I love the show This Is Us.
I was at my parent’s house and my mom didn’t even give me much of a choice but to watch one particular episode (not the pilot). After becoming surprisingly invested, I came home, put my son to bed, and started from the beginning. Jonathan came home late to a blubbering mess of a wife sitting in her sweatpants on the couch, sobbing into her tea, old mascara running down her face.
A scene in that first episode wrecked me. It triggered a response in my body and in my brain that I literally had no control over. The scene was of the character Randall as a just-born baby, lying in the crib at the hospital, screaming and crying – and no one was there to comfort him.
I lost it. For me, seeing that baby cry with no one responding was deeply personal. It reminded me what I lost. Not carrying my baby in my womb, not being with my son when he was just born. Kai was 5 months old when we brought him home, so all my body and brain thought in that moment was “That could have been my boy.” We really don’t know much about his time in the hospital.
Did he cry and no one came?
Did he get fed regularly or was he forgotten?
Was he treated different because of the situation?
Was his little body searching for the voice he heard for 9 months?
Have you ever said something to someone that you feel is completely harmless and then their response just throws you for a loop? Or maybe someone has said something to you or done something to you and you don’t even understand your own response? And you can’t figure out why it’s such a big deal?
Congratulations, you’ve just met a trigger.
We all have them. Our bodies and brains store memories, and certain words, touches, or images will send us right back to the moment of pain and elicit an internal response. One of my favorite examples is this scene from Despicable Me 2 when Gru’s daughters ask why he won’t go on a date.
That one simple question triggers an embarrassing memory that ended up shaping his long-term view of relationships.
During our adoption process, we went through an incredible training called “Empowered to Connect.” It was intense: both the physical and emotional homework we had to do. But it was worth it. One of the things continually stressed in that training is finding your personal triggers because your kids will have triggers of their own and – surprise – their triggers will trigger you.
At first, I thought this was a bit silly. In my prideful mind, I thought “I don’t have triggers. My childhood was great. I just need to educate myself on what my child’s triggers will be so I know how to handle them.” Oh, the naïveté. I was even called out by a professional about what my triggers could potentially be, and I still didn’t get it.
Until I brought home my son.
It just so happens that his constant need for physical touch was a total trigger for me. Didn’t realize it until I lost it one day after constant prodding, poking, climbing, touching and that trigger just took over. And then after the guilt wore off, the lightbulb came on. Ugh, she was right. Triggers can come from anywhere and anyone can have them.
I realized that – even at such a young age – my son had so many emotional triggers because of the loss and trauma he had already experienced. He had triggers based on physical stimuli that took him back to environments that he couldn’t consciously process. He had triggers based on touch, noises, images, smells – and he couldn’t tell me. It was his body memory speaking to him.
“We have to stop thinking we are fighting our kids and realize instead that we are fighting their history.”
As foster/adoptive parents, we have to realize that sometimes our kids are walking triggers for us, and we are walking triggers for them. Many times, insults are hurled, punches thrown, things we love are broken, and we feel like it’s aimed at us personally. I’ll never forget a day where it just seemed like my son woke up swinging. By 2 pm, I was almost DONE. Exhausted, I asked a simple question, and what unfolded was just heartbreaking. He was trying to process his story, before he became ours, and just didn’t know how to say it. Imagine if I had taken this out on him. It would have only reinforced that negative feeling he was trying to process.
Foster and adoptive moms, most of the time, we interpret so-called bad behaviors as personal attacks. And I know it is so hard not to take them that way. I went through a season where I believed the lie that my son just must not like me. Some of you probably feel that way. But it’s not true. Please don’t believe that lie.
Too often, we simply happen to be a painful reminder – the reminder of what was supposed to be with their first mom but never was. And, especially if you are a foster mom or your child spent time in an institution, you are a reminder of possible hurt, pain, and lack of protection by a mother figure in their life. In other words, it’s not about you. And we have to stop thinking we are fighting our kids and realize instead that we are fighting their history. And we’re also fighting our own history.
We have an opportunity here. We can wallow in our own loss. We can cling to false expectations that everything was going to be normal and perfect. We can pretend these issues don’t exist at all and that if we ignore them, they’ll just disappear. Or we can help our kids heal. We can listen. We can validate those very real, very big feelings, and be there for them with no judgement when they happen. We can help them process what they know and remember, and we can help them process missing pieces with the information we’ve been given. We can help them make sense of their story, but one very important thing has to happen before we can do that.
First, we have to deal with our own triggers, our own past hurts that are likely being triggered. You will always trigger each other’s issues if you don’t first deal with yours. It’s like how on an airplane, during the safety demonstration that no one listens to, they tell you to put your emergency oxygen mask on before you help anyone else with their mask. We have to heal our inner child before we can help them. We have to chase the why when we get triggered.
When we do the hard work of emotional healing, we can then see our kids with fresh, empathetic eyes. Their hurts may go deeper than we can ever know, so we can stop taking things as a personal attack, look past the behavior, and just see the need that needs to be met. We have the capacity to pull them closer instead of push them away. We have the capacity to connect deeper, to ask the right questions, to meet them where they are in that moment. We can help them understand themselves better and then deepen our bond and attachment. They just need someone to show them the way.
Whether adoption is part of your family or friendships or not, this applies to everyone. It happens in marriage, it happens in work relationships, in friendships, it can even happen in traffic or navigating the maze that is Ikea with your family (and if you can survive that you can literally do anything). We all live in the same broken world and we all have our triggers. Next time someone freaks out on you and it seems like a silly thing to freak out on you, ask yourself “were they triggered?” Give them some grace. Apologize and make sure everything is ok. The next time you are triggered, give yourself grace. Know that that is clearly something that needs to be dealt with, and put the time and energy in to explore it, release it, and move on. Apologize to who you freaked out on, and if you feel comfortable, tell them why. You’d be surprised how much healing can come from just speaking it out loud and bringing it to the light.
I encourage you, deal with your triggers. Dig deeper into the why and don’t let it steal your joy. Address wrong beliefs that may have been formed because of those experiences, and replace it with truth. And know that this is ongoing, it’s not going to happen overnight. It is a continual process to hope and healing, but one well worth it.