The ride home from middle school pick up was filled with angst, yelling, manipulating and arguing. My eleven-year-old daughter Quinn wants to sign up for tackle football but the rule in our house—one we held her older brother Zaiden to—is no tackle football until you turn twelve. Because of Zaiden’s May birthday, he was able to play as a sixth grader. The way her birthday falls, she will be in seventh grade before she is able to play.
Unwilling to accept this, Quinn emphasized how stupid and unfair my rules were. As she became more heated, her brother jumped in to defend me and squash her. Before the seven-minute trip was up, I was on the verge of raging out. Fits of rage have been customary for me in times when I feel overwhelmed, disrespected and unable to “make” my kids calm down or be rational.
It’s been a long process for me to accept that I truly am unable to “make” my kids (or anyone) do anything, or control others at all. There is only one person I can “make” do stuff and control: Me. In heated situations like the one I mentioned above, it takes everything in me to do just that.
The other thing I’m learning is to set, uphold and communicate healthy boundaries to maintain the integrity of my relationships and honor myself as a human with needs. Often times, we are triggered into reacting because there is a warning light going off internally about a need that’s gone or is going unmet. When we recognize our needs and set boundaries to honor them, we’re less likely to spiral out and behave in ways that aren’t congruent with our values.
During this intense conversation with Quinn, I started to wonder if I was being stupid or unfair. In this season of parenting, I feel like a fish out of water. Pre-teens are a hard breed and navigating this change in relating to them has felt difficult and scary. I started to feel fear that I was doing something wrong and that it was going to cost me in my relationship with her. This was swirling under the surface and many times, that same cocktail erupts into rage, disguising the more vulnerable feelings of fear and inadequacy.
After many failed attempts to not let rage grab the steering wheel, I’m learning that I don’t have to react to anyone else’s crazy with my own brand of it. In fact, reacting often leads me down a road of shame, guilt and regret.
Ironically, when I fail to act responsibly in an emotionally-charged situation, I ultimately become over-responsible in the end, because the focus is on my poor reaction rather than the bad behavior triggering the reaction in the first place.
Oftentimes, this looks like me yelling, threatening, stonewalling, withdrawing, manipulating and punishing because a reasonable boundary has been crossed. These are the tools I’m familiar with and know how to use. Unfortunately, these tools can only demolish. They’re detrimental to the connections I want to foster and cultivate.
To build the connections I want, I need new tools. Tools that remodel and refurbish, not destroy and demolish.
In the scenario I mentioned above, I used some new tools I had gathered from a podcast I listened to earlier in the week. This podcast called Coffee, Kids and Crazy by Brittany Serpell and Seth Dahl has been an amazing resource for me as I unravel dysfunctional systems and embrace a better way of life.
With those new tools in my belt, I told Quinn “Hey, I’m happy to talk to you about this when your voice sounds like mine.” She was yelling. I was speaking calmly. Essentially I was telling her how I’d like to be talked to and under what conditions I’d be willing to continue the conversation. That was a boundary.
As she continued to yell, I told her she could she’d need to spend some time reflecting in her bedroom until she was ready to respect my boundary. When she refused to go up to her room, I calmly said she could either walk up to her room until she was ready to stop behaving disrespectfully, or she could forfeit her next screen time day. This wasn’t an effort to manipulate, it was a lesson in choice and an upholding of the boundary I’d set that was going ignored—good choices have good consequences, bad choices have bad consequences. As it will be in life down the road for her, the choice was fully in her hands.
Too often, I want to save my kids from the consequences of their bad choices, so I violate my own boundaries to caretake and fix things for them—over-extending myself so they don’t experience discomfort. It’s only been in recent months I’ve recognized this pattern and made a solid effort to engage differently. I want to make good choices and build healthy relationships so I can give my kids blueprint for doing the same. I don’t want to always choose for them (control) or save them from the consequences of their bad choice (caretaking).
It’s a lot harder for me to choose a good response when I’m burnt out, frustrated and feeling overwhelmed. In those situations, I need to manage me. I need to find the need that went unmet and drove me to those big, messy feelings. I’ve heard it said, if it’s hysterical it’s historical. That means that when we are triggered, it’s usually connected to a bigger web of something from the past. Rarely is it simply the issue at face value causing the emotional flare-up. Somewhere down the line, there is a need that went unmet, a wound that went unhealed or a lie we are believing. This is where self-awareness and personal growth comes in.
In this regard, curiosity and compassion become incredible tools to add to our belt as we engage with ourselves and others. It might be an internal dialogue like this:
I wonder why Quinn’s disproval of my rules feels so irritating? I’m trying really hard to be a good parent and her disproval of this rule is causing me to question myself. I wonder why I feel so angry that she’s behaving like that? I think I might be afraid that in all my efforts to parent differently than what’s been modeled to me, I’m actually just making entitled and disrespectful brats out of my kids.
This is how curiosity works. Now I’m getting to the root of my feelings, not simply letting them control me.
After I ask some questions, I move into compassion. This is a tool I’ve learned from The Connected Life with Justin and Abi Stumvoll. It sounds like a lot of “of course” and “it makes sense” statements:
Of course I’m feeling overwhelmed and frustrated—Parenting pre-teens is hard and I’ve never done this before. Of course I’m feeling angry, it’s hard to be tired, do your very best and on the back end of that, be berated and questioned. It makes sense that I’m feeling big emotions right now, I was looking forward to picking up my kids after school, only to be yelled the entire ride home.
From this place of internal validation, I’m able to take a breath, pause and choose a response instead of react poorly out of my own pain and insecurity.
The reality of life is, there are so many things we don’t get to choose. We can’t choose how other people act, what they do, how they see us, what we’re born into, the things that happen to us, what people think about us or say about us, another person’s experience…the list goes on. In effort to accomplish these impossible tasks, we exhaust ourselves dwelling, worrying, fixating, caretaking and denying. In all this unfruitful effort, we empty ourselves of the energy we need to make the real, favorable changes we do have the power to make. In essence, we react to life’s circumstances rather than responding to the love available to us.
We go to a church called Real Living Ministries. The word “REAL” in the name is an acronym: Responding Entirely to the Affections of the Lord. How good is that? We were made in love, from love and for love. God has so much affection for us and oftentimes, what stops us from experiencing the reality of that affection, is our denial that we need it. We limp through life leaning on our own devices instead of leaning into Him.
The truth of God’s goodness and love towards us is the solid foundation on which we can build our lives. If we respond to that, rather than reacting to our pain and our triggers, we can build a life of peace, joy and love regardless of what others decide. We can only access the felt love of God by believing that because of His goodness, He has chosen to bestow it on us in full measure. It doesn’t hinge on anything I do or don’t do. I can’t trigger God into being rageful or hateful to me—He’s much better than that. He’s decided to love me and nothing can separate me from that. In order to experience and feel it, I must be believe it and open myself up to it.
This is where we can draw our validation and meet our emotional needs. This is where we derive the worth we need to set the boundaries we’d like to set. You only protect what you find valuable. If you don’t find yourself valuable, you’ll never take care of yourself in a healthy way. If you don’t take care of yourself, you’ll be running on empty and responding instead of reacting is next to impossible. Boundaries aren’t walls to keep people out, they’re hedges to protect the integrity of our relationships and to honor our human needs. Having needs is what it means to be human, and part of growth is learning to meet those needs in a healthy way, instead of despising ourselves for them. Otherwise, our unmet needs can lead us to destructive or dysfunctional behavior.
When we plug into God’s love and take care of ourselves appropriately, we can extend affectionate love and compassion to others from a place of authenticity.
After Quinn spent some time in her room, she came out and apologized for how she treated me. She told me she sometimes feels left out to dry when we go to Zaiden’s sporting events. She wishes she was competing, not sitting on the sidelines. Because I was able to set a boundary with her, validate what I was feeling and get to the root of it, she was able to do the same! What a WIN! Those moments make all the self-work and reflection worth it and spur me on as I continue to unravel my dysfunction and rebuild healthy relationships. Instead of reacting, I’m choosing to respond: Responding out of my core values, responding into my vision for myself and my future, responding to love rather than reacting to life.
How about you? Could you relate to anything I wrote here? I’d love to hear from you! Please comment below!
2 thoughts on “Learning Response-ability: Setting Boundaries to Respond in Love, not React to Triggers”
Wow!! Another nail on the head! I wish I would have had some of this wisdom when I was raising my family. Well done Brittany! I’m so very proud of you!
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Like always a great writing. The filling hit me hard! Love ya girl! . If you don’t find yourself valuable, you’ll never take care of yourself in a healthy way. If you don’t take care of yourself, you’ll be running on empty and responding instead of reacting is next to impossible.
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