During one of my high schooler’s conferences, one of his teachers told me that he appreciated my son’s views and his contributions to class discussions. This was on the tails of a middle school experience marked by heaps of difficulty staying organized and focused. Back then, few teachers had cool things to say about my kiddo. Now, in high school, he is growing into his ability to manage his workload. This new space where teachers tell me nice things about my child is refreshing.
I was curious, too. As we waited for the next teacher, I asked my kid what kinds of things they discuss in class and which of his views he thinks his teacher appreciates. He shrugged and then recalled a time when the teacher led a discussion on a book in which a character was catcalled. The teacher wanted to know whether the class ever thought that such behavior was appropriate. One student piped up and said, “Yeah. I mean, she was dressed that way, so of course she must have wanted the attention.” In response, my kid tells me, just about all of the hands in the room shot up at once.
My child went on to tell me about how every other person in the class, including himself, spoke out against that viewpoint and in defense of body autonomy and consent. He rounded out the story by chuckling about how when the girls in the room vehemently raised their hands, multiple people started mocking them by saying, “triggered.”
Now, of course I was proud that my 9th grader and his classmates all felt confident challenging someone who attempted to normalize sexism. But honestly, my face went straight into what-the-fuck mode when he described the “triggered” comments. “Why did everyone do that?” I asked. “Why is that funny? Being triggered isn’t funny.”
He pulled out his phone to show me some of the “triggered” memes that inspired the class. Some are a sequence of frames leading up to a person being “triggered,” like this one:
Mostly, though, they are single frames of someone making an alarmed face accompanied by the word “triggered,” and they’re meant to be used in comments sections—you know, for any time someone points out something that is problematic or when someone has a human, emotional reaction to something. When that happens, the next commenter can just insert a meme to minimize the other’s feelings or poke fun at a thoughtful comment.
We’re probably all guilty of using passive aggressive memes and gifs to avoid engaging in the sometimes hard (or pointless) work of meaningful dialogue, right? Someone makes an absurd comment and you realize the discussion is going nowhere, so all you can muster is an eye roll gif. I do it, too, but I reserve that for folks unabashedly trumpeting their privilege, not for injured or marginalized people discussing their pain.
What Being Triggered Actually Means
Triggered wasn’t invented by whoever made the meme. It’s actually a legitimate psychological term that refers to emotions that surface in response to some stimulation that brings up a past traumatic experience.
We’re probably most familiar with triggers that result from things we read or see on a screen. Trigger warnings (or content warnings) are routinely placed on the internet before content that might be explicit or contain things that hold common triggers for people with past trauma.
Most often triggers happen to people who have PTSD, though not always. Sometimes people are able to identify their past traumatic experiences and pinpoint why they are triggered; other times, it’s a mystery. Regardless of why triggers happen, people who experience them are often able to notice patterns in the kinds of things that trigger them over time.
I, personally, experience emotional triggers that sometimes result in panic attacks. I was in my early twenties when I began having panic attacks, and because they occurred during sleep, it was quite confusing and took some time to learn what was happening.
When people think about panic attacks, they often assume something emotionally upsetting happens and then a panic attack immediately ensues. But it doesn’t always work like that. For me, an anxiety response tends to happen randomly after a buildup of triggering events over a period of time.
Learning about my triggers meant paying attention to my body and its physical responses, noting patterns, and establishing coping techniques. It’s been useful for me to learn about the things that trigger me because it allows me to control the input, or at least mitigate damage, from things I’m exposed to.
Saying (or Posting) “Triggered” as a Joke is Ableist
Ableism is behavior that contributes to favoring or setting a baseline of normalcy around able-bodied people. Ableism can be as extreme as overt discrimination against people with physical, developmental, emotional, or psychiatric disabilities, and it can be as subtle as using offensive slang in everyday language.
Mocking mental health issues is something that is commonplace in our society. Something’s off-the-wall? “That’s crazy!” People call themselves “bipolar” if they are feeling emotional or are experiencing mood swings. They say they have OCD if they are organized, or that they have ADD if they feel slightly distracted.
These may seem like creative and fun(ny) ways to describe experiences, but they’re actually quite lazy. And worse, they appropriate issues that many people struggle with—issues that, in the original context, are highly stigmatized.
Using the term “triggered” in jest is an ableist micro-aggression because it minimizes a person’s trauma, tone polices their reaction to that trauma, and thereby makes people question whether they’re overreacting. In other words, it’s gaslighting behavior.
Shutting Down Ableist Language
My kids understand better than some adults (ahem, the president-elect) that it’s not the behavior of decent human beings to make fun of people with disabilities. They would never mock a person with a physical disability, so why should their standards be any lower for less visible or higher functioning disabilities?
Mental health issues can sometimes be a little more nuanced or difficult to see or understand, but we still need to talk about them. The concept of microaggressions can be challenging for some people, especially for privileged people who rarely experience them, but we still need to explore them and discuss why they are harmful.
Our kids are able to learn and integrate new languages quickly, and social language changes fast and often. Sometimes my kids have their fingers on the pulse of what’s trending in a culture that I don’t always immerse myself in. Creating space to hear about the newest meme my kid saw today is, of course, an investment in my kid, in the things he sees and experiences and finds joy in, but it also often acts as a springboard for conversations about things that are far from light-hearted.
When I talked about the fad of using “triggered” as a joke with my kids, I was able to laugh and say that I understood why those memes were funny. Because at face value they are. Like, my GOD, Hillary, yes, the Donald triggers us all.
But I was also able to move toward talking about why I think the harm of the fad outweighs the humor by talking about my own experience with triggers and how minimized it makes me feel when I hear my kids say, “Mom’s TRIGGERED,” and giggle. When that happens, suddenly everything shifts from people hearing me to people mocking me, and that’s hurtful.
Honestly, I don’t know what my kids choose to do when they’re not at home. I don’t know if they’re calling people in, or if they’re still laughing along, or if maybe they’re even forwarding along triggered memes on their own time. But, I do know that in my house, my “triggered” boundary is honored and my experience is respected and validated. I’ve been heard, and that matters. And as importantly, my kids have a new, more valuable context for what it means to be triggered and a new understanding of how to hold space for people when they express that pain.