by Bonnie Harris
“No! You do it,” yelled not-yet three-year-old Jacob when his mother told him to clean up the milk she was sure he had deliberately spilled on the floor. Louise could feel her temperature rising.
“You spilled it, you clean it up,” she said with as much patience as she could muster.
“No, it’s your job,” Jacob jeered with that look that insinuated ‘so what are you going to do now?’
Louise felt a familiar rage rising up from her toes. She could not believe her little boy could taunt her like this. What a brat he is, she thought. How dare he disobey me. Everything in her background told her he should be punished. She automatically raised her hand, but caught herself. She saw Jacob flinch. “Separate the child from the problem. Don’t blame the child,” she remembered from her parenting class. She took a deep breath, then several more. I’ll try it, she thought, convinced it would never work.
“Okay, the milk has spilled,” she said as if she were reading from Dick and Jane. “You don’t want to clean it up, and I don’t want to clean it up. What should we do about it?”
Jacob’s whole body brightened. “I know!” he said as if he had the answer to win the prize. “Let’s call Sophie. She can lick it up, and I’ll clean up the rest.”
Louise was speechless. A stunned, “Okay,” escaped from her mouth.
Jacob climbed down from his stool, ran to the door and called the dog. Sophie was more than happy to oblige when Jacob showed her the puddle of milk on the floor. He grabbed the stool, climbed up to rip off a paper towel and happily wiped up the slobber and milk that Sophie had left behind.
Louise is an average, middle-class mother, trying to get through breakfast, get her son to day-care and herself to work-on time, for once. Jacob pushed her button, and she almost lost control. But she didn’t. Instead, she defused her button and was able to use a parenting skill that worked-not only for her but for her son, too.
“But shouldn’t he be punished for talking to her that way? He can’t get away with that!” is the reply of so many parents to this scene. Why? What would Jacob learn from being punished? Louise held him accountable for his spilled milk, gave him an opportunity to solve the problem, and he did, indeed, solve the problem-creatively and cheerfully. But somewhere deep down inside us, we want our children to suffer when they “make us” suffer. Retaliation comes automatically-it’s what we know.
All parents get their buttons pushed by their children. Too many are provoked to react harmfully. Parents often hate the way they react but don’t know how to stop themselves.
Our children push our buttons more skillfully than anyone else. They can bring out the worst in us and instantly turn us into the parents we swore we would never be. And the most infuriating part is that the angrier we get, the more our children push them! “I don’t mean to, but I open my mouth to tell my child to stop and out come the words I swore I would never say!”
When Your Kids Push Your Buttons is about taking responsibility for your part in the conflict and then learning to neutralize your reactions so they stop interfering with your parenting. It puts a magnifying glass on your button. Authority is lost when you lose control in rage or withdrawal. Your child loses when he can push your button and fireworks go off. Authority is regained when you can respond with clarity and neutrality, and your child regains a sense of security. This book can help you do that.
We punish our children in an attempt to keep them from pushing our buttons, often escalating the original problem into a cycle of anger and blame. When Your Kids Push Your Buttons is not about what to do to your kids to get them to stop pushing your buttons. This book is about how to be the parent you wish you could be-the parent that only you are holding yourself back from.
After teaching parenting classes for more than ten years, I realized that many parents returned to class more discouraged than ever. These parents were excited to try out their new skills, convinced they would work. But then something would interfere and they couldn’t do it. It was because their buttons were getting pushed. No skill can come to the rescue of a parent who’s button has been pushed. I realized a critical step was missing in parent education-how to get that button defused so the skills could work.
This book is the result of many more years of teaching a parenting course called “When Your Kids Push Your Buttons.” As is the course, the book is meant to be interactive so that you can apply it to your own situations. The exercises are meant to help you do that.
It must be acknowledged that the expectations and values that parents hold for their children’s behavior vary from culture to culture. The behavioral examples I use in this book may not fit all readers-they may not be your button-pushers. What I intend is for you to translate these examples into whatever behavioral difficulties may be creating the dramas that play out in your own parent/child relationship. The exercises will help you do that.
When Your Kids Push Your Buttons is based on four fundamental principles:
Principle #1. There is nothing more important in parenting than connecting with your child. When we are connected, we can pass on our values and influence their decisions.
Principle #2. Every child is born perfect. Each one comes to us, whether by birth or adoption, for the benefit of our mutual learning and brings us an opportunity for our personal growth.
Principle #3. Children want to be successful. No child is happy being manipulative or out of control.
Principle #4. Children’s behavior is symptomatic of their internal emotional, physical or neurological state. To affect their behavior, their internal state must first be accepted and then addressed.
Button-pushing behavior is a clue to an unattended need in the child, and in the parent as well. Becoming conscious of those needs is the first and most important step. Without consciousness, we will continue to focus on preventing our children from pushing our buttons and tapping into a very uncomfortable place.
I often hear in my classes, “Why can’t they just do what I want for once? Why do I always have to be the one to be considerate of their needs?”
Because it’s our job.
It’s our job to reach across to our children, step into their shoes, consider their developmental stage, their individual temperament, their level of normal egotism, and know what we can appropriately expect of them. Asking children of any age to be responsible for how we are feeling and to behave in a way that is convenient for us or will make us happy is wrong.
The good news about getting our buttons pushed by our vociferous children is that, in the pushing, they present us with an opportunity for personal growth and healing. The question is, will we use that opportunity? Or will we reprimand our children for being unruly and ourselves for being incompetent?
We can fool ourselves into believing that we are behaving in our children’s best interest when we force them to do and be what we want. In doing so, we risk their needs for the sake of putting an end to our frustration, impatience or rage. We work hard at training our children to be who we want them to be. Some children acquiesce and some don’t.
The ones who don’t are our teachers.
When Your Kids Push Your Buttons
And What You Can Do About It
by Bonnie Harris
Q. When Your Kids Push Your Buttons is not like the other parenting books out there today. What makes it different?
A. No, this book is not like any other parenting book on the market today, since it does not focus on how to change the child’s behavior. In fact, it uses the child’s behavior to point to the button in the parent, the obstacle that keeps the parent from responding effectively instead of reacting automatically. When Your Kids Push Your Buttons helps the parent understand that button, why the child is pushing it and how to defuse it so they can have the authority they want.
Q. What actually is a button and why do we get them pushed?
A. A button is what sets us off and gets us out of control. It is what makes us unable to parent the way we want. It is often the voice of our mother or father that comes spewing out of our mouths-those words we swore we would never say. We regret our reactions mid-stream and know they do not work. We get our buttons pushed because we make assumptions about our children and about ourselves that are attached to our past-probably rooted in our own childhood. Our children, who know us so well, dig into that button. It hurts so we try to prevent them from doing that by yelling at them or punishing them.
Q. Shouldn’t you as a parent teach your child to respect you and not push your buttons?
A. Most of us who pushed our parents buttons were dealt with punitively. We believe that those punitive measures taught us respect. In fact all we learned was how to be manipulative to get what we wanted, to get away with it or to be good so we got approval. I encourage parents to look at their buttons differently and see that our children, especially the ones who push our buttons, are trying to tell us something about ourselves. We can punish them for doing so, or we can look in the mirror and take this opportunity to grow.
Q. So why is the child pushing the button? Isn’t it just for attention?
A. It is for attention but what KIND of attention is what we must figure out. Our children know us better than we know ourselves. They learn very early what sets us off and they know on an instinctual level that that button is what we need to work on before we can take care of their needs. So when we don’t get it-when the button keeps going off and we keep reacting, they push harder in an attempt to get us to deal with that button. When the button no longer goes off, we can then respond to our children in the way that they are asking for.
Q. Doesn’t that mean giving them what they want?
A. No, it means giving them what they need. It also means regaining the authority to say no to much of what they want but in a respectful and validating manner.
Q. What do you mean when you talk about children’s agendas?
A. Most of us don’t think of our children as having agendas, but a child’s agenda, no matter how trite or even wrong it seems to us, is just as important to our child as our agenda is to us. If your child is hitting her little brother, or refusing to put her coat on, it is not just to torment you. She has her own agenda that you may be completely unaware of. It doesn’t mean she should do what she wants, but acknowledging her agenda means that you understand and she will get that. You are more likely to gain cooperation when you acknowledge that her brother must have made her very mad or that you know she doesn’t want to get her coat on because she’s busy building a block tower. Then you can help her express her anger in a different way or get the blocks in order ready to work on as soon as you come back.
Q. Are you saying it’s ok to let kids push your buttons? Won’t kids get away with too much if we don’t stop them?
A. It’s very important for parents to set limits on their children and give them a predictable family structure, but when parents’ buttons get pushed they cannot do that. After reading When Your Kids Push Your Buttons, parents will know that when that button is pushed, it is an important signal to them to defuse it so they can set those limits and respond effectively.
Q. So you do believe that the behavior must be stopped?
A. Sometimes it must be stopped and sometimes it must be listened to. I’d like parents to consider the source of their children’s behavior and not react to the behavior alone. If a child refuses to do homework, it’s not simply because he wants to make his mother’s life miserable, he may be nervous about something that is going on at school. The root of the behavior must be addressed before the behavior will go away.
Q. What happens when a child makes his parent enraged, and he knows it?
A. If nothing changes in the parent’s behavior and the rage is the typical reaction, the child learns that he has a lot of power. So when he is mad or feeling controlled, he knows just how to get back.
Q. Don’t you have to stop that? Isn’t he just being manipulative and doing it on purpose?
A. Yes. There are two ways to stop it. Punish the child for making you enraged, which teaches her she is responsible for and in control of your feelings. Or look at your rage, discover where it is coming from, and learn how to stop taking your child’s behavior so personally. Then you can stop the behavior by responding neutrally instead of reacting explosively.
Q. A lot of parents get their buttons pushed at stressful times of the day, like mornings or bedtime. What would be helpful for parents to know to help at these times?
A. Our expectations are usually unrealistic at these times. We expect our children to get up, dressed and off to school without a fuss and we expect them to go to bed when we tell them to. The first step is to adjust the expectations to know that they don’t want to do either of these things and that it is our stress, our agendas, that we are focused on, not theirs. When we can let go of that for just a minute and see what their agenda is, we can reach out to them and change our perspective from “My child is being a problem” to “My child is having a problem.”
Q. What is “the gap” you write about in the book? Is that the same as the generation gap?
A. It definitely becomes a generation gap. “The gap” is the big mucky space that develops between you and your child when you have all the best intentions of teaching your child something, but because your button has been pushed, that intention gets undermined by your reaction and your child hears something very different than you intended. You might want him to clean his room, but if your button gets pushed by the mess, he will only hear “I’m a slob, I never do anything right, I’m ungrateful, and my mother is an out-of-control nag!” No connection will happen between these two at this time. When these gaps accumulate, the relationship is in jeopardy.
Q. What is the main message you would like parents to hear?
A. To not take our children’s behavior quite so personally. It is important for us to have a certain amount of detachment from the behavior so that we can understand it and be effective in handling it.
Q. Who do you think will benefit most from your advice?
A. Parents, teachers, caregivers, coaches, or anyone who has ever had their buttons pushed by anyone will learn in When Your Kids Push Your Buttons how to better manage their immediate feelings of anger and frustration when this happens to them.
Q. Can you apply your theories to other relationships?
A. The same model applies to any relationship. I have had many people tell me that this helps with their spouse, relatives and friends whether or not they have children.
When Your Kids Push Your Buttons
And What You Can Do About It
by Bonnie Harris