenced by this self perpetuating cycle of destructiveness down through the generations. A matter of particular sadness is that many survivors of inappropriate child rearing are attracted to the work arena of child protection and often act out their unresolved conflicts in their official capacities. And virtually all of this happens in the context of rigid denial. Bringing light to this area of darkness is a heroic task.

    A corollary of your observation is the pattern of asymmetrical development that occurs in the wake of trauma in childhood. People can progress in their physical and intellectual development but emotionally they remain the small child. My quip is that the prisons are filled with overgrown three year olds. Sometimes I ask people if they have ever lived with someone who was totally self centered, inconsistent in their affections, made messes all over the place and created a constant din. Always the positive respondents are referring to a male spouse, a frat brother or some other annoying adult relationship. Then I tell them I was actually talking about toddlers, bless their hearts.

    I will be following what you have to say.

    Herb Ruhs, MD

  16. Thank you for this great piece! I just came over from the 5th Carnival of Feminists at Zero at the Bone.

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  18. I just want to say that all of this is SO VERY TRUE!

    But, it is NOT something that we have to fall victim or abuser to over and over again!!

    There are many emotional techniques available that studies have shown to very effectively relieve these triggers. Of them the two that I practice myself and teach to parents in my parent coaching practice are Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) and Bio Energetic Synchronization Technique (BEST), and I also follow the approach and philosophy of Radical Forgiveness!!

    I have truly been healed myself and have noticed drastic changes in the way I parent and am able to respond to my children. I truly have not found the toddler stage to be as horribly difficult as it has always been described to me and I attribute this to all the years of emotional healing work I have done prior to becoming a parent and still everyday of my life! I have a 3 year old and one on the way right now and have truly enjoyed every minute of our life, even the tantrums as I truly feel I was able to parent and respond in a healthy, positive, respectful, and life nurturing way to my son. His communications skills at his age are out of sight and he is such a very happy and loving little boy!

    I just wanted to share that I fully and completely 100% agree with everything everyone has said, but wanted everyone to also know that it does not have to be a trap or a repetitive cycle.

    Peace and Blessings to you all,

    Leigh Anne

  19. There have been a number of times that something my toddler does to me causes me to think of the experience I call birthrape from when he was born. I’ve felt like my life is controlled by a little dictator lately, and those times where I feel like I’m being abused or violated trigger the previous traumatic birth experience. Its good to make that connection, because like others have said, one can consciously resist the cycle.

  20. Wow…I’m thinking so many things right now in response to this article. I haven’t found toddlerhood to be very hard and now I’m starting to wonder why.

    I don’t think that my daughter is that much more compliant than the average kid her age, so I don’t think that’s what made it easier. I have been very lucky in my life to have very little personal experience with violence of feeling powerless, though. I’ve certainly felt frustrated when Rachel didn’t want to cooperate, but I don’t think I’ve ever been triggered by it.

    Of course, I also had a terrible time when she was first born. Having a newborn and post-partum depression was so awful that I desperately wanted her to grow up and get to another stage. Somewhere around 6-8 months I started to really enjoy motherhood and it’s just gotten better and better as she’s gotten older. Perhaps my bad experience at the start made anything, no matter what it was like, seem good by comparison.

    Then again, I can’t help but wonder if I’ve been too permissive with Rachel. Have I sidestepped the worst of the toddler tantrums by giving in to her too much and not setting strong boundaries? I know I let her get away with a lot more than Daddy does…but actually, I have always gotten more tantrums and fights from her than he has.

    This gives me a lot to think about. Thanks.

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  24. Here I am, working at a shelter for survivors of interpersonal violence on New Year’s Eve (not because I’m just that altruistic; it’s one of the three jobs I’m trying to juggle so my little family can stay afloat in 2011), reading through your archives, and … this! I have been trying to navigate a lot of family-of-origin issues lately (suffice it to say, I had “insecure attachments” in my formative years) while raising my own, newly-four-year-old boy and his two-year-old sister. So, even though I’m a few months late to the party, your piece is incredibly timely for me. Thank you!

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  26. I hope that I’m not veering too far from the central topic, but reading this post reminded me of something that I witnessed with my mother before my brother was a toddler – when she was pregnant, in fact. What I’m remembering is her regular moaning about how FAAAAT she was. While it was true that she had put on some body fat, the greatest cause of her increased size was nothing but pregnancy, but she went on acting like it was some kind of horrible crime.

    I can’t really blame her for this, but it does call to mind another way that the kyriarchy makes motherhood that much harder – pregnant women see themselves as getting larger, and larger as getting fatter, and fatter as undesirable, causing enormous damage to their self-image both during and after pregnancy (as we all know their bodies don’t usually completely snap back – see “you look great for someone with three kids!”)

    I don’t know if that’s too off topic; it just had to do with the subject of babies screwing us up because of something completely unrelated to babies.

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