Photo by Psyche
You can’t control your child’s emotions, but by questioning your assumptions and expectations you can become a calmer parent
by Bonnie Harris + BIO
Photo by Psyche
Your child screams out that you are stupid and demands that you leave him alone. Your teen responds to your well-intended piece of advice with an eye-roll and a ‘Whatever.’ Your preschooler is having her fourth mammoth meltdown of the day over a puzzle piece that doesn’t fit. You can’t seem to get your kids to even brush their teeth when they are told to. And so you lose it. You blow up at them, releasing your pent-up emotions just like they do. You have to get them to change somehow, right? You are not alone. It happens to the most well-meaning parents.
Your enraged reaction means your button has been pushed. What your child has said or done does not comport with your expectation of what your child should say or do. You might spew words that you swore you were never going to say to your kids. You probably know that you’ll get better results if you can keep your emotions in check: when children feel threatened, they will not be able to think clearly, and neither will you. So, you might desperately want to stay calm. But what if you can’t? Some people can decide to change a behaviour and just do it, while others, who might be desperate for change, have a harder time doing so.
Perhaps your reactions feel out of your control. But they are not. While you can’t control your children’s emotions and reactions, you can learn to control your own – so that you can respond, rather than react, and be the parent you always thought you’d be.
We all get our buttons pushed, but what pushes my button doesn’t necessarily push yours. Your button – your trigger point – could stem from a belief planted in your mind many years ago. Perhaps you developed the belief that I have to do what I’m told or else, which activates voices in your head about your child (How dare she say that? I would have never dared…) that in turn fuel your fury and your threats. Beliefs such as this one can be linked to what was expected of you when you were a child, and what was said and done by people in authority, as interpreted by your then-immature brain. Filtering their words and tones egocentrically, you might have created self-defined truths: I’m a disappointment; I’m too emotional; my opinions don’t count; I don’t count. Unexamined, such beliefs can become buttons that your children are the very best at pushing.
While it seems that buttons get pushed when we are merely subject to situational stresses, loaded agendas and everyday impatience, the degree to which we are triggered and thus are able to recover has much to do with whether deeper beliefs are at play in directing our behaviour.
Consider Katie, mother of 13-year-old Liam, who would argue with her, shout obscenities and refuse to do what she asked. Liam’s behaviour provoked Katie’s rage and threats. A negative feedback loop consumed their relationship. Katie’s negative attitude in anticipating her son’s resistance was met with his ignoring her, or darts such as: ‘I can’t stand being in this family. Leave me alone! I don’t have to do anything you say.’ She would yell back that he was disrespectful and threaten to take his phone. To find a way out, it helped Katie to look back at her own childhood.
Katie was a strong-willed child who got the belt from her father and was slapped by her mother when she displeased them. She felt scared and defensive, and early on developed a belief about herself that everything was always her fault. If something bad happened, she was to blame, because she was a bad girl. As an adult, Katie was plagued with perfectionism and a need to prove herself to be right. The deep-rooted belief in her ‘badness’ appeared to be compensated for by her drive to ensure control so that no one discovered her ‘true’ self. As a mother, she had to be right in her parenting – at a cost to her relationship with Liam. Life had become very stressful.
Through our work together, Katie has gained a newly connected relationship with her son. Liam’s trust in her has returned. He is becoming more cooperative. It started with Katie taking responsibility for her part in the vicious cycle of actions and reactions. She saw that Liam did not intend disrespect but was protecting himself from her disapproval, similar to how she protected herself from her own father.
Awareness, knowledge of child development, and taking responsibility for one’s emotions and behaviour can be enough for many to change old habits. For other parents, it takes unearthing beliefs rooted in the past. Over 30 years of working with parents, I have been able to guide them through a new understanding of themselves by helping them take new pictures of their past experiences through an adult lens. With clarity comes the capacity for exercising empathy and compassion instead of being driven by knee-jerk emotional reactions. In this Guide, I share some of the perspective shifts and techniques that have been helpful in achieving this change.
Understand the importance of your assumptions
The psychologist Albert Ellis, a founder of cognitive therapy, developed the ‘ABC model’ of how people react to negative experiences. A is adversity (a negative event), and C represents the consequences, in terms of your emotions and behaviours. Importantly, Ellis proposed that in between them is B – your beliefs and thoughts about the adversity, which in turn cause C.
I have used Ellis’s model to illustrate what I call ‘the emotional chain reaction’: how the assumptions that you make about yourself and your children provoke your emotions, which subsequently fuel your behavioural reactions. The assumptions, which you make in a split second, are the critical and usually neglected step. They can include ideas, fears, perceptions or judgments. For instance, if your child calls you stupid, and that pushes a button, here’s what happens:
In between hearing the words and feeling the emotions, however, you make an assumption, such as He’s rude and disrespectful, or I can’t let him talk to me that way, or I’ve raised a thoughtless brat. I failed.
These assumptions are what provoke your emotions and fuel your reactions. You can change your reactions by changing what you think in the first place. If you don’t have a button about being called stupid, you won’t take your child’s words personally. You’ll understand that they are expressions of his frustration. You can respond calmly because you know it’s about your child, not about you.
In Katie’s case, assumptions were made that preceded and provoked her feelings of resentment and being disrespected.
These negative judgments necessarily provoke negative emotions and reactions. They prevent Katie from connecting with her son and helping him cooperate. She anticipates Liam’s resistance, so is pre-emptively on guard.
Set appropriate expectations about your child’s behaviour
Your assumptions stem from the expectations you hold – spoken or unspoken. They are often ones you were raised by. If your parents expected gratitude and criticised you if they didn’t see it, you might pass on that expectation to your kid. If you have spent an afternoon at the playground with your five-year-old and taken her for ice cream, you will be blindsided that evening if her reaction to being told it’s time for bed is to shout: ‘You’re so mean – you never let me do anything I want!’
Will you yell and punish her, or remain calm? You are more likely to make the automatic assumption that she’s an ungrateful child if you hold the expectation that children should always be appreciative and grateful. Assuming she is ungrateful, you will likely take her words literally and react in anger: ‘How dare you say I never let you do what you want? What did we just do this afternoon? You get to bed, and I don’t want to hear any more about it.’ Such a reaction will provoke feelings of shame in the child.
But if you consider that her young age means she is egocentric and thus focused on getting what she wants, you can interpret her words differently and see that she is expressing anger at not wanting to go to bed – it’s not about the playground and the ice cream. You are likely to be frustrated but can remain calm. ‘It’s a bummer, I know. Sometimes going to bed is hard when you want to keep playing. Let’s decide what books we’ll read when we get upstairs.’ The child is heard and acknowledged, even though she can’t have what she wants. Shame doesn’t come into it.
The question to ask is: are your expectations set for the child you have, or for the child you wish you had? Realistic and appropriate expectations set the bar at a level your child can reach. If your expectations are too far out of reach, your child might come to believe he is never good enough. To hold realistic expectations, it’s important to consider what is age-appropriate and temperament-appropriate. For instance, if your child is still young and egocentric, he will not have the cognitive capacity to fully take someone else’s emotions or point of view into consideration. It is unrealistic to expect that he should understand that his little sister gets upset when he takes something from her, or that his mother has had a hard day and needs some quiet. If your teen is sulky and spending time in her room, it is inappropriate to expect her to share with you everything that is going on when you ask her what’s wrong. If you have an introverted, slow-to-warm-up child, it is unrealistic to expect him to join in on any activity until he has determined his own comfort level.
When your expectations are coloured by what you want, and don’t reflect your child’s needs, you are likely to get pushback as well as send a message of disapproval. These messages can get interpreted by your child as I’m not good enough.
When your button is pushed, take a pause
In the moment when you are triggered, often the most important thing to do is to say nothing. Instead of reacting to that inner voice that tells you to nip this in the bud or teach him a lesson right now, reject that voice. Anything you say will likely be ineffective at best – and could be damaging to your relationship with your child.
When your button has been pushed, something physical often happens in your body. Your stomach clenches, you make fists, your palms sweat, your throat tightens. If you can notice and identify any of these responses, they can be your signal to stop.
Take some deliberate breaths. At least three or four breaths that go down into your abdomen and slowly rise through your nose will help bring your more reasonable mind back online. Stopping that voice in your head can also involve creating a mantra for yourself to say each time you get triggered: ‘Do nothing and breathe.’ ‘She’s having a problem, not being a problem. Or: ‘Detach, detach, detach.’
Check your triggers and reactions
Don’t expect to be always able to stop yourself in the moment of emotional flooding. Much of the work is done afterward, when your ‘thinking brain’ is fully functioning.
Pay attention to what types of behaviours trigger you. Is it when your child ignores you, talks back with rude language, or expresses anger? Make a list of these triggers as they come up. (Eventually, you will be able to name the situation and think: Here’s that trigger. I’m assuming he’s ignoring me. What’s really going on here?)
After an incident caused by one of these triggers, write down how you reacted; for example: ‘I yelled and threatened to take away his phone.’ Ask yourself: If I reacted that way, what must I have been feeling? Write all the feelings you can come up with. Be specific. Instead of just ‘angry’, it might be that you felt ‘put upon’, ‘powerless’, ‘ignored’, ‘guilty’ and ‘resentful’. Then ask: If I felt that way, what must I have been thinking? Write down your assumptions about the situation – as many as you can. ‘He never appreciates anything we do for him.’ ‘He’s so inconsiderate.’ ‘I have failed to teach him gratitude.’ ‘There’s no point in even trying. He’ll never change.’
Also consider this question: Can I connect this to a belief I took in about myself? Perhaps you will conclude something like this: I might think this way because my father once called me an ‘ungrateful bitch’. It has stuck with me forever.
Finally, ask: How can I see the situation differently? For example, here’s a different way of viewing a situation in which a child comes across as ungrateful: ‘He’s focused on what he wants right now. It’s not that he’s ungrateful. Maybe it’s a good thing that we don’t demand his gratitude all the time, because then he’d feel unworthy, like I do.’
Challenge your assumptions by sticking to the facts
Learning to see a situation differently from the way you have come to expect is key to altering your reactions to your child’s behaviour. A mother who resents her daughter’s displays of irritation, for instance, can look at the child’s grumpy face and tell herself: She’s having a problem, rather than She’s being a problem. She feels miserable, instead of She is bad.
The habitual way is to see judgment as truth. You must acknowledge that your assumptions are merely the way you see a situation. What is needed is observation of the facts – and empathy. ‘If there is some truth in your belief, don’t dismiss it,’ writes the psychologist Martin Seligman in his book The Optimistic Child (1995). ‘But it is crucial to separate the kernel of truth from the chaff of catastrophising.’
Watching a child hitting a sibling can quickly lead a parent to think: He’s so mean. That might feel hard to dispute, but dispute it you must. He’s so mean is an assumption, a judgment that provokes fear and anger, which naturally leads to yelling, controlling, threatening and blaming. To alter your reaction, you must first alter your assumption. His sister broke his Lego boat. He was angry and lost control is a more factual assumption that encourages understanding. This doesn’t mean the hitting is fine. It means you will deal with it more effectively.
In Katie’s case, when Liam wouldn’t get off the computer at the designated time, she approached with a reprimand, anticipating his resistance. Liam was playing a game with his friends and said to them: ‘My mom is making me get off. She’s such an asshole.’ Katie lost it.
After working on replacing her initial judgment with a more dispassionate observation of Liam’s behaviour and the circumstances in which it appeared, Katie looked at the situation from a different vantage point. She switched from assuming Liam is attacking me and is frighteningly disrespectful to He is saving face with his friends. He didn’t want to admit that his mother was making him get offline, so he made her the enemy. While his words were unacceptable, she could see that it was not about her as much as it was about his need to protect his status with his friends. She admitted that she had never thought of it this way. She felt more understanding, and came up with the idea of holding up a sign to remind Liam to end. He liked that. After emotions cooled, she was able to tell him calmly how she felt when he called her an ‘asshole’ to his friends. He heard her and apologised.
As Katie began to see Liam’s words and behaviour as a form of self-defence, she felt compassion and so was able to stop defending herself. Compassion has broken their negative feedback loop.
Striving to observe and understand rather than leap to judgment can help you reframe your assumptions. You can see the judgment, and shift to a factual observation. You can replace a thought such as Why can’t he ever listen and do one thing I ask? (notice the emotion implicit in the thought) with He’s involved in what he’s doing, or He doesn’t like what he’s hearing, or He does do what I ask when I give him choices and time. Similarly, you can convert a self-focused assumption such as I’m a lousy parent (which feels hopeless) to I’m exhausted and need help (which encourages self-compassion).
Questioning your limiting beliefs
To affect and potentially neutralise the limiting beliefs you hold – the ones that can fuel over-reactions to your child’s behaviour – it is important to understand what purpose they serve for you. That is, what they permit you to do or avoid – how they get you what you want. Your beliefs, derailing as they are, are embedded in your identity. Questioning that takes courage. You have grown into your beliefs gradually, like the frog who grows accustomed to the boiling water. Even if you know that a belief holds you back, it’s hard to let go of what you have been attached to for so long.
Consider the following questions:
When you can answer such questions – What do I get out of hanging on to this belief? and What does it do for me? – you are bringing the belief to your consciousness. You are better able to see how you might be sabotaging yourself. Once you can think it through and connect the dots, your limiting belief can become just another fact in your past, like when you moved from one city to another.
Remember that confirmation bias shapes our experiences. As Seligman says, it ‘causes people to see only the evidence that confirms their view of themselves and the world. They dismiss evidence that refutes it.’ For instance, if you think you’re not smart enough, that you can’t ever get anything right, you will look only at those efforts that didn’t work out and ignore all the times when you did accomplish something. If you are talking to a group of people, you might latch on to the one person who isn’t smiling and nodding and tell yourself: See, he thinks you don’t know what you’re talking about. And when your child is struggling with her mathematics homework and you are trying to help, but she screams ‘You don’t know how to do this!’, it will push a button – your belief that you are not smart enough.
Confirmation bias creates a filter through which we witness our reality. Questioning it is important for growth and healing.
As you re-evaluate your own limiting beliefs, your button likely won’t disappear entirely. But once its power is defused, you will not be as reactive to your child when he pushes it. You might be annoyed or frustrated, but you won’t be resentful or enraged.
The goal is not to be perfect but to prevent everyday annoyances from triggering automatic reactions. When you can switch your mindset – to viewing your child’s button-pushing behaviour as a signal that your child is having a problem, not being a problem – it is easier to switch your emotional response from anger to compassion.
Your button-pusher is the most important teacher you will ever have. Will you allow yourself to be taught, or just keep on trying to teach your child a thing or two? When your button has been pushed, you are at a crossroads. You can either punish your child for pushing or listen to what the pushing has to tell you. The choice is yours.
In his book The Optimistic Child (1995), the psychologist Martin Seligman describes how cognitive behavioural therapy plays a role in understanding negative thought patterns, explaining Albert Ellis’s ‘ABC model’, which I used to formulate my idea of ‘the emotional chain reaction’. Seligman helps parents put this to work on their children’s negative thought patterns.
My book When Your Kids Push Your Buttons (2003) covers at length all the layers involved in understanding where your buttons come from, including the expectations that cause your assumptions, the beliefs you have come to view as truth, and how those beliefs serve you – all important pieces of the puzzle of how to defuse your triggers and respond, rather than react, to your children.
The ‘Buttons’ audio parenting seminar, based on my book, is an audio workshop that I conduct with several parents. Listening to these parents doing their work while following along with your own downloadable workbook can help deepen your understanding and awareness.
In my book Confident Parents, Remarkable Kids (2008), I lay out the eight principles of connective parenting that I think of as very detailed reframed assumptions. The how-to of putting these principles into practice (including in the context of seven everyday events) helps you see your children with a new and more effective mindset.
My podcast ‘Tell Me About Your Kids: Conversations on Connective Parenting with Bonnie Harris’ features weekly, unfiltered one-on-one counselling sessions as I help parents navigate their daily challenges, giving you a fly-on-the-wall perspective to help you learn key parenting strategies and principles.
The Orchid and the Dandelion: Why Sensitive Children Face Challenges and How All Can Thrive (2019), by the paediatrician W Thomas Boyce, could be one of the most important books of the decade. If you’re getting your buttons pushed, chances are it’s an orchid child doing the pushing.
The book The Body Keeps the Score (2014), by the psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk, is for anyone who doubts the impact of early experiences on our body and behaviour. Past trauma can strongly affect one’s emotional life – and how easily buttons get pushed.