A Special Education

Insight into troubled kids, and ourselves.

The Parenting Power of Understanding Your Emotional "Buttons"

Are you willing to "disable" yours?

In any difficult interaction (such as with a child when they are exhibiting problem behavior) there is an exchange of information between you and the child.  All of us have learned various ways to manage and respond to difficult emotions when they arise.

Often, we react without much understanding of where our behavior is coming from, and without fully understanding the impact of these reactions on our relationship. 

In parenting a child with difficult behaviors, this is often the case because these behaviors can easily hit our "buttons," elicit strong feelings in us, which in turn lead us to behave in a "knee jerk" fashion.  Our reactions to strong emotions are primarily learned patterns of behavior based on our OWN personal histories, often beginning in our experiences within our families growing up.  Psychologist and relationship research John Gottman refers to these as "meta-emotional philosophies" - they are like scripts we have learned and acted out many hundreds if not thousands of times.  They are imbedded in us, and are difficult to change. The greater your understanding of these scripts (the  emotional "buttons" we carry around with us), the more likely you will be to break the pattern of reaction to your child, and instead respond in a thoughtful, strategic, effective manner.

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By reviewing and deeply considering the following questions, you will have a greater understanding of your emotional "buttons."  Understanding will be the first step, but will be insufficient by itself.  The real work will be in committing to practice interrupting these reactions and inserting new, more helpful responses to your child's behavior.  Remember, our "buttons" are primarily learned patterns - what is learned can be unlearned, and need not be permanent.

1.       How would you describe the overall emotional "volume level" in your house when you were young?  What number on a scale of 1 to 10 would you give it, and what words or images come to mind?

2.      What was it like to openly express worries/fears in your family as a child?

3.      How was affection shown in your home as a child?

4.      How was failure responded to in your family?

5.      If others were upset with you when you were young, what would you tend to do?  What was it like to be with others when they were upset with you?  How would it feel after the interaction?  What specific episode comes to mind most readily?

6.      If you were upset with others, what would you tend to do growing up?  How was your experience of vulnerability responded to by others when you were young?  What did you learn to do with that experience?

7.      List the most challenging emotion (or emotions) for you to experience and openly express when you were growing up.   What did you learn about this emotion that made you less than completely comfortable with it?  What was the "unwritten rule" about it?

Take some time with these questions.  It may help to journal in response to them over a period of days or weeks.  Often, such questioning can lead to difficult memories of the past.  This is understandable and is a normal part of the process of change.  The effort you put into understanding your patterns of reaction, will INEVITABLY be beneficial to you and your child.  Consider sharing your increased awareness with a spouse, partner or other supportive person in order to help generate more momentum for putting your emotional buttons out of your child's "reach."

What is more important - reacting negatively and intensely to your child's button-pushing (and maybe feeling as though you were "right" or "made your point") or NOT reacting (and maybe feeling as though you "lost" in the moment) in order to take leadership of bad situations and model for your child how to manage difficulty when it arises?

Mitch Abblett, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist, supervisor, trainer and writer, specializing in work with troubled youth and their families.

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