Welcome back to Adopted, Now What?
In this episode, Becky Walker talks about diffusing triggers. She provides suggestions on what you can do before, during and after you find yourself in a place where you are being triggered by the actions or words of your adopted child. She also explains what a trigger is and how you can determine that you are being triggered.
Listen to the Episode here:
Defusing Triggers- Pre And Post Trigger Practices
I always start my podcast with a moment of gratitude. Today, I’m very grateful for my voice, which allows me communicate with you about being an adoptive parent. Today, our subject is triggers. More specifically, it’s about diffusing triggers. These are suggestions of what to do before, during and after you find yourself in a place of being triggered by the actions or words of your adopted child.
Let’s start with what is a trigger. A trigger is something that happens when the human body experiences an emotional reaction to the occurrence of something else. There’s a stimulus and there’s a response. We all have been triggered by external events, including the words and actions of another person. The experience resulted in a particular feeling because one or more of our needs was not being met. Some triggers cause a pleasant response. For example, we smell freshly baked bread and our mouth starts to water. We can’t wait to taste the food. Perhaps our need for nourishment or maybe just the simple need for something pleasant is being met or calling to us in that moment. Other triggers cause a reaction that is not what we desire, such as the anger that we may feel when someone cuts us off in traffic when we’re driving.
When we are interacting with out adopted child, a trigger can come in the form of his actions or words. These triggering actions or statements can range from relatively insignificant items, such as rolling of eyes. How many of us have seen those? Or sticking out of a tongue, or maybe staring blankly when spoken to. To statements that are outrageous, such as a child shouting, “I hate you. You are stupid. You’re an idiot.” To an action like breaking something or throwing something or kicking a hole in a door.
Our ability to remain calm and in control of our reactions can vary greatly when we are triggered. The fight, flight or freeze response of our brain reacts immediately. Even the most even tempered person can struggle to remain calm if she gets triggered when tired, worried, running late, startled, any of those. When triggers have been occurring one after the other, patience can finally fly out the window and be replaced by frustration, aggravation and those other less than optimum feelings that are waiting to overwhelm us sometimes. Having the right words to say to ourselves and to our child can make all the difference in these moments.
It can be a huge challenge for a parent to continuously withstand the triggering actions and words of their child. When we are facing these onslaught, our breaking point can be reached very easily. Therefore, new tools and skills are needed to be learned by parents to give them the opportunity and the ability to communicate with compassion when triggered. There is a well-established technique that I’ve mentioned in other podcasts known as NVC or nonviolent communication. I use an alternative descriptor that also exists, which is compassionate communication. This technique has been used for over 50 years to deescalate tensions and facilitate peaceful solutions in some of the world’s highly volatile political situations and some very difficult situations. It focuses on a four-step model of communication.
The first step is observation. Observation of the words and/or actions of the individuals participating in the interaction. This observation is very significant. It’s important that we observe without interpreting or judging what is going on, if that’s possible. We want to observe what has actually happened and what has actually been said.
Step two then is the identification of feelings or feeling words that reflect the emotional state of the individuals participating in the interaction. First, we want to look internally. We want to identify what we are feeling in that moment. We want to see if we can identify what the other person, what our child is feeling in that moment. Sometimes, it is easier than others to know what we’re feeling. If we give ourselves self-empathy and look inside, we usually can know pretty quickly. But with our child, we may have to guess and then ask for confirmation. That’s okay because we can’t read their minds. While we may think that we know that they’re feeling, we may think they’re feeling angry when what they would really tell us is that they’re just feeling sad or frustrated in that moment.
The third step then is to provide empathy and identify the unmet needs, which of course will be the actual root of the conflict. The needs for both ourselves and for our child in that interaction. Again, we give ourselves self-empathy and we look inside and say, “I know I’m feeling, perhaps, frustrated because my need for cooperation or timeliness is not being met in this moment.” We guess, the same way that we do about the feeling, “Could it be that you are feeling frustrated because your need for choice is not being met in this moment?” That would be a really good place to start when our child says no to us. That’s usually an indication that there is a need for choice.
We’ve observed. We’ve identified feelings. We’ve given empathy for ourselves and our child and identified the needs that are active in that moment. The fourth step is to make a clear and present moment request to meet the needs of ourselves and our child. Then use that to guide ourselves to a reduction of the emotions in that moment. Hundreds of thousands of parents worldwide have found the use of this technique to be very effective in reducing the volatility of interactions with their children. A key part of the success of using the NVC technique or compassionate communication is communicating successfully at the trigger point of the conflict, right when it happens.
To get you started, I’m going to give you a sampling that you may find helpful when you are triggered by the actions or words of your adopted child or by anyone else for that matter. There’s nothing exclusive to using this with our adopted children. Certainly, we can use this technique in any relationship that we have. Here are some suggested phrases that you might use when you are triggered. One is, “Let me think about that.” When our child says something or makes a request or makes a demand, we can say, “Let me think about that.” Or, “That’s very interesting. You could be right.” Or, “I’m curious about the thing that you said. Could you tell me more?” Another suggestion is, “I’m struggling with my reaction to you calling me an idiot,” or whatever it was said or done. “I’m struggling with my reaction to you saying no. Let me get some clarity on what you were saying. I need to take a breath for a moment.” You might just say that internally if you need it, “I need to take a breath for a moment. I need to think. I need to observe.”
Or, “Let me see if I got what you’ve said so far.” Then you can reflect back what you heard using as many of the exact words as possible. It’s important to try to use exact words. Because when we reflect back something that’s said and we use different words, then we have the possibility that we will use interpretive words or something that don’t mean what our child was actually saying to us, or we risk introducing words that are judgmental about what was said. Another is, “Let me listen again so I can hear you more fully.” Or, “When I think about talking with you about this, I feel worried because I really would like it to go well. I wonder if we can talk about this in 10 minutes, or 30 minutes from now,” or whatever it is that we think would be a helpful timeframe. This last one is really important if we feel ourselves being very strongly triggered and we know that we need time to get to a place of calm where we can bring forth our compassionate response in a better way.
There are some pre-trigger practices, things to do as a preventative practice so you can have more success in responding in a compassionate way when triggered. One is to plan for this and over rehearse one or two of the phrases that I just gave you. You can do this silently in your head. The practicing can really help us be able to access those words and phrases when we are in a triggered moment. If possible, have a brief conversation in advance with your child about which choice she would prefer you make when you get triggered. For example, choosing to walk away or staying and communicating about your and her feelings and needs that are alive in the moment until the two of you reach connection. Of course, having this conversation and planning for what you all would prefer to do in those instances should be done when you’re not in a triggered moment.
What to do when we’re triggered? First, breathe in and out consciously and slowly until we can respond without reacting. Say one of the phrases that has been rehearsed. This buys time to assist with remaining in or getting to a calm, nonreactive state. Be aware of something. Be aware that different triggers can stimulate different unmet needs. Therefore, even if you’ve agreed previously to a strategy to stay and communicate in triggered moments but you realize your reaction in a given instance is too severe to find a place of calm quickly enough, you may need to default to the last suggested phrase that I gave you and agree to have the conversation at a future moment. As a reminder, that phrase was, “When I think about talking with you about this, I feel worried because I really would like it to go well. I wonder if we can talk about this after dinner, or in 30 minutes, or when I finish doing the task that I’m doing right now.” It needs to be not too far in the future, but enough time to be able to get to a calm state.
As a mantra, you can silently chant to yourself when triggered. A good one is, “Feelings and needs. Feelings and needs.” We just say that silently inside of our head. It’s a good mantra in these situation because we want to get to those feelings and needs. We want to get to those because those are the clues to what’s really going on with that child. Those are the clues to why we’re being triggered. “What feeling and need has this action by my child brought up in me that has caused me to have a reaction? Feelings and needs. Feelings and needs.” We say this until we get to a place where we can ask ourselves, “What am I feeling and needing in this moment? What do I think little Susie is feeling and needing?” Then we can proceed with clarifying that information. Utilizing the feelings and needs that you have identified, then have a compassionate communication conversation with your child until you get to a place of connection.
There are some very important post-trigger practices. The first one is self-care. I say this over and over to the parents that I work with, “We must take care of ourselves.” It is in taking care of ourselves that we are in a much better position to take care of our adopted children. If possible, try not to do anything productive in the hour following a triggered situation. If you can, just get out and move, go for a walk. I recognize that some of you are going like, “That’s just great. Wouldn’t I love to have an hour free to calm down or to do something else every time that I get triggered? Are you kidding me? There aren’t hours enough in the day.”
I understand that. But if possible, especially in a really, really severe conflict situation where you’ve brought your compassion and understanding and your identification of the feelings and needs, it takes effort to do this. If you possibly can, at least do something to give yourself a break. Be aware that you might be re-triggered if you try to do something else immediately and it doesn’t go your way. You might find yourself in a calm state and then turn around and something just doesn’t go right and we’re triggered all over again.
I hope that this has been helpful. We all live in relationship. We’re made to live in relationship. The more that we are in relationship, the higher the likelihood that we’re going to have situations that cause us to react. Our adopted children often are in a position to say things and take actions that may trigger a reaction in us. Remember that they’re doing the best that they can with what they have to do it, and so are we.
I’m going to close today with a statement of gratitude. I am very grateful for the opportunity to have adopted my daughter and for all the lessons that that has taught me about how to communicate more effectively in all of my relationships. I’m grateful you are here today. I look forward to being with you next time. Thank you.
- Defusing Triggers: Adapted by Becky Walker 2016 (BeyondAdoptions.com) from various resources including : cnvc.org; Bill Stierle – BillStierle.com; Jean Morrison & Christine King – groktheworld.com
- NV and nonviolent communication are trademarks of The Center for Nonviolent Communication, Albuquerque, NM (cnvc.org)
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