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Why Children Push Your Buttons

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It's 10:10 and thirteen-year-old Megan is still on the telephone. The rule is, there will be no telephone conversations after ten o'clock. Mother sticks her head into Megan's room and politely reminds her that she needs to finish the conversation and hang up. Megan nods and makes a face. At 10:20, Mother calmly reminds her again. Megan waves at Mom, hoping she will go away. This time Mother feels herself getting upset. At 10:27, Mother explodes with anger. "Hang up right now, young lady. You are restricted from the phone for two weeks." Megan has pushed Mother's button.

Children push your buttons because they like driving you crazy. They like seeing you transformed from a rational, clearheaded, calm parent into an unreasonable, provoked maniac. One minute you are composed and sensible, the next minute you are agitated and senseless.

Every parent can relate to this. When you get angry, yell, scream, or threaten, your button has been pushed. When you find yourself telling your child that he is grounded for a year, your button has been pushed.

Children push your buttons hoping you will give in and let them have their way. Children push your buttons to get attention because they want you to feel guilty and blame yourself when you punish them, because they are angry at you, or sometimes to get even and hurt you.

We all have these buttons. When they are pushed, each of us reacts in our own unique way. Usually we become angry, impulsive, and sometimes vengeful.

Two Reactions for One Misbehavior
Twelve-year-old Sean asks his mother, Cindy, if he can have a few friends over to watch TV. Cindy says no. She explains that she has a lot of work to do tonight: "Perhaps you can have them over some other night. Maybe next weekend." Sean does not accept her answer. He begins to tease and whine: "I never get to have friends over. You're not fair." Cindy argues her point. Sean argues in return. The argument intensifies. Sean starts having a tantrum. Cindy gets angry. She yells at Sean to go to his room and stay there for the remainder of the day.

Going to his room is a punishment, so arguing should be weakened; but in reality, Sean is arguing more every day. Even though Cindy consistently sends Sean to his room every time, Sean continues to argue.

Sean argues to push Cindy's buttons. Cindy had two reactions to Sean's misbehavior: she became angry with Sean, and she punished Sean. What if making Cindy angry was part of Sean's plan? What if Cindy's anger was a payoff for Sean? Then Cindy's anger was a reward.

When Cindy punishes Sean for arguing, she concurrently rewards him for arguing. Sean trades going to his room for making Cindy upset. This gives Sean control and power. That is why Sean continues to argue each day even though Cindy punishes him consistently. The reward of control is stronger than the punishment. Cindy must change her behavior. She must learn to control her anger when she punishes Sean. She must stay calm and not argue. By controlling herself, Cindy removes Sean's reward for arguing; therefore, the punishment will have more of an effect.

When some parents learn this, they respond by wanting to use stronger punishments, but large punishments combined with anger could be disastrous. Even if you use a punishment that is stronger than the reward of pushing your buttons, your anger greatly neutralizes the effects of the punishment. It will take much longer for the punishment to weaken the misbehavior.

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From How to Behave So Your Children Will, Too!. Copyright Sal Severe, 2000. Used by arrangement with Viking Penguin, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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