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Press Interview with Bonnie Harris

When Your Kids Push Your Buttons Book

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.