When Your Kids Push Your Buttons

And What You Can Do About It


By Bonnie Harris

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In the bestselling tradition of How to Talk So Kids Will Listen, here is the first book that answers the questions “Why do my kids push my buttons?” and “How can I stop it from happening?”

It’s a given-kids push their parents buttons like nobody else can. Too many parents can be provoked to react with harmful anger, and children learn to manipulate their parents’ emotions repeatedly, resulting in unhealthy life-long patterns. WHEN YOUR KIDS PUSH YOUR BUTTONS shows parents that it is their ideas and perceptions that push their own buttons and provoke the “road rage of parenting.” When parents take responsibility for their reactions and listen to what their child’s behavior is telling them, the child becomes the teacher to the parent. Filled with anecdotes from real families, this book is quickly joining the list of parenting classics.


Text copyright © 2003 by Bonnie Harris

Illustrations copyright © 2003 by Marty Kelley

All rights reserved.

Warner Books, Inc., Hachette Book Group USA, 237 Park Avenue, New York, NY 10017

Visit our Web site at www.HachetteBookGroupUSA.com.

First eBook Edition: July 2008

ISBN: 978-0-446-54074-2


This book emerged from several years of teaching these concepts in a parent education course originally called "Defusing Your Buttons" through The Parent Guidance Center. All of the parents in these groups have guided me and helped me clarify the material with each of their struggles and triumphs. Some of their stories are included in the book. Many previous courses with many more parents led to the creation of the "Buttons" course. I could not have developed the course or written the book without the commitment and willingness of all of these parents. To each and every one of you who has ever taken a course with me, I am truly grateful. Your desire to learn has helped me learn. I honor your courage, your willingness, and your determination to be the best parents you can be. I only wish I could list you all.

One's whole life and experiences are cumulative players in a project like this. My gratitude must go way back. But for the sake of space, I will thank the more immediate players.

To Liz Broderick, Lee Burwell, Nancy Gorr and to every parent educator, staff member and board member of The Parent Guidance Center, I bless you for the dedication, wisdom, time, and guidance you have each given to The PGC, which has enabled me to be the teacher I needed to be instead of the administrator I never was meant to be.

To Mary MacDowell, I thank you for giving me the jump start I needed, the opportunity to know that I could indeed do this, and the faith that it was worth publishing—along with some good ideas that are included in the book.

I am filled with awe and gratitude at the incredible chain of events that so quickly led to the publication of this book. When I felt the need to get some professional help with my first draft, Polly Bannister led me to Susan Peery, who gave me editing guidance, strongly needed encouragement, and support, and a call in to Writer's House. There I found my miraculous agent, Al Zuckerman, via Fay Greenfield, his assistant extraordinaire. A mere few days after sending the proposal to publishers, my editor, Amy Einhorn, read it, saw her daughter in a new light, and convinced Warner Books that it worked. Throughout the editing process, as Amy helped me get clearer with the book, the book helped Amy get clearer with her daughter. Amy's guidance has been exactly what I needed. To all of you, I feel blessed by your attention and belief in me. Thank you for helping spread the message and for your conviction that yet another parenting book could make it.

To Frances Jalet-Miller, for your second pair of eyes, reassurance, and praise. Thanks for the reality check.

To Emi Battaglia and Chris Dao, for carrying the message on to greater heights.

To Cynthia West, Laura Scott, Pam Erdman, Jane LaRoche, Cleary Donovan, Kristin Miller, Amy Franzen, Chris Daisy, and Raye Lankeford for reading versions of the manuscript. Thank you for your time, support, and insightful suggestions.

To so many friends who have been supportive, helpful, and right there throughout the writing process including Annie Graves, Kin Schilling, and my wonderful women's group: Susan Knight, Polly Bannister, Chasey Usher, and Judy Orme. To Dennis Ferrill for helping me get the proposal off the ground. To Jan Miller for your guidance over the years, your good suggestions, and your love and support. To Sally "Bones" Jackson for refining and buffing my rough edges and lending her contacts. To Tricia Jalbert for believing in my work and connecting me with so many professionals in the field. To Irv Richardson for providing a critical piece of information. To Kraig Schwartz for giving me the right direction for the cartoons. And to Marty Kelley for making the cartoons a reality. And most especially to Libby Comeau and Jeri Robertson-Hanson for having faith in my voice and helping me to go as far as I can go.

To my wonderful children, Casey and Molly, I give you my undying love and gratitude for opening me up, teaching me the most valuable lessons of my life, and leading me in the direction I needed to go. Thank you for your encouragement, support, pride, and love. I admire you both so much.

But most of all, to my husband, Baxter Harris, who should strongly consider a career in editing. I give you my love and gratitude for bearing with me through each and every word, time after time. From the beginning, you have been my sounding board, my clarity gauge, my thesaurus, my diagram designer, and the gentle wielder of the ax. You helped me turn my concepts into understandable words. Thank you for your wholehearted belief in my work and for sustaining me with your love and support. I owe you one.



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.

Road Rage

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.

Button-Pushing Behavior

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.

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 our selves.

—Carl G. Jung, The Development of Personality

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.

What Now?

"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.

EXERCISE 1: Identifying Your Buttons

How do you know when your button has been pushed?

List your child's behaviors that push your button.

What are your typical automatic reactions?

Where do your automatics tend to put you on the Button Meter?

Do different times of the day change your Button Meter? Is there a pattern?

What typically causes you to hit the boiling-over or explosion zone?

What are your reactions to your child when you are in each zone?



There cannot be a crisis next week. My schedule is already full.


Hey, wait a minute. This isn't about my child, is it? This is about me!" is an inevitable remark from a parent in one of my classes. It may appear that I am placing the blame for a child's behavior on the parent. Not at all. In fact, I am saying that the parent is not responsible for the child's behavior. The parent is responsible for her reaction to the behavior. It's what is going on in our own heads that is the culprit when our buttons get pushed.

The mother of a child who is hitting is not responsible for the hitting. She is responsible for how she reacts to the hitting, which in turn impacts her child's subsequent behavior. If she were to take responsibility for the hitting, she would not be effective in handling the situation, because she would be focused on feeling responsible. She might feel embarrassed in front of others, angry that her daughter made her look bad, and fearful that the child is becoming a bully—all of which are the mother's agenda and can interfere with helping her daughter stop. What time of day it is, what has just happened, what she has to do next, and how she is feeling will all play into how this mother handles the hitting. All this she is responsible for.

The Agenda Puzzle

We function every minute of every day with an agenda. Our agenda is made up of our thoughts and perceptions, the standards of behavior we hold, the beliefs we have about ourselves and others, as well as our circumstances and physical and emotional state. Our agenda determines how we are going to react to a situation in the present moment—how sensitive our buttons are.


Present circumstances—what's going on that is demanding my attention

Experiences—what I anticipate happening based on past experience. I know what this is leading to. If I say that, he'll have a tantrum.

Expectations—what do I/you have to do, what should I/you be doing, what do I/you wish had happened

Standards of behavior—the bar by which I set my expectations

Emotions—what I'm feeling about past, present, or future experiences

Assumptions, perceptions, fears

Hormonal balance/imbalance

Stress level


Beliefs about self and others from past experience

Imagine your agenda as a puzzle. Each piece is a picture, even though incomplete by itself. Each piece is a part of the whole. The whole picture is a sum of its pieces. Some pieces give more clues to the whole picture than others. Some pieces give clues to other pieces.

What I need to buy at the grocery store, how little time I have to get there, my frustration with my son over not getting his coat on, the hopelessness I feel about the argument I had with my husband this morning, how resentful I am about missing dinner with my friends, what a mess my house is, my guilt over not having called my sick aunt for over a month and how awful my hair looks are only a fraction of the thoughts that occupy my mind at any given moment—and these only concern the present.

We want our children's behavior to change so that our agenda is not disrupted or inconvenienced. After all, what thoughts we have on our minds, what we have to do, what we're worried about is what matters.

If I have a report due at work tomorrow, my house is a disorganized mess, and my child is being defiant, my agenda is loaded. So if I am tired, have not started the report, have no time to clean, have an empty refrigerator, know how my husband feels about disorganization, and my four-year-old has left his toys all over the living room, guess who I will take it out on when he says, "I can't pick up my toys; I'm too tired"? In this state of mind—with this agenda—it is highly unlikely that I will be considerate of my son, handle the situation effectively, or understand his agenda.

Your Child's Agenda

Usually if we are conscious of our child's agenda at all, it is only in relation to how it affects us. Seldom do we spend the energy to step out of our own agenda to see what is going on with our child.

But children experience stress, fear, and exhaustion just like we do. They put expectations on themselves just like we do. They sometimes have difficulty trying to figure out how to make friends, how to be like their big brother, how to get their parents to accept them the way they are. But they don't have the words or the complex understanding of feelings to tell us what is going on. All they have is their behavior.

They worry and wonder about what we are going to say when they want something, when they explore new territory, when they make a mistake, when they become independent. Their well-being is critically dependent on our approval, but their desire to follow their impulses is often stronger.

Young children are affected by temperament, hunger, and tiredness; they often feel out of control, scared, and powerless when the big people in their lives tell them what to do. Older children desperately want their independence but are scared of the responsibility that it brings.

Children of any age have agendas.

Your child's agenda is as important to her as yours is to you.

When we acknowledge the importance of their agendas, we are parenting respectfully—our best bet at earning their respect in return. Even when their impulses are getting the best of them, we need to understand and accept them, if not their behavior. If a child's agenda has been acknowledged, even a two-year-old building a block tower will feel the respect and thus be more likely to cooperate with a parent who needs to get to work on time. "I know how much you want to finish your tower. You must feel mad when I say it's time to stop playing and get ready for day care. You can put two more blocks on and then set them up so they are ready to work on as soon as we get home." This is not a guarantee of happy cooperation, but the likelihood of getting out the door on time is far greater than when you think your agenda is the only one.

Thomas was alone for the weekend with Amanda, eight, and Jared, twelve, while his wife was away on business. Thomas wanted to do something that would be fun for all three of them, and so he decided to take them skiing. Early Saturday morning they left to spend the day on the slopes.

No sooner had they arrived, bought lift tickets, and got themselves on the chairlift when Amanda started whining and complaining—a familiar button for Thomas. "Every time we get out in public or off on an adventure, she starts her griping," Thomas complained to his "Buttons" class. "Nothing is ever good enough for her. 'Daddy, I don't want to go on that trail. It's too hard for me. You're making me do it, and I don't want to.' She was driving me nuts!"


On Sale
Jul 1, 2008
Page Count
320 pages

Bonnie Harris

About the Author

Bonnie Harris has a masters degree in Early Childhood, founded The Parent Guidance Center, and is the director of Core Parenting, which teaches workshops nationally.

Learn more about this author