How To (Not) React When Your Kid Pushes Your Buttons


Okay. We all know that parenting is a full-time job with no breaks. And we all know that while it is the most rewarding thing on earth, it is also very demanding. We are anxious about doing the right things for our kids, but sometimes it feels like they are trying to interfere with our efforts. 

They know how to get our attention, but sometimes that means getting on our nerves. We love our kids, but we can get frustrated and even resentful when they push our buttons. 

So, how can you react productively when your kid annoys you? What’s the move when your kid says or does the exact thing you can’t tolerate right now? How do you stop yourself from responding in a way that’s potentially harmful? 

Here, we’re going to talk about how to handle our kids’ annoying moods in the best way possible.

The Ideal Way To React

1. Take A Breather

The first thing that you can do to help yourself not react is to take a breather. Step outside and close your eyes to think. Sit on the porch. Ask your spouse, an older child, or someone else in the house if they can take over for a second, so you can go into another room. 

Temporarily removing yourself from the situation can’t be emphasized enough. It allows you to feel and process your frustration, while reducing the possibility you’ll scar your kid in a flash of anger. 

Even if you’re a single parent and no one else is present, it is often possible to find a way to take a breather. Communication is everything. With kids of most ages, it’s entirely possible to say “mommy needs a minute” or “daddy needs a minute.” Close your eyes and take deep breaths in and out as you think of how you’re going to respond when you re-enter the conversation with your child. 

2. Check That You’re Calm Enough

When you do respond to them, the most important thing to do is to make sure that your voice remains calm. Don’t raise your voice or use an aggressive tone.

3. Use Their Need To Illustrate Yours 

Ask your child what they need, while indicating that you have needs too. This should be less of a stern reminder than a perspective-setting, potentially mind-blowing moment: “I know you feel like you need ____ right now. We will take care of that! But I want you to know I feel like I need ____. Look, we both have the same kind of feelings! Let’s figure out how we can both feel ok here.” 

4. Share A Game Plan

Let them know that you will provide them with what they need right now, and that you will then need some time to get work done, to clean, or to do whatever it is that you need to do. 

You can say, “I will answer that question because I know it’s important to you, and after that, I will let you go play with your toys for forty-five minutes while I finish [my work, the dishes, etc.]. I need some quiet time to do my important thing.” 

This will show your kids that you’re being attentive to them while also setting a precedent that your needs also need to be attended. It will allow you to focus or have some time to yourself, in a way that your kid can understand. 

It can be hard for kids to imagine the needs of others–or even that others have needs and inner worlds just like they do. Your kids won’t know that you’ve got important things to do, unless you tell them.

What To Do When You Can’t Step Aside 

Despite best efforts and creativity with supervision, there are times when you can’t step aside or take a breather from your kid’s antics. Maybe you have very young kids, or a child with special needs you can’t possibly leave alone for long enough to calm down. 

If you can’t step away, it’s still all about tone of voice–just harder to achieve the right calm in the moment. You can be upset or frustrated without reacting in a way your child perceives as threatening. Keep your frustration about the situation, and about what your child did, rather than about who they are.

“It really frustrates me that you threw a tennis ball at my desk. That makes me feel the way you do when your friend steals your toy. Can you imagine how that feels? Could you have acted in a way that didn’t make me feel bad?” 

After acknowledging the situation however you can in the moment, get your space as soon as you can. Even if you can’t take extended time away, don’t underestimate the power of a “bathroom break” during a burst of frustration. 

You know your child better than anyone else, so if there’s an activity you know of that will keep them content and occupied for a good period of time, there’s nothing wrong with letting them do that thing while you take a break.

Even if that thing is TV or using electronics, it doesn’t mean that you’re using those things as “a babysitter,” as some would say; you’re allowing them to do something that’s soothing for them while you take a break and stop yourself from reacting in a way that you may regret. 

That is entirely healthy and valid both for you and your child. 

Dos and Don’ts Of Discipline

Sometimes your kid isn’t just pushing your buttons and frustrating you; sometimes the annoying behavior is causing real, actual problems.

If your child is doing something like breaking household rules, playing rough with a sibling when you told them to stop, or any other behavior you set a boundary for, you might need to put a consequence in place. Here are some do’s and don’ts when it comes to discipline:

DO establish rules, consequences, and boundaries in advance. Your child can’t follow rules that they don’t know about, so if you don’t want them to do something (or if you do want them to do something), let them know in advance, and tell them what the consequences will be if they don’t follow the guidelines you set. 

DON’T implement discipline when your anger levels are high. Wait until you cool down before you reinforce consequences.

DO give just as much attention to good behavior. Recognize your children when they do something kind or helpful and compliment them on doing a great job. Sometimes, kids push your buttons to get attention, so make sure that positive things are what you’re attending to the most. 

DON’T fail to follow through on the consequences you set. This will teach your kids that if they push you hard enough, they’ll get what they want. Reward positive behaviors instead of button-pushing. 

DO pick your battles. Not everything is a big enough deal that you have to react to it. Yes, you might be annoyed or overwhelmed, but you don’t always have to give a reaction at all. 

DON’T let your anger or overwhelm build up. Talk it out with a fellow adult when you can and let off some steam. 

Overall, if your buttons are getting pushed to the point where you’re mad on a daily basis, it’s probably a sign that something’s not working.

Discipline is said to be most effective when a child feels that it’s fair, so don’t be afraid to incorporate their thoughts, feelings, and input while developing family rules. At the very least, take time to explain the reasoning and logic behind the rules and consequences you set.

Prepping Yourself For Button-Pushing

Figure out why your kids do what they do.

It’s true that sometimes, kids are just kids. But other times there is a bigger issue at hand. If your child interrupts a lot, for example, they may have ADHD or another behavioral health issue.

To get context clues about what your child might be experiencing, ask them questions. You can use any info you get, or behavior you observe, to fill out this mental health symptom checker from the Child Mind Institute.

At times, it feels like your kids are pushing your buttons on purpose when they truly aren’t. In the case that your child does struggle with something like ADHD, there are ways to help them, and it’s important to recognize when there’s a problem, so that it can be treated for everyone’s benefit. 

Childhood anxiety is another thing that can manifest as kids “pushing your buttons.” Are your kids annoying you by asking you questions or asking for reassurance constantly? That could be anxiety, and rejecting their attempts to connect might cause more harm to an anxious child than an intentionally annoying one. 

Additionally, when a kid has frequent outbursts that are beyond normal childhood tantrums or emotional processing, there is usually an underlying problem.

Whether that underlying issue is something that’s going on for them at school, something affecting them in other areas of life such as a loss within the family, or a diagnosable mental health condition, it is important to talk to your child and get them the appropriate support if needed.

Analyze your own reactions and why they take place. 

No one is perfect, and the people who are around us the most are the ones who watch us go through our most difficult times. That includes our kids.

If you look at your own behavior or emotions and see that you react the way that you do out of uncontrollable anger, anxiety, or another emotional struggle, seek help and attempt to build better coping mechanisms.

It can be hard to admit that you might be struggling with something that’s affecting your kids, but it’s important to look the issue in the eyes if you do. Know that mental health struggles don’t mean that you’re a bad person, broken, or crazy.

And remember that kids are capable of understanding mental health struggles (more info on discussing your own mental health with your kids, here). Recognizing these issues and doing something about them is healthy both for you and your children.

If you do react angrily, don’t beat yourself up. 

No one is perfect. Even if you intend to keep your cool, there will inevitably be a time when you just can’t take it anymore. All of us break, and you are not a bad parent for reacting when your kids push your buttons.

In fact, an accidental angry outburst gives you an excellent chance to model something else for your child – apologizing! It’s very important that kids learn how to apologize properly, so use this as a learning experience.

You can say, “I am sorry for how I reacted. I’m having a bad day and lost my control for a minute. No one is perfect, and I didn’t mean to get upset with you. Next time, I will try to tell you what’s wrong instead of yelling.”

Kids learn from what you model, and doing this will teach them to say that they’re sorry when they do something they’re not proud of, too. 

Find an outlet for yourself: increase your annoyance capacity

Peer support is excellent for parents, and, well, everyone. Have a group of other parents that you can talk to, or at least one other friend that is a parent. If there’s anyone in the world that’ll understand, it’s them.

Sometimes, especially if you are very overwhelmed on a consistent basis, it is also helpful to seek the help of a licensed mental health professional. Don’t be afraid to seek the help of a therapist or counselor. You can also always find topic-specific online peer support here, 24/7 (and totally anonymous).

Either way, connection and community are often what keeps us sane! So, remember, you’re doing the best that you can, and when it feels like life is just too much, you’re not alone.

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