Why do my parents trigger me?
It’s not uncommon for many people to feel “triggered” by their parents’ words or actions. A trigger refers to something that causes a strong emotional reaction or brings back difficult memories or feelings from the past. When it comes to parents, there are a few common reasons why they may inadvertently trigger their children.
One of the most common triggers from parents is feeling constantly criticized. This can make someone feel inadequate, defensive, and emotional.
For example, parents may frequently:
- Nitpick minor flaws
- Express disappointment in achievements
- Compare negatively to others
- Place unrealistic expectations
If this sounds familiar, know that you’re not alone. Many people have parents who struggle with showing approval and giving praise. As a result, some only notice their child when they’ve made a mistake or fall short of high standards. This dynamic can undermine self-esteem and evoke deep-rooted feelings of never being good enough.
Lack of Validation
Similarly, parents can trigger children by failing to validate their thoughts and feelings. Some parents may dismiss, mock, or reject how their child feels. If emotions weren’t handled sensitively growing up, it can be very triggering in adulthood to have parents invalidate emotional experiences.
For instance, they may:
- Tell you “it’s not a big deal”
- Judge emotions as silly or irrational
- Minimize problems that are important to you
When parents don’t make space for difficult feelings, children learn not to trust their own experience. They start second-guessing if they have a right to feel hurt or angry at their parents’ actions. This chronic self-doubt and tendency to bury feelings commonly lingers into adulthood until it gets triggered.
Lack of Boundaries
Parents can also be triggering if they don’t respect appropriate boundaries. This means they intrude on personal topics, expect to be overly involved in their child’s matters, or feel entitled to cross lines due to the parent/child role.
For example, they may:
- Pry for private information
- Give unsolicited advice
- Attempt to control decisions
- Display jealousy/competitiveness
- Make things about them
If parent-child boundaries weren’t well-established early on, their attempts to control or enmesh can be very activating. It brings up feelings of invasion, anger, and losing your sense of autonomy when trying to psychologically separate.
While parents often trigger children unconsciously, understanding where it comes from and establishing new boundaries can help improve the relationship.
One major reason parents trigger children is due to struggles with perfectionism and self-worth. Oftentimes, criticism, lack of validation, high expectations, and controlling behavior stem from parents trying to protect their own inner critic.
Unfortunately, putting pressure on kids to perform and surrounding them with constant evaluation rather than unconditional support often perpetuates those same patterns. Some parents subconsciously parent the way they were raised because it’s familiar and because their own self-acceptance depends on it.
If they struggled feeling good enough for their parents’ standards growing up, they now depend on external validation through things like their children’s accomplishments. By making parenthood an opportunity to “get it right” this time and raise “perfect” children, they project their inner critic onto their child. This is why any perceived failure or rejection by the child ends up triggering parents’ own insecurities.
Lack of Self-Awareness
Parents also often get triggered due to lack of self-awareness around their own wounds and defense mechanisms. If they haven’t done their own work in understanding how their childhood impacts their personality and parenting choices, raw emotions will continue spilling out and affecting the child.
For instance, if a parent grew up fearing emotional needs and always having to take care of themselves, they may lash out when a child expresses needs that could feel “burdensome.” Or if affection wasn’t freely given in their household they may have trouble expressing warmth, leaving the child perpetually longing for unconditional love.
When parents trigger old wounds, it’s helpful to implement some coping strategies as you navigate the relationship:
Have an honest yet compassionate dialogue about behaviors that tend to activate you and why. See if compromises can be made.
Take space when needed and learn to say “no” to things that don’t work for you anymore. You have a right to decide what treatment you will and won’t accept.
Notice when you’re getting emotionally hooked and use calming skills to avoid lashing out or shutting down. These reactions often fuel further triggering.
Separate Past From Present
Remember that your parents’ behaviors often say more about their own issues than about you. What they could and couldn’t give had to do with them, not your worthiness.
Give Up Control
Accept that you can’t change your parents or how they interact with you at times. But you can control whether you continue exposing yourself to triggering situations.
Make sure to meet your needs for validation, listening, sensitivity, boundaries, imperfection etc., even if parents at times fail to provide these things.
Having an outside support system to help overcome childhood conditioning, build self-esteem, and navigate triggering relationships can be invaluable.
When Triggers Reveal Unmet Needs
Ultimately, understanding your core emotional needs that aren’t being met can reduce reactivity and help you take responsibility for getting them fulfilled elsewhere.
Common unmet needs that parents can trigger include:
The need to feel in control over your life, like you have a say in choices and can make decisions that reflect your values.
The need to feel capable and effective when taking on tasks or life in general. Having skills be nurtured.
The need to feel connected in close relationships. To be seen, accepted, supported, and able to rely on others during difficult times.
The need to value yourself, feel secure and confident, accept imperfections, and have a solid sense of identity not tied to others’ approval.
The need to grow into your full potential, discover your authentic talents/purpose, and feel fulfilled by expressing your uniqueness.
When these core needs aren’t met (often starting in childhood), there is a sense of inner emptiness and anxiety. As a result, situations where parents criticize, minimize, control, or fail to attune feel destabilizing because it taps into those unresolved wounds and threatening survival needs.
Reactivity happens because parents’ behaviors mimic old childhood patterns of failing to get needs sufficiently met in the past. By identifying your triggers, establishing boundaries, and learning to meet your own emotional needs, you reduce vulnerability to getting activated.
You gain the ability to act from a more grounded, settled place inside rather than unconsciously defending your inner child’s unmet needs. This helps you manage relationships with even triggering people in a healthier way.