Picture this: a frazzled mom picks up her toddler and five-year-old from daycare after a long day at work. On the way home, the five-year-old begins to scream about being hungry and wanting dinner NOW! The toddler starts to cry shortly after and joins in about being hungry. With 20 minutes still left in the ride home, the mom reaches her breaking point and screams back, "Fine! We're going to McDonald's!" and pulls into the nearest drive-through to get a couple of Happy Meals, thus spoiling the plan of the dinner that dad was preparing at home. You can imagine the scene that occurs when they return home.
If you’ve found yourself in a similar scene or are remembering times when your kids have pushed your buttons and you give in, you are not alone. Kids are REALLY good at reading their parents. They learn from an early age how to get what they want. As I’m writing this, my three-month old is taking a nap in his bouncer chair with a pacifier in his mouth and my phone next to him making white noise. Before that, however, he was fussy and wanting to be held. He knows if he makes enough noise, I’ll pick him up. He has figured out that his cries will get him food, cuddles, or help getting to sleep.
Your kids know how to push your buttons because they have observed you since you became their parent. And I’m sorry to disappoint you, but they won’t stop trying. What I can say is that you can learn how to defeat their attempts by changing your behavior and attitude following the three guidelines below:
Stay calm. Find your happy place and breathe. Take at least three deep belly breaths and slow down. When you become flustered, your nervous system elevates and your brain does not function the way it usually does. If you can catch yourself getting flooded before it goes too far, you’ll have a better chance of keeping calm and speaking from a place of understanding rather than giving in or blowing up.
Refocus and remind yourself that your kids are most likely acting this way for a reason. More often than not, they want to be assured that you love them and care about their needs. This is the reason almost every kid begins to vie for your attention whenever you get on the phone or are talking with a friend. In the scene above, the kids may have been hungry, but mom did not have to give in when they kept pestering her. A more effective way to handle the situation would be to prepare a small, healthy snack ahead of time just in case, keep calm, and then…
Follow the ACT model of limit setting. The scenario above could be handled in this way:
Acknowledge their feelings – “I hear you telling me that you’re really hungry right now. That must be uncomfortable.”
Communicate the limit – “We still have 20 minutes until we’re home for daddy’s special dinner he’s making for us, so we have to be patient and wait for dinner.”
Target an alternative – If the kids still complain, mom could respond, “Since it sounds like you’re very hungry, you can have a few carrots as a snack before we get home.”
This takes a lot of practice, but keeping at it is worth it. Everyone wins in this case because the kids get a snack to keep their hunger at bay, no one is frustrated, crying, or screaming, and mom has communicated what is ok and what is not.
These are the basics to keep your kids from pushing your buttons. Stay strong and practice these steps often and you’ll get better at it. Remember that YOU are the adult and YOU get the final say, not the other way around.