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When Kids Push Our Buttons

naughtycrpdYou have a kid.  You feel love beyond your wildest imagining.  You can also feel frustration on a level you’ve never felt before.  And often, afterwards, you feel profoundly guilty.

Why is this?  What can we do about it?

When we love someone, they begin to hold a certain power over us.  The emotional bond we form with our kids is a beautiful thing, but it’s also a tether.  Sometimes they control our time; sometimes they control our thoughts.  Sometimes we want to control them, and they just won’t let us.

When you think about it, it’s a clear recipe for frustration.  What’s amazing is that parents hold it together as much and as well as they do.

Think about it: Johnny’s an active one-year-old.  He knows what no means, but sometimes he seems determined not to heed it.  You tell him no when he heads for the floor lamp, but he’s on a mission.  So he physically stop him.  Once, twice, four times.

You try to divert him.  He doesn’t just cry.  He wails.  He hits you.  He seems to be a prodigy in temper tantrums.  And all you were doing was trying to keep him safe.  Doesn’t he understand that? Doesn’t he get how hard you work, all day, every day, to keep him safe and loved and cared for?

The vast majority of the time, when something like this happens, you stay calm.  You perform your parental duties like a champ.  But every so often, you’re going to find your frustration overcomes you.  The older your  child gets, the more aware he or she will become of your emotions, and so it’s critical that you’re aware, too.

Now what?

1)  Immediately recognize that your reserves are too thin to deal with the situation.

2)  Put your child in a safe, contained place (like a crib or a pack-and-play), and remove yourself from the situation.  Realize that he or she is likely to cry loudly in protest.

3)  When you’re in a different location, focus on your breathing first.  It’s important to regulate yourself.  You might also try a mindfulness technique, like cataloguing objects in the room.  (Think things like “the TV is off”, “there is a red toy on the floor”, etc.)  It might sound goofy, but it’s really quite grounding.

4)  When the frustration and anger begin to subside, remind yourself of just how normal a situation this was.  Your child is meant to push limits; how else will he discover the contours of his world?  And you are meant to assert and reassert limits to keep him safe.

Everyone is performing their roles just fine, and most of the time, it’s without incident.  It’s all developmentally normal, and, sometimes, frustrating.

5)  Avoid excessive, unproductive guilt.  (This goes hand-in-hand with #4.)  If you do feel that you lost control in front of your child, once you’ve calmed down, you can address that with the child directly.

With a child who’s old enough, apologize.  Explain yourself in a way that is developmentally appropriate, one that helps the child understand that we’re all working on setting our own personal limits and exerting self-control.

If the child is too young for that, you can show affection and concern for his or her well-being (without being overly smothering, due to guilt.)

6)  Reflect on whether the incident is isolated or more chronic.  Then you’ll know if you need to focus on improving your stress management, in order to have an increased tolerance for limit-testing, or perhaps seek professional help.

What’s important is to realize that you’re only human, and that love (and parenting) inevitably involves frustration. It’s what we do with our feelings, and how we recover from them (both internally and interpersonally) that count and that teach.

Naughty child photo available from Shutterstock

When Kids Push Our Buttons

Holly Brown, LMFT

Holly Brown is a marriage and family therapist in the San Francisco Bay area. She has a private practice in Alameda ( ). She is also a novelist ( Her latest is HOW FAR SHE'S COME, a workplace thriller which received a starred review from Publisher's Weekly: "This provocative tale will resonate with many in the era of the #MeToo movement."

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APA Reference
Brown, H. (2013). When Kids Push Our Buttons. Psych Central. Retrieved on June 5, 2020, from


Last updated: 17 Mar 2013
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