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Why our children push our buttons and what to do about it

You know those moments when your child (or someone else) says or does something and you just can't not react? Moments when you get so triggered it's very hard not to say or do something that you might later regret? Sometimes it might feel like watching yourself from above - you know whatever you say or do next will only make things worse, and you still go ahead and do it.


The infamous buttons, that get pushed? I really like the metaphor of buttons :)


How many of those do you think you have? And how many of them get pushed regularly?


Why do our buttons get pushed?!

This is a really rich exploration, and I will start it with "why" - why is it that our children push our buttons? I think about it in three categories (and these surely don't capture them all, so I would love to hear what your "why" is!):


  • Because some (or a lot of) our needs have consistently not been met. It might be that we hadn't not slept, eaten, cared for ourselves, we forgot some important needs, or we simply hadn't had a chance to stop and care for ourselves and notice what it is that WE need for a while. It is impossible to forever put our needs to the side. We are of course able to park our needs to care for our children, but when that parking lot starts overflowing - that's when things start exploding. But here is the thing: our children don't know that these are the needs we have. Those needs are ours, and we (with support from other adults) need to find ways of meeting them.


  • Because whatever they just said or did activated some memory from our childhood (whether we are conscious of it or not) - something we wish hadn't been part of our experience. I remember my daughter spending a really long time choosing ice-cream flavour, only to then have a few licks and say to me she doesn't like it. At the time I had no idea why that pushed a button in me - it took me a while to realise that it triggered a memory: when I was growing up we rarely had ice-cream, and if we did it was three flavours to choose from. That was it. A part of me wanted to scream "I wish I had all these flavours of ice-cream to choose from!!". But here is the thing: our children don't know the painful parts of our past. It is ours to care for (again, preferably with support from other adults in our community of care)


  • Because we have a particular belief that is at odds with what is happening in front of us right this moment (what our child is doing). These beliefs often come in words like "should/shouldn't". In the example with my daughter there is also a belief I realised I held: people should be grateful for whatever they are given. And so when they are not, I get triggered! But here is the thing: these beliefs are ours, they do not belong to our children. And once we spot them, we may want to look at whether they serve us. And once we know that, we might want to choose what to do about them!


And last, one that possibly captures all the reasons above - our children push our buttons simply because those buttons are there. We have all those unmet needs, memories from the past, stories we tell ourselves. We carry it all around, and so it is no wonder sometimes some of these get activated. Most of the time it is not intentional button-pushing. It is all very very human.


It doesn't mean there is nothing we can do about it - but I do find it allows for a lot more grace and compassion for ourselves once we realise it is part of our common human experience to have these buttons, and to have people push them.

But what to do?!

So, what can we do about it? How do we parent with all these buttons, knowing that some of them will get pushed at least sometimes - and also knowing that we are all really wanting to be the best parents we can be!

Before I do anything, I like to remind myself about one thing: yes my children push my buttons but they did not put those buttons there - this helps me find a lot more grace both in the moment and outside of it. And it also allows me a lot more power in deciding how I want to proceed - it's an opportunity to explore what is going on for me that I react the way I do, and a chance to do something about it.

The moment a button is pushed and things are rolling it's really hard to stop it. The moment our nervous system detects something to react to, we are on a highway. Like any buttons, ours activate a reaction.

One useful way of looking at his might be: what can I do for these buttons to not get pushed (maybe even get rid of some of them), and once they do, what to do after I exploded.  

In the moment

When things are rolling and it seems like you're about to explode, the most useful - and the hardest at times - thing to do is access the power of PAUSE. I don't quite believe in counting to ten - I have found I just get annoyed ten seconds later - but there are some things I have found I can do within that pause that help me.

  • take a really slow breath in and out to help my brain understand that this is not an emergency - if I have time to breathe slowly, my brain gets a message there is no need to react straight away.

  • find a phrase to say to myself or out loud to let myself and everyone else know this is a hard moment - I simply say out loud "Oooof this is hard". This allows me to extend the pause before I do anything else. In most cases my immediate reaction will do more harm than good (and of course, this is not so when there are issues of safety)

  • ask myself "What do I need right now?" This might seem counterintuitive, and I encourage you to try - often our reactions come from our own needs, and a desperate longing to get them met.

  • tell myself "It's not about me." and if we have capacity, look at our child and ask myself "What is going on for you?"

The other day I had a really challenging day, after very little sleep, and just overall 'life's hard' time. As I put dinner on the table my daughter looked at it, rolled her eyes and said: "Why do we have to eat your yucky food? Yucky porridge in the morning and now this!?" Boy, did I find it hard not to yell and stomp right there and then! I did manage to take a slow breath, and when I paused to ask "What do I need right now?" I noticed I really wanted ease and rest. "I wish things were easier" I said out loud. She looked at me and started crying "me too!" she sobbed.

We had a chat.

It was friend troubles.

It was nothing to do with me.

And it pushed my button nonetheless ;)

If you can do any of the things above when you're about to explode - that is amazing. And often it's impossible - and we simply explode.

How human of us.

What do we do then?

After the moment

There is a reason we react. There are good reasons we get activated, and that it's hard to stop - all the "whys" above speak to that. And because parenting is not about what our children do or don't do, but more about how we respond to it - this is another opportunity to see the power in recognising our buttons and why they are there.

Here is a practice I do after my button gets pushed:

Once things are calm I find a moment to it with myself. I recognize that this was just a really hard moment. And I ask myself: What was so important, that you reacted? What was going on for you? What were you needing right there and then?

More often than not there are needs I have not had met in a while - and this is an opportunity to recognize that, and work out how I will get them met.

It might seem to simple to work.

Try and see what happens?

In my experience, we so often put our children's needs ahead of our own, that our needs tend to get forgotten. And then, in moments of tension, they rise to the surface.

Caring for our needs prevents a lot of anger.

But to care for our needs, we need to recognise what they are - reflecting on moments when our buttons did get pushed provides us an opportunity to do just that. And a chance to remove some extra buttons ;)

Wishing you so much joy and patience on your journey to exploring your buttons...

With care,


PS. If you'd like to explore how to care for those button-pushing moments, how to move through them and beyond, and perhaps even how to get rid of some of them - hop on my online course right here:

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