Thursday, September 4, 2003

Parents' 'buttons' may be old scars

Kids' behavior can trigger memories

By Samantha Critchell
The Associated Press

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 over-reactive 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, according to Harris.

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.

Is it a call for help?

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

If spilled milk makes a 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, says Harris, of Peterborough, N.H.

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."

Self-control difficult

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, Harris says.

Many buttons are dormant in the years between childhood and childbirth, according to Harris. 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, she says.

"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."

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