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When Your Kids Push Your ButtonsAnd What You Can Do About It
By Bonnie Harris
Warner BooksCopyright © 2003 Bonnie Harris
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTHE ROAD RAGE OF PARENTING
If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as infinite.
Molly is my teacher. She is also my daughter. She is a delightful young woman of twenty. We have a mutually nurturing relationship. But it wasn't always this way. When Molly started walking at eleven months, she began pushing my buttons. Compared to her easygoing older brother, her demands seemed unrealistic, her needs insatiable, her moods dark and unpredictable.
She usually woke crying. Her face seemed to wear a permanent pout. Power struggles were daily occurrences for the first five years of our relationship.
And I was a parent educator! I had a master's degree in early childhood education. I designed and taught parent education classes to help parents understand their children's behavior and respond respectfully.
But I wasn't doing a very good job myself.
When Molly was four she started a new preschool. Each morning she trudged into our bathroom after being dragged from her bed, her lower lip protruding as far as it would go, whining that she didn't want to go to school, that she hated school, and that I was mean to make her go. I thought she was an unreasonable slowpoke, bound and determined to ruin my day. I had fears that I had to find a new school, and that somehow this was all my fault. My daily reaction was various themes of angry impatience: "Stop whining and complaining. Hurry up. You'll be late. You've got to get dressed. Why can't you ever just be pleasant and put your clothes on? Why do we have to fight about this every morning?" You know the litany. By eight each morning, I felt like a resentful, nagging mother who should just go back to bed and start over. If only I could!
I clearly remember the morning when something switched in my head. I had been studying innate, individual temperaments of children and had begun teaching that in my classes. I knew that Molly, now age five, had a hard time with transitions in her life (moving from New York City to rural New Hampshire had already been a two-year struggle for her and wasn't over yet), but it had never occurred to me that merely waking, getting out of bed, and starting the day was a tough transition for her as well. Perhaps this was why she had always cried as a baby upon waking. School days only made it worse.
This particular morning, my learning and her struggle came together. My focus shifted from myself-my reactions, my fears, my inconvenience, my agenda-to her and her problem. Instead of thinking, "What's wrong with her? Why does she always have to do this to me? What have I done wrong?" My thinking changed to, "This is how she is. How can I help her?"
I sat down on the floor, invited her onto my lap, and said, "You really don't want to get dressed, do you?" "No," she said.
"And you really don't want to go to school and leave me." "No," she said, much more fervently. "I don't blame you," I said soothingly. "You know what? I hate getting up in the morning too."
"You do?" She looked up at me incredulously. It had never occurred to her that anyone else suffered her plague. And it had never occurred to me to tell her.
"Yep," I continued. "My least favorite part of the day is when my alarm goes off, and I have to pull back the covers and put my feet on the floor."
Suddenly, we connected. She was glued. Our conversation continued as I acknowledged her frustrations and her point of view. She began to melt into my body as we sat cuddled on the hard floor in the bathroom. Shortly, we got dressed together, continuing to talk about our mutual dislike of early mornings, and started our day pleasantly. So what happened? I changed my perception of her behavior. I became more detached from her pain and discomfort. I didn't take it so personally. From this new place, I was able to support and listen to her rather than my own inconvenience. I could then create all kinds of strategies to motivate her. I could set limits on her behavior without yelling and putting her down. In short, I had defused my button and could be the parent she needed.
Now I won't tell you that from then on life with Molly was a breeze and that she never pushed another button; but mornings were much easier, our power struggles ended, and our relationship took a turn that never reversed. Most importantly, she was no longer left in a world where she felt misunderstood and unaccepted.
If it weren't for my struggles with Molly, I would never have been able to understand the struggles of the parents I teach and counsel. Molly has provided me with many opportunities. I had the choice of learning to understand her or fighting her for the rest of my life. Our battles became opportunities for my personal growth. As I grew, I could not help but see her needs and parent her in a more connected way.
Our Children Get the Worst of Us
No one pushes our buttons like our children. No one knows our buttons as intimately as they do. No one can make us soar to our heights or bring us to our knees more quickly than they can. But when we are in a state of anger, hopelessness, or resentment, we are not effective parents. We can't or won't understand their feelings, see their point of view, or respond objectively. We want them to know how angry they are making us, so we revert to retaliation, yelling, and punishment, and we end up in power struggles.
We all know what it feels like to have our buttons pushed. Something physical happens: a particular energy takes over, and we "see red." Adrenaline rushes; muscles tighten; palms sweat; voices change register. Your face looks really ugly, and you turn into somebody no one wants to be around. It happens to the best of us.
"Road rage" is a good example. You're in a rush to get where you're going and some guy pulls in front of you with only inches to spare. In the privacy of your car, you feel at liberty to scream every expletive in the book, honk, flash your lights, and fantasize pushing a button to release four missile-like spears aimed directly at each of his tires. In this state of mind, it would never occur to you that the other driver does not have a personal vendetta against you. He may have just received a call that his wife is in labor, his son was in a car accident, or he just drives recklessly. Regardless of the reason, the smart thing to do is slow down and back off. But no, when that button is pushed, you in fact speed up, get as close to him as possible, so that he will at least know how mad he has made you and that he can't get away with pushing you out of your rightful place in the line of traffic. You honk your horn, pass him in a no-passing zone, throw daggerlike looks his way as you pass, and endanger the lives of both of you.
The same thing happens when your own darling child does something that catapults you directly and instantly into your out-of-control zone. There's an excellent chance that your child's behavior has tapped into something deeper in you than mere annoyance. You react in ways that are irrational, horrifying, and all too familiar. You open your mouth intending to teach your child something and out comes your mother. You may even have learned all the "right" parenting skills and know just what you should be doing, yet you lose it anyway. Not only are you not the parent you want to be, but you are the parent you swore you would never become.
Many times our children cause us annoyance and anger, prompting us to curtail their behavior with limits and strong expectations of better behavior. Sometimes it pushes our buttons, and sometimes it doesn't.
If your child is hitting, she needs to stop. You may feel angry that she is hitting, but when you can control that anger without blaming your child for it, your button has not been pushed. It is when you cannot respond effectively, when you lose it and instantly react, that your button has been pushed. You become a big part of the problem, emotions escalate, and chances are you will not be able to stop the hitting.
Getting your button pushed results in many degrees of emotional reactions. Button-pushing behaviors can be relatively insignificant or quite serious. But to the parent whose button has been pushed, it is always serious-in that moment, anyway.
Whatever the behavior, it may be helpful to know where on the Button Meter, between mere annoyance and vindictive rage, you find yourself.
No matter what your reaction, when your button has been pushed you lose authority, break connection, and leave both you and your child feeling angry, defensive, frightened, and inadequate. Nothing productive can be taught no matter how hard you try. Attempts to control the situation only push your child farther from your intentions or teach her to obey you out of fear-neither of which is a desirable outcome.
"How do I know if my button has been pushed?" In many cases it is all too clear. But sometimes you may be too focused on your child's behavior to see the button. You know your button has been pushed when one or more of the following happens:
* An all-too-familiar emotion (rage, hopelessness) floods your body, and you react in a way you regret.
* Your spouse says, "Why do you always get so upset about that? Just let it go." Or, "She never does that with me." Or, "What's the big deal? He's just being a boy!"
* Visions of your grown child unable to accomplish anything, alone and friendless or behind bars, loom vividly.
* Rational behavior seems suddenly and completely out of reach.
* Your child reminds you of a relative you have judgments about.
* You know you could never have gotten away with what your child is saying or doing.
* You see fear on your child's face.
* You are at the end of your rope, swear you have tried everything, and nothing works.
Going on Automatic
When we snap at behaviors we don't like, say and do things we regret- get our buttons pushed-we go on automatic. Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence, refers to automatics as "emotional hijacking." He describes one's normally rational mind being "swamped" by emotions.
In a raging argument over curfews, Howard and fifteen-year-old Adam shouted words at each other that shocked them both. The pinnacle was Howard's unintended banishment of his son when he proclaimed, "This is my house. You will obey my rules or you know where the door is!" Throwing his baseball glove on the table, the angry teen said, with a foreboding calm, "Fine," then slammed the door as he left. Howard intended to get his son to mind his curfew. He never intended to say what he did. His automatic spun the argument out of control. The result was the last thing in the world Howard wanted. And he didn't even know how it had happened.
Our automatics happen spontaneously and derail our best intentions. They are rarely effective, and never do they take into consideration the needs of our individual child. They are the angry reactions we have when we wish we could calm down but can't even remember what that feels like. They are the route for passing on harmful patterns to the next generation.
Automatics Are Familiar
Automatics pop up uncontrollably from our subconscious mind where we have sequestered old habits, beliefs, and emotions that we don't like. Many of these habits and emotions construct our relationships and determine how strongly we protect and defend ourselves.
But many others lie dormant in our subconscious, the attic of our mind, until we have children. When they push our buttons, our children unabashedly bang on that attic door for the first time. When the door is opened, we feel pain. We react by either denying it with defensive behavior or blaming our children for causing the pain. The actual problem that provoked the automatic is lost.
Automatics can take many different forms. But they are all in reaction to behavior that taps an old wound. They are often verbalized with eerily familiar tones and phrases. A few examples:
Angry retribution: "You're grounded for the next two weeks!" Threat: "You say that once more, and you'll wish you hadn't."
Criticism: "Why can't you ever just do what I tell you?" Fear tactic: "Your teeth are going to rot, and then you'll be sorry." Sarcasm: "Fine, you want to ruin your life? Far be it from me to stop you."
Guilt trip: "After all I've done for you, this is the thanks I get?"
Automatics Are Our Responsibility
Automatics are our attempt to control our child's behavior in order for us to feel better and for them to react differently. In doing that, we place responsibility on our child for turning the situation around.
This does not mean the child's behavior should be accepted. It does mean that in order to stop the reactive cycle from spinning, the parent must be the first to stop reacting. It never works to expect our child to act like the grown-up first.
If we are reacting automatically and irrationally, we cannot expect our children to behave rationally and cooperatively.
It is our choice whether we react to potentially escalating situations with tones and attitudes that either slow them down or speed them up. We cannot leave the job up to our children to set the tone of a situation and determine what direction it takes, no matter what age they are.
It is our choice to react automatically or respond consciously. Most of us were never taught how to make that distinction. But we can learn. We can let our children show us how.
"Am I too late?" is a question I am asked from parents of two-year-olds through teens. The resistance children present to us-from their first "no" to the cold shoulder of adolescence-represents their growing drive toward independence. How we perceive their resistance and what we do about it is our responsibility, not our child's. It starts before age two and continues right through their separation from home and beyond. At any point, children will be thrilled with a parent who is willing to see that resistance through clearer eyes and take responsibility for their own emotions and reactions.
The younger the child, the sooner you are likely to see results with a new approach. But I have seen relationships with older teens turn around too. It may just take a little longer for a teenager to trust the change in your approach than a four-year-old. But it is never too late to connect with your child.
If there is anything that we wish to change in our children, we should first examine it and see whether it is not something that could better be changed in ourselves.
-Carl G. Jung, The Development of Personality
Exercise 1: Identifying Your Buttons
How do you know when your button has been pushed?
List your child's behaviors that push your button.
Excerpted from When Your Kids Push Your Buttons by Bonnie Harris Copyright © 2003 by Bonnie Harris
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.