Episode 10 – Triggers in Parenting: When Our Past Comes Knocking with guest Dr. Robert T. Muller


Rebecca: This is the All Relationships Can Heal Podcast. My name is Rebecca Thompson Hitt and we are continuing our conversation today about how parenting is impacted by our own experiences of trauma. We’ll be sharing some stories about parents who have been doing their own healing work and what it looked like in their interactions with their kids.

Dr. Robert T Muller is the author of the book, Trauma and the Struggle to Open Up: From Avoidance to Recovery and Growth.  Because where there has been a trauma or something that is completely overwhelming to us, healing is critically important for us to help us come back into wholeness.  Robert Mueller, PhD, trained at Harvard, is on faculty at the University of Massachusetts and is currently at York University in Toronto. Dr. Muller is a fellow at the International Society of Trauma and Dissociation, or ISSTD, for his work on trauma treatment. His new book is Trauma and the Struggle to Open Up and his best seller Trauma and the Avoidant Client has been translated widely and received the ISSTD award for best work on trauma. As a lead investigator on several multi-site programs to treat interpersonal trauma, Dr. Mueller has lectured Internationally in Australia, UK, Europe, and USA and has been keynote speaker at mental health conferences in New Zealand and Canada. He founded an online magazine, Trauma and the Mental Health Report, which is now visited by over 100,000 per year. He has over 25 years in the field and practices in Toronto.

Now we’ll rejoin our conversation with Dr. Robert T. Muller about parenting and trauma.

Rebecca: I want to talk about parenting and trauma when especially when the parents have experienced trauma. And I think that there’s not a lot that’s understood about…. That it does impact, as I was sharing with you right before we started. I just had a call this morning and I had a dad on there who was recognizing that something that happened to him at five was still impacting him and it was impacting him in his relationships every day. And it was a huge revelation to him.

That at 55, this thing that happened to him 50 years ago was still there. We have this idea in our culture, just like you said six months later after her son died by suicide, we should be done, it’s over and it doesn’t work that way. So, can you talk a little bit about those things that show up for us when we’ve experienced trauma in our daily life, especially as a parent?

Dr. Robert Muller: So, there are many ways that people struggle with parenting after a history of trauma. Especially people don’t want to be repeating the trauma and they see that, and they’ve been through so much. They don’t want their child to go through what they went through. They know that they’ve suffered, and they want to do a better job than what they saw when they were kids. And so, that’s often a very important part of their identity. “I’m going to be a better parent, which is fantastic. And, I support that. The problem is when you’re working hard to be so different than your parents, working so hard, it makes it difficult to do many of the normal parenting tasks like discipline.

And one of the things I sometimes see with parents who’ve been through physical abuse is a great reluctance to discipline their children. It’s hard because you feel so guilty. It can be a good lesson, especially if it’s not done angrily. If it’s done in a very neutral and supportive way or other kinds of parenting discipline strategies are fine. But I think when people feel guilty about their kind of history and that part of them that has been through so much, they struggle with some of the tasks of parenting that are things we have to do.

We have to set limits with our children. We have to teach them the difference between right and wrong. We have to teach them good values, values that are not so good in our opinion, right? We have to convey those things. It’s part of parenting. So that’s something that I sometimes see with parents. As I mentioned, there’s a pattern around this parent who lost a child. In the face of the death of a child, people often struggle with this idea of, “I should be over it.” And there’s a lot of self-blame that goes with the death of the child. And so, people engage in self-blame when they’ve been through trauma when it comes time to parent.

One of the things that I notice with trauma survivors is that where things become a new struggle for them is at times of developmental shift. So, when they need to face the development of the new relationship or around the birth of the child or the child leaving home. These kinds of developmental shifts are often real challenges for people who have been through trauma. So, you know I talked about parenting, the birth of a child can be difficult for a parent. “Oh my gosh. I’ve been through trauma. Am I going to screw my child up?” is the word.

Or “my child is leaving home. It feels like my child is abandoning me. Even though I know my child is going to University, I’m so proud but it feels like my child’s abandoning me.” These feelings from the past come up at different times during developmental transitions when we’re faced with different tasks of parenting. Or my son is with his girlfriend and they came home late, and I know that they’re sexually active. I like her.  I love my son. This is an okay thing. I support it. But, why do I feel so rotten about my child being sexually active? Why do I feel so anxious about it? What is it raising in me who has been through certain sexual difficulties and abusive situations?” So, all these things can come back later. These are things we want to think about when we’re parenting when we have a trauma history.

Rebecca:  So, let’s talk about triggers. I think that that segues nicely because we have these things that just stick to us in a certain way. And so, let’s talk about it. What is a trigger? There’s a lot of conversation about trigger in the media right now and trigger warnings and so it’s almost co-opted at this point.

Dr. Robert Muller: I know. As a trauma therapist and as a writer on the topic, sometimes when things are overused, I worry that their meaning gets distilled. And that’s true for anything in mental health. So often something becomes a popular topic, the meaning can get distilled. So, triggers, what’s the idea? It’s a very important theme and it’s very central to trauma work. The thing with triggers is we want to help people be able to pay attention to those things that get them into trouble. So, when we’ve been through trauma, certain things can come up in our lives that get us into trouble. Somebody being aggressive with us.

Or if we work in customer service and somebody is aggressive and says, “Hey, this thing’s not working,” it feels like someone yelling at us and that can trigger us if we struggle with conflict, if that’s a hot-button issue for us. Someone getting mad at us presses our buttons and so many other issues. There are so many things. Parents can get triggered by their children. And I know where we want to talk a lot about parenting here. Parents can get triggered by their children. And I’ve given a few examples of that; when their child misbehaves and then they need to discipline the child and whatnot. Parents can get triggered and all kinds of feelings can come up. Feelings of shame, feelings of guilt and feelings of fear.

All those things can come up and those can be triggers in parenting. When I think about parents and feeling triggered, there’s a case in mind that particularly illustrates this nicely of a woman I worked with where there was a lot of domestic violence. And she had a son who just adored her. She was a good mom. She had been through hell and back with domestic violence. I won’t even go into it, but it was just really something that she had been through. She eventually, it took her a few years, but she did eventually leave the relationship, thank goodness. And she had a kid, about eight or nine years old who just adored her, and she was a good mom.

It made total sense to me that her son would adore her. But what he wanted to do all the time was give her these huge hugs. Hugs particularly around the neck. He would squeeze her tight. Well when this woman was being abused, she was often choked. And a hug around the neck from her child who adored her and was hugging her because he loved her so much, was terrifying.

So, this was a huge trigger. And she would say to me, “I feel so guilty, Dr. Muller. What’s wrong with me? My son…” Let’s call him Jeremy. “Jeremy just loves me. What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I let him hug me?” And I say to her, “Listen. You’re showing him that you love him. He shows you he loves you. If you’re getting triggered, let’s not fight it, let’s not judge. You’re being triggered by his hugs. We need to just recognize it. Let’s work with it. What can we do when you’re triggered?” And so, we worked out something and it was very simple. All she needed to do was say to him, “Jeremy, mommy likes it around her tummy.” “Mommy likes hugs around her tummy.”

This is not rocket science. This wasn’t a complicated intervention. But what it took was her willingness to allow herself to…. She worried was rejecting her child, to redirect her child. And not feel like it’s rejection but it’s a redirection. A hug around the tummy and Jeremy learned that mommy gets scared when she gets hugged around the neck and that’s okay for Jeremy to know that because it’s true. Mommy does get scared when he hugs her around the neck. And he didn’t want to scare her. And so, this was okay. This was an all right thing. And at least it worked around redirecting it. It wasn’t a complicated intervention, but what it requires is for recognition that yes, she was being triggered.

Yes. It’s okay to recognize that sometimes as a parent you get triggered. And yes, it’s okay to learn to make changes in how you deal with your child to accommodate the fact that sometimes you get triggered and that’s okay. So, that was the workaround parenting and trauma that helped her. And I thought she was amazing and how she dealt with it to tell you the truth. She was quite incredible, this woman.

Rebecca:  So, I’m just sitting with what happens when a parent is triggered. Like this mom, you’re describing and she’s getting hugged around the neck and that’s not working for her. But when a parent doesn’t say something, because I want to go back to this idea of why it’s important to name these things or to even recognize it for ourselves.

Dr. Robert Muller: Well, she didn’t name it for a while. She couldn’t recognize it and she was holding it in and secretly feeling terrified. But saying one thing and feeling something else. So, she was sort saying, “Yeah, whatever” so I’m trying to be nice, but of course her child doesn’t know what’s going on. She’s feeling terrified and it’s awful and she just feels horrible. So, we had to sit with the idea that first, we need to recognize our triggers. We all get triggered by something.

Rebecca:  We all do.

Dr. Robert Muller: We all get triggered by something. And we all misbehave when those things happen. Not in a naughty way. I’m just saying we all do things that we don’t feel great about we all react in ways that we don’t like and we’re not the best versions of ourselves. And so, we need to just recognize what those triggers are. That’s the work. And getting ourselves space to recognize that we do get triggered and it’s okay and not judge ourselves for that. And then we can recognize that, and we have a therapist who can work with us around that, then we can start making some changes and saying, “Okay. Well, what can I do differently? Well, alright. Let’s look at this.”

Rebecca:  And sometimes like you said, it is a small shift. I think that we make it out to be this huge thing as you were describing with this mom. All these layers of things and what’s he going to think, and I don’t even know what’s going on with me. I’m so overwhelmed when this happens. But recognizing that all she needed to do in this instance was just redirect him.

Dr. Robert Muller: And this is a smart woman. The only reason she didn’t even recognize it is because she was being triggered. When we’re completely flooded with emotion, we can’t think, and we know this from research. The brain reacts this way when the affect is too high. We are not able to make quick decisions and we’re not able to sit with our thoughts. We’re not able to think clearly. And so that’s what was going on with her.

Rebecca:  So, what I hear you say is that it’s normal for parents to have these things that happen that trigger us where we’re overwhelmed, where we don’t respond the way we want and that we can work through it and come up with something that works for everybody.

Dr. Robert Muller: Yeah. All parents get overwhelmed. All parents get triggered by something and the trick is to recognize our history, our past, and what our own Achilles heels are.

Rebecca:  And some kids have a knack for just going right in on those spots over and over.

Dr. Robert Muller: Yeah. Well, that’s part of the job of being a kid, right? Part of being a kid is testing the limits. Part of being a kid is trying to have control over your own life and pushing back and we want our kids to learn that. Nobody wants their kids to grow up a hundred percent compliant. What kind of adult is successful if they’re a hundred percent compliant? We have to be able to have a voice. We have to be able to learn assertiveness skills. We have to be able to learn to disagree with people. Childhood is the testing ground for all of that. So, as parents, we want to give space for our children to do that and yet balance that with instilling good values in them and having them learn the difference between right and wrong. And, so it’s a challenge as a parent being able to find that balance, right?

Rebecca:  Yeah. I think it touches on this idea. As we find these places where we have these triggers as a parent and we start understanding our history, we start understanding what’s happening and then we can start to shift the way we react or respond to those triggers, those things in us. I think that’s part of healing. We think we’re healing, this moment and other moments at the same time. So, I want to talk about healing and what you think are the essential ingredients in healing.

Dr. Robert Muller: Let me get back to healing in a second, but I just want to say something. You talked about, what was it that you said about parenting recognizing things in ourselves. I think was something that… I wanted to point something out and that is that one metaphor that’s helpful in therapy is this idea of we all have different parts of self. We have different parts of ourselves. One thing that’s very difficult for people who’ve been through trauma is recognizing that there are parts of ourselves that we don’t like and that we judge very harshly.

And so, very often women who have been through rape will blame themselves and will say “why didn’t I stand up for myself?” And of course, if they have other people saying that as well, that makes it all the worse. But even if they have people who are supportive and who say, “Hey listen, this guy was overpowering you. There was nothing that you did wrong.” Even then, I find in therapy many people blame themselves. What I’ve noticed is that part of the reason that sometimes people blame themselves is because, if we use this parts-of-self metaphor, we wish that we could have harnessed that part of ourselves that can say “no”, that can be assertive and we imagine even if it’s not true, we have this fantasy that I somehow could have overpowered this person who was twice as strong as I am, even if that’s totally untrue.

Survivors often imagine, and part of that I think comes from the wish, a very healthy wish to have a voice. We all want to have a voice. And when we find our voice has been squelched, when we find that we haven’t stood up for ourselves, we feel guilty and we feel that we have betrayed a part of ourselves. And so, this idea of parts-of-self is a very important thing when we think of healing. We need to start to accept that there are parts of ourselves that aren’t necessarily perfect. And so, even if we imagine in some fantasy way that I would have stood up to this person who was twice as strong as me, which of course you wouldn’t have been able to because they were twice as strong and maybe they had a weapon, you still have to forgive this part of yourself that says,” I wish I had a voice.”

Sometimes our voice is silenced and of course, we need to fight against social forces that silence our voices. But we also need to forgive ourselves when we blame ourselves for our voices being silenced. Sometimes there are things that we can’t do about these events and we need to be forgiving of ourselves for that. And this parts-of-self metaphor is something I find is helpful in healing and I wanted to bring that up because I think it’s a helpful way of thinking about why we sometimes feel struggles in ourselves. There’s a part of me that feels this way, but there’s a part of me that feels that way. We can feel very differently about the same thing. I wanted to bring that up.

Rebecca:  And it makes me think of, you used the example of rape but I’m thinking of families I’ve worked with where the silencing happened just in the day-to-day parenting of how they were parented and they’re still struggling with the same thing as an adult and finding their voice. And it’s the same theme that runs. It’s the same idea.

Dr. Robert Muller: Exactly. It doesn’t have to be anything as severe as rape. Certainly, it happens in rape and it happens in much more everyday examples as well. Absolutely. People who grew up with psychological or emotional traumas, they can have the same consequences. And being constantly silenced and told, “You don’t know what you’re talking about,” or “What you’re saying is silly or stupid,” or that kind of thing and constantly being told that there’s no space for your opinion. That kind of invalidation can have the same kinds of consequences on people’s parenting and their everyday lives and self-esteem.

Rebecca:  I think it’s important that we name that because I think we have, at least with the parents who come to me, there is this “I want to heal this” and it isn’t always but sometimes it is. Sometimes it is the big, capital T trauma. It’s obvious. This person died. This person abandoned me. This person, whatever. There’s interpersonal trauma. But many times, it’s not and just as impactful.

Dr. Robert Muller: Yeah. There’s research on this. Chronic invalidation can have as significant an effect on people’s functioning as any of the abuse things that we’ve been talking about. And those can be examples of chronic emotional dismissing somebody. Gaslighting can have severe consequences. People who have been chronically gaslighted in their families are in their relationships, which can have severe consequences.

Rebecca:  Can you define gaslighting for the people who maybe aren’t familiar with that term?

Dr. Robert Muller: Yeah, essentially telling people that their experiences are wrong and that they’re crazy and that they think something happened but that thing didn’t happen and their reaction even if you admit that that thing happened, you say, “Well, it wasn’t a big deal,” or you’re telling people what to feel and how to experience something and shutting them down, essentially.

Rebecca:  All right. Thank you. I know that people are listening who are like “Wait, back up. Gaslighting.” So, I appreciate that. I’m Rebecca Thompson Hitt and this is the All Relationships Can Heal Podcast. We’ve been speaking with our guest, Dr. Robert T Muller author of Trauma and the Struggle to Open Up. We’ll be back again tomorrow to continue our conversation about what healing looks like for parents, children, and families.


  • Rebecca Thompson Hitt

    Rebecca is the founder of The Consciously Parenting Project, LLC, and author of 3 books (Consciously Parenting: What it really Takes to Raise Emotionally Healthy Families, Creating Connection: Essential Tools for Growing Families through Conception, Birth and Beyond, and Nurturing Connection: What Parents Need to Know about Emotional Expression and Bonding), numerous classes and recordings, and the former co-host of a radio show, True North Parents.

Rebecca Thompson Hitt

Rebecca is the founder of The Consciously Parenting Project, LLC, and author of 3 books (Consciously Parenting: What it really Takes to Raise Emotionally Healthy Families, Creating Connection: Essential Tools for Growing Families through Conception, Birth and Beyond, and Nurturing Connection: What Parents Need to Know about Emotional Expression and Bonding), numerous classes and recordings, and the former co-host of a radio show, True North Parents.

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