Current news stories have included a lot on mental health, emotional and physical abuse, and then the culmination of a homicide on the heels of domestic violence concerns. The news this weekend, about the missing young lady, Gabby Petito, and subsequent discovery of her remains has been the talk on all the social media platforms as well as television reports. Perhaps you are one of the many people who are left feeling raw, emotional, or even triggered by these stories. You are not alone. In the midst of the emotional toll this may take on you, you still need to tend to your normal parenting tasks. You may be left wondering…How does one parent while triggered? I’d like to offer 5 ideas to help you manage your stress and emotions when you face situations that leave you feeling triggered and raw, but you still need to carry on as a healthy parent.
Sometimes, things I share on this blog are things I have learned through training, as I learned about psychology and counseling practices. Other times, I share information gained through my experiences as a counselor or information gained in research for writing projects or speaking events. And if I was going to take that route, I may give you some reasonable statistics that support the prevalence of domestic violence, and those too can be quite sobering. But today, I share with you on a more personal note. Over twenty-some years ago, I was in a violent relationship. I experienced the threats on my life, danger if I exposed the truth to even my own parents, and the reality that even speaking to the police, who were in my presence, could cause him to kill me. After all, he threatened that even when I WAS keeping his secret.
I follow a lot of true crime stories. And unfortunately, there are numerous cases of missing women and suspected domestic abuse or homicides. I watched the news of Gabby Petito over the course of these past several days. I watched extended footage of the reported incident. Unlike so many of the other crime stories, that have been heart wrenching to hear about, this one hit me in a very different way. I had followed the news stories, and I felt a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. Unfortunately, I predicted the outcome on day one in the news.
It wasn’t until watching the body cam video that I felt true chills and got emotional. You see, over twenty-some years ago, I was that naïve, trusting young lady who found myself in the middle of a very abusive relationship. And as I watched the video, I could so easily feel the emotions rising in me. When the male spoke, I could almost predict his responses. And as Gabby spoke, I could understand the many emotions she displayed, her desire to take the blame to protect him, and working so hard to keep from revealing the situation only making things worse. While I probably live nearly 95% of my life not thinking of those memories or emotions, I found myself in the narrow 5% where the crushing reality of those traumatic memories, horrific experiences, and death-defying fears overwhelmed me. Yes, even as a mental health professional. I was triggered.
Knowing the statistics of domestic abuse and how it impacts families, I know there are many who may be feeling the impact of these stories as well. And I’d like to offer some help today if you find yourself struggling. You might live with your trauma currently, maybe just in the forefront of your mind, or living with enough time or distance that it does not usually trip you up much. But maybe now, you find yourself feeling triggered and trying to parent well amid overwhelm. These five tips with the acronym AWARE are intended to help you find your way through these difficult moments when you need to keep “in step” with the needs of your family and child but also desperately need some space to feel and deal with all you are experiencing. The following ideas might help you do both in a healthy and effective way.
A –Acknowledge your trigger.
Sometimes triggers feel obvious. For example, in this case, the domestic violence and age of the young lady felt like a pretty clear comparison. So I knew it was a trigger. Other times, the apparent triggers might not be so clear. Maybe the trigger is another situation that creates a similar emotion or evoked a similar response or action. See if you might figure out what that might be. Remember, the nature of a trigger is that it can often take you by surprise, you don’t necessarily know how or when you might have the response, or it might not even feel like a direct correlation. And it is no sign of weakness that you get triggered. Your body is simply trying to protect you from something that is familiar to a prior threat.
You might ask yourself questions such as: What am I feeling? Have I felt this way before? Have I responded to something similar to this before? Am I feeling fear, shame, guilt, desperation, anxiety, etc?
W--Watch for ways you may be handling it.
Once you acknowledge your trigger, you will probably start noticing some other responses that follow. The most common responses tend to be fight, flight, or freeze. It is likely that your response at this time may mimic your response from a similar situation before, but not always. It could also be a sharp contrast to ways you dealt with it before. You may find that you are feeling hypervigilant (extra on-guard), short-fused with your kids, impatient with others, hopeless that you will ever get away from the feelings, pulling away from talking to others, wanting to hide away or disappear, overwhelmed or emotional, difficulty focusing or making decisions, changing your eating and/or sleeping habits, and trouble problem solving. These are just some of the common responses.
You might ask yourself questions like: What am I wanting to do? Do I feel numb or shut down? Am I having a hard time thinking or feeling? Am I doing something I wouldn’t normally do? Do I just wish to escape it all or hide? Am I withdrawing or pursuing?
A-- Accept the emotions that it brings up.
It is likely that emotions were what first set you off that you were triggered. You might have felt angry, fearful, panicked, anxious, irritable, irrational, sad, lonely, depressed, or numb, to name a few. After noting the feelings and watching how you are handling them, it is important to just give yourself some permission to feel what comes up for you. Remember, your body has stored these emotions from something you encountered before. And your brain doesn’t necessarily file things away as ‘that was then and this is now.’ It just feels familiar and quickly responds to protect. Our brains are designed to work to protect us. Give yourself a bit of time to feel what comes up. Try to grant yourself the same empathy and understanding that you would extend to someone else in this situation. Feelings are neither good nor bad. They just are. What you decide to do with the feeling determines if you handle it in a healthy or unhealthy way. When you acknowledge that, you can decide the healthy way you choose to handle that emotion. And that gives you power back.
This weekend, I found myself feeling some fear and sadness. I was a bit more edgy and irritable and even felt a little on-guard. I cried. I truly cried. I allowed myself to realize where those feelings came from. I didn’t feel the urge to fight them off, but rather, sit with it in a healthy way knowing I had tools that wouldn’t let me be overwhelmed with the feelings this time. My internal mantras were to remind myself, “I can control these feelings, and I won’t let them control me.” “I didn’t know what to do then, but I am a different person now.” “I may have felt helpless then, but I can help others now.”
You might ask yourself: How can I allow myself to feel what I need to feel? How can I find the time and space to feel these things despite my parenting tasks? What self-care will help me through this? What will I do when these feelings begin to overwhelm? What tools will help me feel grounded and calm again?
R—Reach out for support.
Everyone is a little different at this stage. What might be helpful for one might feel intrusive or uncomfortable to another. Decide what degree of support you might need to navigate these feelings. It may range from texting a friend that you are struggling a bit, setting up a coffee date with a friend to talk things through, talking with family who have supported you before, setting up an appointment with your counselor, or even reaching out to a domestic violence hotline or safehouse. The level of help or support you need does not indicate your strength or weakness. Reach out for the support that will be most helpful and effective for you. Fears, anxieties, panic, anger, overwhelm…it all tends to grow in the dark. Shine the light on what you are experiencing or feeling, and this can be your first and most powerful way to get some control back. And remember, support doesn’t have to be a one-time thing. You might even ask someone to follow up with you in a few days. That’s ok! That is part of you taking control of your emotions instead of letting them take control of you.
I found myself listening to a couple of the true crime shows I often watch. Hearing them discuss the realities of domestic violence and speaking out about the vast misunderstandings of this case were grounding. It was obvious that many in the chats didn’t grasp the complexities of domestic violence, and even why a victim would take the blame, protect the offender, or not “just leave.” To hear that someone, like the professional speaking on the show, was spreading the harsh truths of this complex issue and shedding light, I felt support. I was then able to discuss the videos with my husband and even encouraged him to watch the body cam video to see and better understand what my experiences may have looked like so many years ago. And even though I had factually shared some of the details of my past experience with my kids, they saw tears for the first time. They heard me speak of the horrible damage done when people, society, or even law enforcement perpetuate this violence by not being educated, and instead blaming and shaming the victims that so desperately need help and a way out of danger.
E--Express what is helpful for your family to know.
Undoubtedly, you will feel some pressure as you try to handle the usual parenting tasks at hand while also feeling the stress of being triggered. While you are experiencing this feeling, you might find that you have less tolerance, more irritability, hypervigilance (heightened sensory sensitivity), difficulty focusing or making decisions, heightened anxiety, feeling stuck or trapped, trouble expressing your thoughts, or feel a bit disorganized or capable. Give yourself a lot of grace and be willing to ask for help from a friend or family member to do some of the more practical tasks of parenting to ease your load. Based on the age of your children, and what you feel is appropriate for their level of maturity, you may express a bit about what you are feeling.
Younger children may feel relieved when you can express, “I’m having a tough time right now.” “I’m thinking about some things that feel stressful.” Or “My mind feels really busy with some different thoughts and feelings.” Then continue, “I am not upset at you. I might just need a little understanding. And things will be ok.” Or you might even communicate your specific needs, “I’m feeling a little sad, and I just need a little bit of time to think.” “I might need to take a little break while you watch a movie.” Or “Maybe you can help me by looking at books with your little brother while I lay here and rest.” You might even need to set up a sitter to get a day away! That’s ok.
With older children, it can open doors to communicate more and even use the situation as an opportunity to show healthy coping skills, communicating through hard feelings, and even educating on difficult topics. This weekend, I gave a little different explanation to my older kids than my younger kids. I also took the opportunity to talk about some common misperceptions about domestic violence, why domestic violence can be so hard to identify, and even more difficult for people to get away from. In this way, both my teenage daughter and son were able to listen, share some compassion, and hear a little bit about the dangers and realities of domestic violence in a relationship. I also encouraged them should someone ever share such things with them that they show their understanding and trust, rather than perpetuate the blaming and shaming, that so easily keeps people entangled in the mess.
Including my family in understanding my struggle allowed me to own my feelings, ask for their help, and receive their support. And it also gave us a bit of cushion as we navigated the week with some stress or anxiety in the air. A few extra hugs and some well-placed tears were just part of the course this week. Did I stay caught up on all my usual tasks? No, I didn't. And that's ok. We got through it.
Maybe you or someone you know is feeling a bit triggered by the recent events in the news. Perhaps you are someone who has experienced these things in your past or maybe you still are. I will be providing below, the number for you to call for help. Maybe you have someone in mind that you think might be going through this in their life. Don’t be afraid to ask about their safety. Educate yourself about domestic violence. It is more complex than people think. Let’s not perpetuate the lack of understanding or misperceptions that can easily lead people in the wrong direction or keep those who need help in a dangerous place.
Helpful information online with the National Domestic Violence Hotline
Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-SAFE or 1-800-799-7233
Or you can text “START” to 88788
It may be hard for some people to imagine that there are people that possess the evil to threaten another’s life, physically or mentally harm them, or perpetuate such fear that a person would feel unable to protect themselves, seek help, or leave. But hear me say, loud and clear. It is true. It is horrible. And it is real.
Please feel free to connect with me at firstname.lastname@example.org or at my website, ParentingWithPersonality.com if you need help finding support. You are not alone.