Abuse Effects

22 Emotional Triggers Stemming From Abusive Parents

Emotional Triggers | Hopeful Panda

Being able to identify what your emotional triggers are and understand why they’re triggering can help you manage your emotional responses, develop healthy coping skills, and begin healing.

Learning about my own emotional triggers helped me better understand how my body and emotional state were conditioned by the abuse I experienced. It helped me learn to better prepare to deal with them when a trigger arises.

This post covers some common emotional triggers that people who’ve experienced child abuse or abusive parents may have and why they may be triggering. I also included some personal examples.

Please note that emotional triggers can vary greatly from person to person. What may be triggering for someone else may not be triggering for you or in the same way.

Also, just because something isn’t on this list doesn’t mean it isn’t triggering.

Child abuse impacts everyone differently. Your emotions are valid! The emotional triggers in this post are simply ones you may be familiar with.

1. Certain smells or sounds

Certain smells or sounds that were present during the abuse can be strong emotional triggers.

They can be powerful because they have a direct connection to our brain’s limbic system. And this system is responsible for processing emotions and memory.

Both smells and sounds can bring back vivid memories or intense emotional reactions even when conscious recall of the specific memory is not readily available.

These sensory cues can profoundly impact our emotions and trigger memories because they bypass higher-level cognitive processing. They tap into the more primal, instinctive parts of our brains.

So smelling things like alcohol, smoke, or the perfume your abusive mother used to wear can trigger an emotional reaction before you can even process what happened.

Sounds like a certain tone of voice, door slamming, or even your father’s favorite song can also be triggering.

2. Yelling or raised voices

As mentioned before, sounds can be very strong emotional triggers.

For any normal person, hearing yelling or a raised voice already raises concerns and possibly increases heart rate. It often creates an atmosphere of fear and intimidation.

If you’ve experienced verbal or physical abuse, you’ll likely find yelling or raised voices triggering, even if it’s not coming from your parents.

Like me, your parents’ yelling and raised voices might’ve been followed by insults, threats, intimidation, or even physical harm. As a result, you’ve associated loud voices with danger.

A sudden increase in volume and intensity may trigger feelings of fear, anxiety, helplessness, hypervigilance, or a sense of impending danger.

3. Certain types of touch or physical contact

Certain types of touch or physical contact, even if intended innocently, can be triggering if you’ve experienced physical or sexual abuse.

For instance, being grabbed, hugged, touched at specific areas of the body, or any other form of physical contact might remind you of past abuse.

Being touched a certain way, especially if unexpected or forceful, may trigger feelings of hypervigilance, anxiety, fear, invasion, vulnerability, or panic.

The body can store trauma, and certain types of touch can activate body memories. And these memories can manifest as physical sensations or discomfort, even without conscious recall of the traumatic event.

One time, my father-in-law pretended he was about to push me into the pool - he grabbed my arms pretty aggressively and jokingly shoved me forward a little. I played it off because I didn't want to freak out and cause a scene, But it brought panic and a tightness to my chest that wasn't fun.

If I don't expect it or see him there, even my husband sometimes touching me could be triggering. And again, this is all instinctual.

I'm fine with hugs and I even like them with people I'm comfortable with. But I highly dislike being touched unexpectedly, especially by people I don't know, because it can cause panic whether I like it or not.

4. Specific locations or objects

Child abuse often occurs at specific locations or environments like your childhood home, a particular room, or certain public spaces.

These locations associated with your past abuse, where the abuse took place, or even places that are similar, can elicit a range of emotions.

Even environmental cues like certain sensory and contextual cues can be emotional triggers.

Sensory cues such as specific smells, sounds, or lighting at a place could remind you of the abuse. And contextual cues like certain furniture or objects that were present during the abuse can also bring up certain feelings.

5. Certain facial expressions, vocal tones, or body language

Most child abuse survivors may develop a heightened sensitivity to subtle facial expressions or microexpressions due to their need to anticipate their abusive parent’s mood or reactions.

So a look or voice of anger, aggression, intimidation, disappointment, or disapproval may remind you of your abusive parents. So can certain gestures or body language like a raised hand, a certain posture, or any sudden movements.

These nonverbal cues are oftentimes deeply ingrained in your memory. They can trigger a fear response when encountered in the present.

You may have learned to detect even slight changes in facial expressions, vocal tones, or body language as potential indicators of danger or escalating abuse.

And unfortunately, this sensitivity can persist even when you’re no longer experiencing abuse. You may be particularly attuned to these cues and easily triggered by them.

One time my husband was slightly upset at me. While we were talking about it, he raised his hand to throw away a piece of tissue.

My reflex was to brace myself, preparing to get hit because it's what I was used to growing up. Because if my parents were upset with me and they raise their hands, I'm getting hit.

But my husband would never hurt me. And I knew that. But my instinct at the moment was to prepare myself for physical abuse.

6. Exposure to aggression or violence

Being exposed to aggressive or violent people or media can be triggering for most people.

For you specifically, it may remind you of the abuse you endured.

It can also trigger a heightened state of hypervigilance as you instinctively prepare yourself for potential danger or harm. It can also exacerbate feelings of powerlessness and trigger emotional flashbacks.

Being around people who are aggressive, unstable, or unpredictable, even if it’s not directed toward you, can be scary and nerve-wracking because it reminds you of your abusive parent.

It may feel like they’ll somehow take their anger out on you – whether physically or verbally – even though you didn’t do anything.

7. Conflict or confrontation

Child abuse often involves physical or verbal aggression. So being faced with conflict or experiencing confrontation can remind you of past instances of conflict or confrontation that escalated into abuse.

Because most of us are so scared of conflict and its consequences, we end up as extreme people-pleasers. We end up excessively apologizing about any- and everything.

And if and when conflict does occur, it can bring up feelings of panic, fear, anxiety, hypervigilance, or a sense of danger. It may trigger an instinctive desire to avoid or escape the situation.

Child abuse can significantly impact your ability to assert yourself, set boundaries, and navigate conflict in a healthy manner.

You may struggle with expressing your needs, fearing potential negative outcomes or retribution.

8. Feeling overwhelmed, helpless, controlled, or trapped

Situations that make you feel overwhelmed, controlled, restricted, trapped, stuck, powerless, or helpless can be emotionally triggering.

These situations include financial troubles, impossible deadlines, micromanagement, crowded or chaotic places, and limited autonomy.

It may feel like you’re in an abusive situation again (which could be true) and trigger feelings of anxiety, helplessness, or frustration associated with past abuse. It can be retraumatizing.

During abuse, you likely had your choices, agency, and personal boundaries violated.

Feeling overwhelmed, helpless, controlled, dependent, or trapped can recreate the sense of powerlessness and loss of control you previously experienced.

Situations that make you feel like you’re incapable of taking care of yourself may reflect the helplessness and lack of independence you felt before. And these feelings can trigger emotional flashbacks, feeling as though you’re reliving the trauma.

These feelings can mirror the dynamics of past abuse, triggering emotional flashbacks and reinforcing learned helplessness.

9. Particular words or phrases

Some words or phrases are straight-up abusive. For instance, name-calling, shaming, threats, intimidation, insults, gaslighting, and general demeaning language are abuse.

So if someone is saying things to you such as “you’re stupid”, “you’re too sensitive”, or “no one will ever love you”, it’s totally normal to feel upset and attacked, even if you don’t have a history of abuse.

But what’s different for child abuse survivors though, is how certain words, even without the context of abuse, can be triggering because it’s associated with abuse.

While the words "sociopath", "egoist", "compulsive liar", "fat", and "ugly" aren't that triggering to me, seeing or hearing them, even when they're not directed towards me, still bring up memories of my mother's abuse.

She uses it so often on me that my brain can't help but associate those words with myself whenever I hear them even if I don't want to.

Another way words or phrases may be triggering is if they directly or indirectly reference the trauma you experienced. It can reactivate your memories and emotions associated with the abuse.

Other possible triggering words or phrases include profanity, explicit language, victim-blaming phrases, words related to your childhood or parents, and of course, any words or phrases that are unique to your experiences.

10. Feeling judged or criticized

Child abuse can deeply affect your sense of self-worth.

As child abuse survivors, we’re typically hypersensitive to criticism or perceived judgment from others due to the emotional harm inflicted upon us during abuse.

So someone judging or criticizing you can reinforce those negative beliefs. It can trigger a resurgence of the emotional pain you experienced before.

For example, hearing others express disappointment or disapproval towards you, especially if they’re authority figures, can make you feel guilty, anxious, or prepared for some form of punishment.

Of course, criticism like verbal attacks, belittlement, or demeaning comments will upset most people.

But people who’ve experienced child abuse may be hypersensitive to any form of criticism, even constructive ones. Or they may mistakenly perceive something as criticism or judgment when it isn’t.

Any form of criticism or judgment, even if only perceived, may trigger or intensify feelings of shame, worthlessness, or not being good enough.

11. Praise or compliments

The abuse you faced likely deeply impacted your self-esteem and self-image.

You likely have internalized negative beliefs about yourself as a result of the abuse. For instance, you may feel unworthy, undeserving, or inherently flawed.

So when receiving any type of praise or compliment, it may contradict your self-perception and create a sense of discomfort, disbelief, confusion, or cognitive dissonance.

As a result, you may find praise, compliments, or anything good said about you triggering.

Not only does praise feel unfamiliar, but it may even feel like the person saying it is lying to you or have some hidden agenda.

If your parents used compliments as a form of manipulation or control over you, then any positive attention on you now may evoke feelings of skepticism.

You may anticipate criticism after any positive comment you hear. Or you may feel pressured to perform, meet certain standards or expectations, or maintain a positive image.

12. Making a mistake

Abusive parents often “punish” (aka abuse) their children for making mistakes or for not doing something the “right” way.

As a result, you may be emotionally triggered whenever you make a mistake, even when your parent isn’t around to see it. That’s because you’ve associated mistakes with negative repercussions.

So even when you’re no longer in an abusive situation, making mistakes can make you feel like you will be punished. Or it triggers your harsh inner critic who’ll say a bunch of awful things to you for messing up.

One time, pretty early on in my care, my younger sister dropped my phone and the screen cracked right across. She stood there, frozen, and started crying from fear.

If that same thing happened with our mother, my sister would be berated to hell and probably never live it down. Of course, I didn't yell at her or even had a negative reaction. I said it was an accident.

She knew I wasn't my mother, but that didn't matter. Making that mistake was triggering for her because she was anticipating our abusive mother's response.

13. Crossed personal boundaries

When you have abusive parents, you likely lacked a lot of personal boundaries growing up.

So when your personal boundaries are disrespected or violated now as an adult, it can trigger feelings of unease, vulnerability, or anger. It may remind you of the boundary violations you experienced during abuse.

Also, it may evoke memories and feelings of betrayal, leading to the reactivation of trauma responses and a sense of distrust towards others.

It can also reinforce your feelings of being unheard, dismissed, or disrespected, like your feelings or boundaries don’t matter.

How your boundaries are crossed – like being touched, having your personal space invaded, or talking about something that makes you uncomfortable – are also emotional triggers you may have due to your experiences.

And boundaries serve as an aspect of self-worth and personal agency. So when your boundaries are crossed, it can feel like the person is undermining your sense of self. It can make you question your worth, rights, and ability to set and enforce boundaries.

Related: How to Set Healthy Boundaries After Childhood Abuse

14. Abandonment or rejection

One of the common effects of child abuse is a fear of abandonment.

Most people with abusive parents struggle with feeling loved. “If my parents loved me, they wouldn’t hurt me.”

Feeling abandoned or rejected by your parents is probably something you know all too well. As a result, whether real or perceived, experiencing any form of abandonment or rejection can be highly triggering.

It can reinforce your past experiences of being unloved or unwanted. It can remind you of the feeling of betrayal and intensify your emotional pain.

Abandonment and rejection can also reinforce your belief that you’re unlovable or any other negative thing your parent used to tell you, further reinforcing any negative beliefs you have about yourself.

15. Feeling ignored, dismissed, misunderstood, or invalidated

When you feel misunderstood, dismissed, invalidated, or ignored – whether emotionally or physically – it can trigger feelings of frustration, anger, or helplessness.

It can amplify self-doubt, reopen emotional wounds, undermine your trust and safety, and hinder the healing process.

You may question your experiences and feel unheard, which can intensify the pain and shame you may feel. It can also erode your trust in others and reinforce your feelings that you’re alone.

When someone treats you this way or you feel like they treat you this way, may echo past experiences of your parents not hearing or acknowledging you.

Whenever it feels like my husband ignored, dismissed, brushed me off, or misunderstood what I said, it bothers me way more than it should.

It's oftentimes unintentional. But I can't help but feel like he doesn't care about me or my feelings (at least at that moment). I recognize that I feel this way because that's how it was with my parents.  

My parents often ignored, brushed off, invalidated, or dismissed my feelings, experiences, or even existence.

What my husband did was not intentional. He does care about me and my feelings. But due to my past experiences, feeling misunderstood or invalidated triggers certain negative thoughts, feelings, and memories.

16. Loss or separation

Child abuse can disrupt healthy attachment patterns and create attachment wounds. And loss or separation can trigger these wounds, bringing up feelings of fear, abandonment, and deep emotional distress.

Any form of loss or separation, such as the death of a loved one, the end of a relationship, or moving away from a familiar environment, can be triggering. It may bring up unresolved emotions tied to previous losses or separations.

It can also disrupt your sense of safety and stability, bringing up unresolved grief and emotions related to the abuse.

17. Feeling isolated or alone

When you experience abuse, especially as a child, you can feel like the loneliest person in the world.

Abuse often thrives in an environment of secrecy and isolation. You likely endured abuse without adequate support or someone to confide in. So feeling isolated or alone can remind you of the helplessness and vulnerability you felt back then.

And when you’re feeling isolated or alone, especially for extended periods of time, it can be very triggering. It may remind you of all those times when you were alone and helpless with no one to defend you.

When my husband left for a business trip, it was the first time in a long time that I was away from him. I felt extremely isolated and alone.

My father and siblings were there so I wasn't technically alone. But them engaging in their own activity together just exacerbated my feelings of loneliness and being left out.

And that brought up so many negative feelings and memories. It's like I was back in my old room, alone and wanting to give up on life. I was reminded about how my whole family used to gang up on me and how isolating that felt.

For the first time in a long time, I felt terrible enough to want to hurt myself. And that was when I learned just how strong of an emotional trigger this was for me.

Feeling isolated or alone can also remind you of the disconnection and lack of meaningful relationships in your life. It may trigger feelings of sadness, loneliness, and longing for connection.

You may have also internalized a sense of self-blame and shame that might be exacerbated when you’re feeling isolated. You may believe that it’s your fault you’re alone, further reinforcing the idea that you’re flawed or unworthy of love.

It can also increase your sense of not being heard or understood, reinforcing the belief that you’re alone in your struggles.

It may also remind you of times when your abuser intentionally kept you separated from others.

18. Emotional intimacy and vulnerability

You may struggle with trusting others and opening up emotionally due to past experiences of abuse.

Vulnerability and fear of being hurt or betrayed may be triggered by intimacy and close relationships.

You were hurt and betrayed by your parents, the very people who were supposed to care for and protect you. And since they were your first-ever relationships, you never learned to trust and be vulnerable, especially if it used to be used against you or broken time and time again.

So now, you might have trouble trusting or being vulnerable or intimate with others.

When you’re put into that situation, you may feel the need to run away or push away the other person.

Opening up emotionally or allowing yourself to be vulnerable in relationships can trigger this fear, as it involves a level of trust and the potential for vulnerability to be exploited or met with rejection.

19. Parenting or caretaking responsibilities

The dynamics of caregiving, such as power imbalances, authority, and responsibility may evoke traumatic memories or trigger emotional responses related to the abuse you endured.

Becoming a parent or taking on a caretaking role may also trigger feelings of anxiety or uncertainty.

You may fear repeating the same patterns of abuse as your parent. Or you may fear you’ll struggle with your parenting abilities and somehow mistreat your child as your parents mistreated you.

So taking on caretaking or parenting roles can intensify the fear. You may worry about making the same mistakes or unintentionally causing harm to your children.

You may have also experienced parentification. So becoming a parent “again” might trigger memories of how you were forced to take on adult responsibilities at a young age.

If you find becoming a parent to be triggering, please learn to reparent yourself and begin healing. You need to heal to ensure you will not end up like your parents and break the cycle of abuse with your children.

20. Authority figures

Most people fear authority figures to an extent. They often have the power to enforce rules and discipline. So this emotional trigger is not unique to child abuse survivors.

Child abuse often involves a power imbalance where your abusive parent had authority over you. While suffering their abuse, you likely felt powerless and helpless, especially as a child.

So now, interactions with authority figures like your boss, teacher, or law enforcement, can trigger memories and associations with past abuse, leading to feelings of anxiety, fear, or a sense of powerlessness.

You may fear being mistreated or abused by authority figures, so it can be challenging for you to trust and feel safe in their presence.

And certain behaviors or characteristics displayed by them like aggression, yelling, manipulation, or controlling behaviors, may remind you of your abusive parent and be even more emotionally triggering.

21. Seeing or hearing others’ experiences of abuse

Unsurprisingly, witnessing or hearing about other people’s abusive experiences, whether in person, through media, online, or in conversations, can be highly emotionally triggering.

It could bring back vivid memories, flashbacks, and emotions associated with your own abuse. I may also trigger a reactivation of trauma responses and feel as if you’re reliving your own trauma.

Being exposed to others’ stories of abuse can also result in secondary trauma. It can lead to symptoms similar to those experienced during your own abuse.

Secondary traumatic stress, also known as compassion fatigue, refers to the emotional and psychological impact experienced by someone who hears about the firsthand traumatic experiences of someone else.

22. Anything that reminds you of your parent or the abuse you faced

As you can probably tell by now, anything associated with or can remind you of your abusive parents or the abuse you endured is potentially emotionally triggering.

Emotional triggers can be anything – people, places, things, dates, situations, smells, tastes, etc.

They’re basically just stimuli (concrete or abstract) that remind you, or your brain/body, of your abusive parent or the abusive situation you were in.

For example, when my younger sister was taken away from my mother and just placed into my care, she cried at the sight of a pom-pom hat. And you guessed it, my mother loved wearing pom-pom hats.

So your triggers can technically be anything.

Obviously, this isn’t to say that ALL your fears and triggers are related to your past abuse. But it is something to think about if you have a specific trigger or fear that you can’t explain.

Common Emotional Triggers Stemming from Abusive Parents | Hopeful Panda

Conclusion

It’s important to remember that the effects of certain emotional triggers can vary among child abuse survivors.

Some people may have a stronger reaction to certain triggers, while others may be less affected and vice versa.

And the emotional triggers and examples listed here do not encompass every possible trigger. Triggers can be highly personal. The list here is not exhaustive by any means.

It’s important for you to understand your own triggers. But unfortunately, with something as complex as childhood abuse, there are A LOT of different possible triggers, things you don’t even know can upset you.

I’d like to think I’ve been doing well in identifying and managing my own triggers. But I am still discovering new triggers as life continues.

So it’s totally okay if you’re still learning. Please give yourself all the kindness and patience you need as you identify your emotional triggers and learn to feel safe again.

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Hi there, I’m Estee. Having grown up with an abusive mother, I know how isolating, frustrating, and hopeless everything could feel – back then as a child and even now as an adult.

I am always trying to better understand and manage the effects of the abuse I experienced. And this journey I’m on inspired me to create Hopeful Panda. Learn more here.

A lot of time and effort is put into this blog. If you enjoy my content or find it helpful, please consider making a donation or becoming a member. Your support helps me continue providing free content for all. Thank you!


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