Parenting with PTSD — When Your Children Trigger You

As promised, I have spent a lot of time thinking about being triggered, as a parent. When I posed the question (on our Facebook page) about whether or not other moms are triggered when they sense similarities between their child and his/her abusive father, I could not believe the tremendous response! Right away, I knew I had to do some research. It makes sense that mothers who have been traumatized by an abusive husband would struggle, as they look into the eyes of the child who has . . . his eyes. However, I don’t believe many former targets of abuse are warned of that phenomenon. And they certainly are not equipped to cope with suffering PTSD and raising their children all at once.

Survivors process things differently. So many normal situations, in life, become venues of panic, fear and intensity for a person suffering with PTSD. My ex husband used to come home and “dump” (for lack of a better term) on me, after work or seminary, every single day. He would fill me with insecurity, as he wondered aloud if he would be able to keep his job or we would be able to make ends meet. He would tell me things that kept me on edge and fearful. When he was a pastor, he would tell me all the bad things people were saying about me (Megan) and how I seemed to be failing, as a pastor’s wife (I found out, years later, that none of this was true). He kept me isolated in a miserable existence and left alone to question myself (and our place) in this awful, awful world that he created.

As a result of years of these kinds of repeated experiences with my ex husband, when my children were smaller and would come home from school and tell me about their day, I was filled with panic. It was disproportionate to what was happening. But, my heart would race as I would listen and my voice would get high-pitched and I would be filled with terror (I am sure that my response was very strange to my children). I was, somehow, relating what my ex husband would do to me with the normal, every day child-talks about school days. It did not make sense. But, triggers rarely do.

It is important to insert a caveat, at this point. Sometimes, your child really does emulate abusive behavior. If this happens, it needs to be pointed out and dealt with in a great big way. Children do not get to display abusive behavior. Help them to wrestle through it and remind them that they can break cycles, as well. The truth is, your children will remind you of their biological father. But, that does not mean they are going to grow up to be abusers. They have a chance, because of you, mama. You are fighting the good fight of helping your children turn to Christ and become amazing and responsible people. They do not have to be like your ex husband.

The thing about triggers is that they seem uncontrollable, at the time. Hindsight is always fabulous. But, the reason triggers are called “triggers” is that there is a knee-jerk and helpless reaction that occurs — and quickly. I believe, however, there are ways to feel a bit less helpless and a bit more controlled, when it comes to triggers. I want this for you! Understanding what triggers are and why they occur has allowed me to parent in a break-the-cycle fashion. It has allowed me to use the triggers to assist in my recovery, and no longer hinder it. Here are my findings (as modified from author Elizabeth Corey):

  1. We need to understand the triggers as they are happening. It is alright if it is mid-crazy. Stop. Take a moment and back away. Do not be frustrated if it takes several times of stopping, mid-melt-down, until things “click”. It is also OK for you to have the melt-down and realize what happened later. Each time you connect the dots, you are actually creating new neural pathways in your mind to begin the process of changing your thinking. If you need to explain and apologize to your child, do so. I believe it is always valuable for a child to see his or her parent taking responsibility and revealing the intent to change.
  2. We must work to stay in the present. A very large part of being able to cope, with PTSD, is mastering the art of staying grounded. Triggers have to do with the past and not the present. In the moment, stop and look around. What is happening, this very second? Where am I? Look around you and begin naming what you see. Feel the ground beneath your feet. Touch your face. Find yourself in the here and now and remember that what is happening, right this second, is not what happened years ago when you were being abused. Take deep breaths. And repeat your “anchor thoughts” to yourself. It is OK to walk away, get yourself grounded, and then return to the child to work things out. Your child will respect your desire to control yourself. Remember this always: Your child is not your abuser. Your child needs mama to love him/her. It is your calling.
  3. We must take steps to understand our reactions. This is the tough stuff. If you have found yourself panicking and struggling and triggered, take some time to try to understand where the trigger response came from. Keep a journal and write these things down. Go to therapy. Figure it out. Challenge your own thinking. For me, I can say that what my ex husband did to me was wrong . . . but my children talking about their day is perfectly normal and is not wrong. I love what Elizabeth Corey writes on her website (

This awareness work is hard.  There will be painful emotions to be processed. (I recommend a therapeutic relationship to help with the coping.)  There will be physical reactions, too.  It takes a level of commitment that rivals our commitment to our children.  But that is just the point.  It is the commitment to our children, to bringing them up in a different world with different beliefs that motivates us to do this work.

It is so important for us to crush our Goliath’s so our children do not have to. This is hard work. I know this. It seems to take every ounce of energy to raise our children and then we are expected to deal with our own emotional trauma, as well. But, I do believe it can be done. It will be a difficult balance. I know you don’t have time, mama. I know that you are just trying to make ends meet. But, I also know that you can take snippets, here and there, to observe your feelings, emotions and reactions until things get better and you can obtain more therapeutic help. My children were worth it for me to go to EMDR (one of the many ways therapists can aid PTSD-sufferers) to help heal my PTSD and learn skills to cope. And you and your children are worth it, as well. I would welcome more ideas and thoughts about this topic, as I am just now exploring it, myself. For now, please click here for a great resource page recommended by “Trigger Points Anthology”.





5 Replies to “Parenting with PTSD — When Your Children Trigger You”

  1. What an insightful article. I wish I had read it 6 years ago when I was leaving my abuser and parenting my 16 year son! I would panic when my son was going through stuff, but eventually the Lord taught me to just listen to him and have faith that he would be okay. Several years ago EMDR changed my life completely. I am so grateful that I am free from PTSD and have a wonderfully close relationship with my son. It is possible to get to freedom and peace, and the road is tough. But so are we!

  2. At times, in seasons of intense, continuous triggering, it helps me to cover myself up (including my head, most importantly) with a beautiful blanket or quilt. With my eyes peeking open, I look at and concentrate on the beauty of the print that surrounds me. I guess it’s a sensory shield, with the advantage of limited and precise visual stimulation. My input is what I let it be. Within a comparatively short time, I can think about ONE of the triggers that has been assailing me. When it’s a circus of a multitude, it helps to do one!

    Thanks for the article! This situation is real!

  3. Oh I needed these words on this specific topic! I relate to so so much of this as well as the type of abuse from my ex.

  4. I’m wondering if I may be a trigger to my sons :-/ My 13 & 15yo went to private school for 1 yr and dad took them every day in a stealthily silent car – with the effect it has had on me as well of “Why is he so silent with me? What did I do? Does he like me? Is he mad at me? I must have done something but I don’t know what?” This and other passive/aggressive abusive things has left my sons un-trusting (typical) of many people especially men, and non-communicative for the most part. I’m wondering if over the last 7+yrs as I was the “target in the bubble” as Natalie @EmotionalAbuseSurvivor describes and I hit the point of some abusive behavior too in desperation to try and change him or wake him up, and the reeling stressful effect of my his behavior, I’m sure created some damage as well and now may be the trigger to them.
    My one son is p/a and can be manipulative of me more than the average 15yo. I’ve started reading about manipulative behavior, but I’m also wondering if I’m sometimes a trigger with my response that shuts them down. When I think that may be the case I apologize and ask forgiveness yet it’s extremely difficult to get them to talk….open up…even when given permission to yell, scream, be mad – at least that’s emotion we can process and work through. Yet their quietness can be frustrating (I don’t show that, I just let them know I’m here if they want to talk). I’m afraid they’re bottling it up and some day it’ll come spilling all over like nuclear waste. I hope this makes sense.
    Is there a way to help them feel “safer” around me and open up a bit?
    How do I know if I am their trigger?

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