What to do When Your Kid Pushes Your Buttons

Every year our school district brings in a parenting speaker and this year Bonnie Harris, the author of When Your Kids Push Your Buttons: And What You Can do About It, was their selection. I love attending these talks to hear what others are doing in the parenting space. I love to hear the questions other parents are asking and hopefully get some affirmation that I’m not a horrible parent. Yes, even people who write parenting books worry that they are royally screwing up their kids (probably even more so ;)

Bonnie’s talk was honest and she has this way of not making you feel guilty for being human. We ALL will react negatively to our kids from time to time. It is a natural human behavior to feel emotions and to blow up occasionally. When our buttons get pushed, we go into fight or flight, we feel angry, helpless, resentful or guilty. We may react in ways we later regret, blame our children for our emotions and reactions, blow the situation out of proportion, or we may say what our parents always said to us (which we swore we would NEVER say ;).

We think that our child’s behavior triggers a reaction, but this is not entirely the case. As adults, with fully developed brains, we choose to react. We must take full responsibility for our behavior. According to Bonnie, a more accurate chain of events is that our child’s behavior triggers an assumption we have made which leads to an emotional reaction. Said another way, the behavior brings up an idea, fear, judgment or perception that triggers an emotion in us which leads to our reaction.

For example, let’s say you’ve asked your child to, “Please go get your shoes on so we can get to school on time,” and your child ignores your request. The natural reaction may be to yell at the child and perhaps go off on some rant that they will never be a success in life because they can’t just follow a simple request.

Now let’s look at it more realistically. When you ask for them to get their shoes and they ignore you, think about what is going on in your head. You might think, “my child is lazy” (judgment), or “they will never amount to anything because they can’t follow simple directions” (dramatization), or “my child is disrespectful and will be disliked because of it” (fear) or “great, now we are going to be late and what will the other moms think of me” (projected fear). We have a storm of emotions going on from anger to concern to fear of being inadequate, that we lash out on the one “making” us feel that way, our child.

So now we understand why we react, but what can we do about it? As Einstein said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking that cause them.” Bonnie suggests we must reframe our assumptions. We do this by taking a second to observe the thoughts we are having before we react. Be present with what is actually going on. This way our thought, “He never listens” (which is probably untrue) becomes, “He doesn’t like what I’m saying.” “She’s disrespectful,” becomes, “She has a hard time being told what to do.” I don’t know about you, but I don’t particularly like being told what to do and bossed around all the time. 

Jane Nelsen of Positive Discipline wrote, “Where did we get this crazy idea that in order to make children do better, first we have to make them feel worse?” It’s a great question to consider. If we treated other adults the way we often treat our children we may not have too many friends ;)

Another suggestion Bonnie gave is to stop taking our kids behavior so personally. She told us this story: When her daughter was young, they moved from New York City to rural Vermont. To say this was a big change is an understatement. She started at a new school and dearly missed her old friends and the sounds of the city. Every morning she would come into her mother’s room with a big frown and resist going to school. Bonnie and her daughter would get into power struggles every morning over seemingly insignificant details. It was exhausting for all involved and Bonnie started thinking her daughter was out to get her. She began dreading the morning and everyone was growing increasingly miserable.

One fateful day, it finally dawned on Bonnie that her daughter was not out to get her, but that she was truly sad, she had a problem. Bonnie’s anger turned to compassion and she took her daughter into her arms and gave her a great big hug and allowed her to feel the sadness of leaving the world as she knew it behind. Her daughter finally felt understood by her mother, which turns out is all she needed. After that day, the power struggles greatly diminished and mother and daughter felt safe to share their feelings freely with each other. When we take our kid’s behavior personally, the only reaction we can have is a negative one.      

Bonnie shared with us what she calls The Gap. This is the space that is created between parent and child when the lesson the parent intends is not equal to the message the child receives. Let’s take the shoe example from before, the intended message of the parent is that it’s important to be punctual, but when a parent yells at the child and berates them for not getting their shoes on in a timely manner, the message they receive is, “I’m not good enough” or “I can never do anything right.” The intended lesson and the perceived message are not in alignment. A gap was created, but the good news is this gap can be bridged!

Our children’s behavior is our clue to what is going on inside of them. It’s where what’s happening internally becomes external. Behavior is the final expression of the internal emotional state of your young person. Unacceptable behavior is our clue that our child is HAVING a problem (not being a problem). Punishing, blaming, yelling and threatening our children only serve to increase this problem. Ask yourself, is this normal, childish behavior? If the answer is yes, then help them identify their problem.

Bonnie had us imagine an iceberg. Only a tiny bit of it sticks out above the water. This part is the behavior (hitting, whining, tantrum, etc). Under the water, are the external stimuli or triggers (a bad grade, parental commands, missing toy, wrong color cup, etc) and internal stimuli or emotions (feeling powerless, misunderstood, alone, stupid, etc). Their behavior is our clue to what is happening underneath the surface.

In order to bridge the gap, Bonnie suggests connecting to their feelings. Often our kids can’t verbalize what they are feeling, so a way we can help them is to ask questions. This is when we can make some assumptions (they will let us know if we’re wrong). If they are “out of line,” it’s our job as parents to help figure out what their problem is. Note: it is NOT our job to FIX their problem, simply help them understand their problem so they can work through it. So, instead of asking yourself, “How do I stop this behavior?” Ask, “What is this behavior telling me?”

In their minds, our kid’s job is to get what they want when they want it. Our job is to help them understand that they will not always get exactly what they want when they want it. Only when they mature do they realize others also want things and become more considerate of others feelings.

Let’s look at a common example. You’re in Target with your children passing by the toy section. Your darling daughter sees the most amazing dragon toy that can actually breathe flame-colored mist for the low, low price of $56 and she has to have it NOW! She begins demanding you buy it for her in a loud voice. Instead of freaking out and making her feel like there is a serious scarcity of money in the world, try admiring it with her. “Wow, I can’t believe it can actually breathe fire! I can see why you would really want this toy and maybe we can think of a way for you to have it. Can you think of a way to get the money for this toy?” Who knows, maybe she will have a brilliant business idea ;)

Then you could say something like, “I know it’s hard to wait for things when we’re already here at the store and we see something this cool. How about this idea, I will take a picture of the unicorn and you can keep it in your wallet to remind you to save your allowance until you have enough to buy it yourself, sound good?”

When a gap is created by our reaction to their behavior, it’s okay! We will make mistakes (lots of them), but all we need to do is repair the relationship. Children love to make amends when given the opportunity. After the fact, Bonnie offers this exercise to help mend the gap:

1.     First, write down your emotions during the situation.

2.     What reaction did your emotions provoke?

3.     Ask yourself, “What must I have been thinking to make me feel that way?”

4.     Then, what was the problem your child is having? Draw the iceberg if it helps.

To help defuse your buttons before a reaction occurs try this:

1.     Go limp, wait, breathe, and think.

2.     Don’t take it personally! It’s about the problem your child is having (tip of the iceberg) not YOU! Remember- you’re the adult ;) and it’s NOT your job to FIX the problem, but help them understand the problem.

3.     Reframe your assumptions and make observations.

4.     Adjust your expectations to be realistic.

5.     Go back to it when you are calm and have a do-over.

The Do-Over

            Luckily, there are many opportunities for do-overs in parenting. We can always have a do-over to help lessen the gap. Remember you are human and make mistakes and so is your child. Our kids respect us when we can own up to our mistakes and it’s great to model sincere apologies for them. A do-over can be a great teaching moment for our kids. A do-over is an after the fact tactic when you tell your child the way you wish you had handled a certain situation.

Let’s go back to our shoe example. You’ve asked them to get their shoes, the request was ignored and you yelled. Now you are in the car on your way and are more calm. You can say something like, “I’m really sorry I lost my patience with you this morning when you didn’t get your shoes on right away. I think it’s important to be on time for school and was worried we would be late and that is where my reaction came from. I wish I had made eye contact with you, so I knew you were listening before I made that request. I will be more aware of that from now on. How do you think we can avoid a repeat of this morning in the future?” Hopefully, your child will recognize that they could be more proactive and get their shoes on without you having to ask, but if not you could always make that suggestion.

I’m grateful I live in a progressive school district that offers this speaker series and the generous sponsors that allow it to be a free event. I’m grateful for do-overs and for compassionate kids who still love me after all the mistakes I’ve made. I’m grateful it’s not my job to fix my children’s problems, but simply help them self-discover the problem through thoughtful questions. And I’m grateful for Bonnie and her role in making me a better parent. I'd love to hear from you! Please join the conversation with like-hearted parents in our Facebook Community

In Gratitude,