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  • Writer's pictureDrs. Douglas W. Ota

Why Your Kids Push Your Buttons? Here’s Why.

Have you ever wondered how your kids know exactly what to do to drive you nuts? As if they know precisely where your “buttons” are, and how to find the ones marked “irritate” or “explode”? In my work as a psychologist, I frequently joke with parents about their dismay at not receiving a user manual at each child’s delivery.

As with most ailments in life, parents derive assurance from the realization that they are not alone in their occasional sense of being utterly, well, lost. Each of us has been there. (Never mind the technicality that, since we were lost, we can’t exactly say where “there” was.)

Probe a bit deeper, though, and you realize that the sharing of parental woes with other woeing (to coin a new word) parents doesn’t quite remedy the problem. You see, parental discomfort at feeling utterly lost, when examined more closely, gets trumped by a far more invidious anxiety, namely that vague sense that each of our children did receive a user manual.

A manual about us.

As parents.

How to Make Mom Mad in Minutes.

Delve for Dad’s Demons to Double His Decibels.

A comprehensive survey of the psychological literature has confirmed what I suspected, namely that no parent anywhere in the world has yet successfully located a hard copy of the suspected manual. Yet the belief persists that children know exactly how to drive us nuts, and that they’re getting their information from somewhere.

I have news for you. And the news isn’t good.

Brace yourself.

Your kids are getting their information directly from you.

If you’re a factual, linear type, you’re going to have a very hard time accepting what I’m about to say, because I cannot explain in grams or Newtons exactly how any of these forces get transmitted. Nonetheless, even in your immediate circle of acquaintances, you may have observed:

  • the mother who devotes all her energies to her children, but the children are unruly, rejecting her attempts to help with homework, until she finally explodes and stays in bed with a migraine the next morning;

  • the father who comes home from work late and exhausted, only to feel ignored and unappreciated by his kids, so much so that he feels like staying at work late the next day, too;

  • the two parents who wanted to raise an upbeat and positive family, only to have a child who abuses them verbally and occasionally even physically.

What do these situations have in common? The kids “read” something that was missing or injured inside their parents, and attack it. What the above hypothetical children “read” and attack in the above hypothetical parents is:

  • the mother’s frustration with her own personal development, which she attempts to avoid by focusing on being an extraordinary parent;

  • the father’s own painful history due to the poverty in his family of origin, which exposed him to deprivations he swore his children would never have to suffer;

  • the parents’ similar histories with alcoholic fathers who were negative and nasty, and their resulting wish to banish negative affect from their own home.

Parents often experience difficult moments with a child as that child’s willful and even demonic attempt to jab where it hurts most. But children don’t attack these wounded parental places because of a misguided desire to be nasty. (Granted, this is how it can feel.)

The real reason children push our buttons is because they long for us to heal. Our children want us to become whole.

None of this occurs rationally. But things don’t have to be rational to be true. Rationality is but one star is the gleaming heavens of universal truths. Just put yourself in your children’s shoes to understand why they want you to be whole. Who wouldn’t feel safer in the hands of adults who feel whole? Who wouldn’t prefer a universe that makes sense?

Many years ago my first child was an angry young boy. Obstreperous. Indignant. Argumentative. By that time in my early career, I had learned a lot from books, and a little from Life. Even then, I sensed I had the most to learn from my own children. In his angry behavior, I sensed a message addressed from my oldest to me, one that only I could decipher, if I dared.

Dad, why are you down? What’s wrong with you? I want you to find out and fix it. I want a father who isn’t depressed. I want a father who sees the joy in me, in himself, in his family, in Life, in everything. Find out what it is, Dad! AND DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT!

I heeded that call. I started the journey to heal myself, a long, painful journey that led to a place called Acceptance. It wasn’t easy. And the road hasn’t been straight. But it positioned me to be able to repeat to other parents what my children have repeatedly taught me—and something that books could only allude to.

Think of this article the next time your kids push your buttons. And—as strange as this might sound—try to enjoy it. Remember your children are trying to make you whole.

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