That 'button' children push might be a bruise

By Samantha Critchell

Associated Press Writer

NEW YORK -- There are times when a child kicks, screams and throws a tantrum yet still barely raises a hair on a parent's back. Other times, the same child's utterance of a single taunting word, or even a harmless word said in the wrong tone, can make that same parent react with rage.

Who's to blame here?

A particularly devious child? An overreactive parent?


"Sometimes a child pushes a 'button' on purpose; sometimes they don't have the slightest intention of doing it," says Bonnie Harris, a parent educator and family counselor.

Either way, it's the parent's job to take responsibility for the reaction, Harris says.

This could mean dealing with the incident a few hours after it's happened instead of in the heat of the moment when emotions are bubbling over.

In the interim, the parent should ask, "Is the child asking for help?"

If spilled milk makes an overworked, frazzled mother stop and pay attention to her children -- even if it's to yell at them -- maybe the children are making a plea for the mom to spend more time with them.

When parents can see children are having a problem, instead of being a problem, it's much easier to find a solution, Harris says.

Sometimes, though, it's the parent who has the problem.

Harris addresses this in "When Your Kids Push Your Buttons: And What You Can Do About It" (Warner Books), a book based on the national workshops she developed as director of Core Parenting.


"A 'button' can be a sore spot in us. I believe it's often connected to an old wound -- an unhealed ache from our childhoods," Harris says.

"So, by saying 'Shut up! or 'You can't make me!' or 'I hate you,' all things kids say, they tap into a place deep inside us that connects us to ourselves as little children. If I got the message of 'You're not important' when I was a child, and then my kid says, 'You can't tell me what to do,' then boom, I blow up."

Parents with a strong sense of self-control might be able to shoot back with, "So you want things to go your way. Let's talk about how we can do this," Harris suggests, but that's more difficult to do than one might think.

When adults dig deep into their own minds, they might remember they used to feel their parents never listened to their side of the story, or that their parents never gave them the chance to solve problems on their own.

"We sometimes get our buttons pushed when our kids do something we weren't allowed to do," Harris says.

However, tracing back the source of a sore spot doesn't mean today's grown-ups should transfer their hostility from their children to their own parents, whom Harris says probably did the best parenting job they could given their circumstances and the advice available to them at the time.

Many "buttons" are dormant in the years between childhood and childbirth, Harris says. A slightly irritating behavior of a co-worker or even a spouse probably won't incite the same reaction as if your child does it.

"We think we feel children tapping into our vulnerabilities. Children know us better than anyone else in the world; it's very peculiar, but it's some magic radar that they're born with. Maybe it's because they are a little part of us."


It wouldn't even be unusual for the same behavior in two different children to spark two different reactions, Harris adds, because parents' perceptions and expectations of each child are unique.

What doesn't change from child to child is the weapon they gain if they see they can push their parents into losing control. Parents can be sure that children store that information and will use it against them in the next power struggle, she says.

Harris stresses, though, that children shouldn't get a permanent get-out-of-jail-free card for all their actions. The difficulty is that, until parents show some neutrality in their responses, any rule the parents set won't be viewed as carrying much weight.

"This is about having appropriate and effective limits. It's about solving a problem instead of dictating or neglecting," she says.

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