4 Steps to Handling Triggers

Toddler freaks out because the cup is green.

Grumpy after-school 4th grader that no amount of snack can 'fix'.

Angsty pre-teen giving attitude because the cup is green.



Triggers. A universal part of parenting, triggers are unique to each of us and shift with phases of your child's development. I recently spoke with parent educator and social worker Barbara Olinger, who has worked with families for over 30 years in Santa Monica, California. Below is her wisdom combined with some improv parenting perspective. 

Step 1: Acknowledge and Accept


Triggers exist.

They are universal. Whether you call it a trigger or not, there are things that your kid (or anyone) does that sets you off into an 'adult tantrum'. What does that look and feel like? Depends on you. It might be eye rolling, tense body language, yelling, sighing heavily. It feels like emotional exhaustion, frustration or anger you can't control. 

Step 2: Gather Data


What most (easily) sets you off?

What are the behaviors that most easily frustrate or anger you? What are the times of day when you find yourself least resilient, least able to manage your own emotions? Start to observe like a scientist, noting when you feel like you need to vent, hit a pillow, or yell. 

Step 3: Manage


There are two forms of trigger management.

Long-term tools include general self-care: exercise, eat well, talk to friends.

The short-term tools are idiosynchratic. In-the-moment trigger management takes trial and error and being flexible with oneself. It's really hard to have flexible thinking when you're in the midst of intense emotion, so brainstorm a list of ideas when you're calm. Things like:

  • hit a pillow
  • take 3 deep breaths
  • leave the room for a moment
  • write down your feelings in a sentence or two
  • do 5 jumping jacks

Labeling and managing our emotions constructively is powerful. When you recognize what you're feeling when you're feeling it and select a constructive response, you model tools for your child's self-regulation.

And we're not perfect! Acknowledging when we're not at our best is as important as doing it the 'right way' the first time. Don't ever feel that it's too late. You can always discuss times you wish you had behaved differently. This is the stuff of being human. We all feel vulnerable admitting our imperfections, but in the work of raising our kids vulnerability and imperfection are essential to our relationships. 

Step 4: Find some Humor (when you can)

An angry-looking dance.

An angry-looking dance.

So let's say you notice yourself getting really frustrated with your child. First, hooray for noticing while it's happening! Then you think of a self-regulation behavior, like hitting a pillow. Give it a try! Doesn't work? Exaggerate it. Play it up and try to find a playful space with yourself.

Try kicking the pillow like a ninja.

Try talking to your anger: "Well, hello there frustration, I know you! Wanna dance?"

This is not about denying a negative emotion, but rather accepting, embracing, and engaging with it in a constructive way. And one constructive way to manage difficult emotions is to find the humor or lightness in them. Skeptical? Read about these Stanford University studies on the power of humor for re-framing a negative situation. 

Playfulness is not easy! Nor is it something we can expect to do all of the time. But if you can be playful with your difficult emotions 1 of every 20 times (1 out of every 20 tantrums, grumpy after-school pick-ups, angsty teenage moments) that is a valuable gift for you and your kids.