Is There a Tyrant in Your House? Why Kids Push Your Buttons and What to do About It

“I’m not going to school and you can’t make me,” says the 5-year-old, who holds up the household routine each morning, refusing to put on her sneakers until her exasperated father practically forces them on her feet. “No, you do it!” screams the 3-year-old, after his mother informs him he needs to clean up the milk she’s pretty sure he spilled on purpose. And there’s always the classic, “I hate you!” from the teenager whose been told just about anything. If these types of outbursts get your adrenaline pumping to the point where you see red, and respond with the sorts of statements you swore you’d never use with your children, congratulations, your kids have successfully pushed your buttons. Take heart, it happens to the best of us. Bonnie Harris, a parent educator and author of the newly released When Kids Push Your Buttons and What You Can Do About It (Warner Books), remembers mornings in her household as particularly tempestuous due to daily power struggles with her then four-year-old daughter, Molly. Like clockwork, Molly procrastinated and whined about going to preschool, and Harris, the parenting expert with an advanced degree in early childhood education, nagged and prodded, resenting the inconvenience her daughter’s behavior created. “Then one morning, I got it,” she recalls. “She was having a problem getting up and separating from me.” Harris maintains that seeing Molly’s difficulties in a more objective light defused the button, allowing her to listen and support her daughter and, in turn, be the parent the situation required. Though mornings improved and Molly went off to school with considerably less grumbling, Harris says button-pushing behavior can leave a parent with feelings of regret and helplessness. “No matter how wonderful a parent you are, no matter how many parenting skills you have, when that button goes off, there is nothing you can do in that situation," she says.

Are Your Kids Really Out to Get You? It may feel that way, but children push their parents’ buttons for a variety of reasons. “Kids have the need to make noise, the need to make a mess, while we have a need for order, calm and efficiency,” explains Nancy Samalin, the Manhattan parent educator and author of Loving Without Spoiling (McGraw-Hill), due out in paperback in September. “It’s natural to have a conflict of needs. Kids want what they want. If there’s any hope we can give it to them, they’re very patient and persistent.” Seeing our children as extensions of ourselves can also skew a parent’s perspective of what may be a developmental stage, says Jean Kunhardt, a founder and director of Soho Parenting Center. “Say a kid has hit another child in playgroup. You have to ask yourself, what motivated that?” she explains, noting that aggressive behavior may be the result of a toddler who wanted a toy, didn’t have the words to express himself, and reacted in a primitive manner. “It does not mean the child is selfish and greedy, and going to grow up to be a chain gang leader.” Just as parents may have a timetable for getting an older sibling to soccer practice or making sure the family is fed at a reasonable hour, kids also have their own agenda, observes Harris in her book. Children experience stress, fear and exhaustion just as we do, but don’t always have the words to tell us what’s going on. All they have is their behavior. Whatever the source, there’s no quick fix for getting control of your reaction to button-pushing behavior. However, the next time your picky eater tells you he’s going to gag on his dinner, keep in mind the following guidelines, which require discipline and effort on an adult’s part, but can help you to parent in a more satisfying and effective manner:

Make the Distinction Watching your 3-year-old throw a tantrum in a public place can be embarrassing, but Harris maintains there’s a significant distinction between feeling responsible for your child’s behavior, and reacting to a particular behavior. “That’s a tough one for parents to get,” says Harris, noting that how you respond to hitting, a poor report card, or the stack of laundry your teenager refuses to put away is more important than trying to control or prevent egregious conduct. “We are not responsible for our children’s thoughts, feelings and behaviors. We are 100 percent responsible for everything we say and do in response to that behavior.” Reacting to button-pushing behavior in a less charged way does not mean you’re off the hook for instilling discipline, maintains Kunhardt. “If you can stay on your side of it and not react so intensely, it will ultimately help the child.”

Pick Your Battles Choose your battles wisely and don’t sweat the small stuff, is advice many parent educators advocate. “You have to ask yourself: Is it dangerous or rude? Will it matter a week from now?” says Samalin, who counsels parents in her workshops to stay cool, avoid unnecessary conflict and resist taking the bait. “Every time you don’t react, you can pat yourself on the back.”

Consistency Counts “Fifteen minutes till bedtime,” is a familiar warning in many households, however nighttime routines are likely to go a lot more smoothly when parents are consistent. Given today’s demands, it’s easy to fall into what Samalin likes to refer to as “the happiness trap.” “We don’t want our children to be angry with us; we want to be nicer than our parents were,” she points out. Parents may be setting themselves up for a battle when they actually do try and enforce a rule their children have never been expected to obey. “You may fail a lot of times, but it’s worth the effort,” adds Samalin, who advises parents to stick with decisions they feel strongly about, even if it makes them unpopular with their kids. “You’re doing your children a favor when they can believe what you say.” Sleep is a big topic at the Soho Parenting Center, where parents seek help with their children who’ve ruled the roost for years and made bedtime an arduous, protracted process. “Kids are anxious when they have that much control,” notes Kunhardt, who advises parents to come up with a clear bedtime routine. Sticking with it is easier if you talk about the routine during daytime hours and engage in drawing or playacting to reinforce the idea.

Set Realistic Goals Goals should set children up for success, not failure. “A lot of us have standards for our kids that just cannot be met,” says Harris, relating an incident involving a shy 4-year-old who had a hard time speaking to people in public, and his mother, who had high standards of politeness. One day, the mother spotted an acquaintance at the supermarket and expected her son to politely say hello. Instead he grabbed her purse and began swinging it around his head, and the situation quickly deteriorated into an embarrassing battle of wills. In this instance, Harris suggested the mother adjust her standard to accommodate an introverted child, and to tell him: I expect you’re going to have a hard time meeting people in public. I expect you’re going to stand by my side. I expect you to listen quietly while I talk to my friend. “With those standards she can ease him into the situation,” she says, noting that there’s a difference between adjusting a standard and lowering one, and that a reasonable amount of flexibility can make it possible for a child to mature and move on.

It’s Never Too Late Looking inward can also help a parent identify why buttons are easily pushed. “The more you know about yourself, what your own vulnerabilities, fears and issues are, the better equipped you’ll be to help your child when you hit a roadblock in parenting,” Kundhardt suggests. More importantly, even when button-pushing behavior has gone on for years, there isn’t a statute of limitations on working toward a more satisfying relationship with your children. “It’s never too late to change the way you’re parenting,” says Harris, who has worked with families in crisis, and seen parents’ relationships with rebellious teenagers take a turn for the better. “You don’t have to go from A to Z when going from A to B makes a huge difference in your child’s eyes.”