Pushing buttons

In the late 1990s, I was working in a kindergarten class with a brilliant teacher named Candy. The class was filled with bright eyes and curious minds. There was one particular 6 year old who really knew how to push my buttons. Whitney knew just what to say or do to pull the rug out from under me. My efforts backfired, nothing worked, I was stumped. Fortunately, I was in an introspective place and journaling a lot, which helped me learn a few things:

  1. Buttons are meant to be pushed.
  2. If someone is pushing my buttons, I have buttons. They are mine and mine alone – I own them.
  3. The only way to ensure they aren’t pushed is to not have them. As long as I have them, someone is sure to push them.
  4. The only way to not have them is to get rid of them.
  5. Getting rid of them requires deep honesty, humility and help. It ain’t easy.
  6. Buttons usually reflect things I don’t want to take responsibility for in myself. It’s a mirror and a gift.
  7. Fewer buttons = more time for what matters most; meaningful connection with the people I care about.

When I started removing buttons, guess what? Whitney stopped pushing them. Magically, her strengths and talents became magnified and she became one of my favorite students. Not only was I happier but I was more compassionate and helpful. Removing buttons means making a bigger difference.


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  1. Denise Bedoya says

    So I’m guessing either you had a surveillance camera in my house yesterday or you are psychic! I tried to be the active listener, the calm person, while my son pushed as many buttons as he could think of. I even went outside to garden but he pursued me. Eventually, yes, I broke down. I think it gets down to deep doubts about self-worth on both our parts. Don’t know; still working on it…

    • says

      lol, neither-it’s just part of the human condition. Yes, it is not easy, by any means. We have many complex layers of “stuff” to work through, and sometimes it seems to take forever. But persistence pays off a little bit at a time. One thing to remember is that when someone is pushing and pushing, they are often in a “charged” state, a fight or flight state, where the amygdala has perceived a threat, signals the adrenals to prepare for self-protection, the adrenals shoot adrenaline to the heart to be taken to the muscular system to prepare. This feels horrible in the body and we tend to be very disconnected from our bodies in our culture. Yet, getting back into the body, learning to develop a more attuned relationship with these sensations is such a key. Otherwise we remain ruled by emotion and in reaction rather than response mode. One thing that helps is to pause, look at the person who is pushing your buttons/charged, and look at their body positions. Then mirror that position and you can feel what they are feeling. I could write pages about this, but briefly, once you feel what they are feeling you can shift gears from the “argument” and say, “that must feel ______.” Fill in the blank with whatever you felt. Listen to them, don’t try to change their mind (it doesn’t work anyhow when they are charged. They are running more on emotion rather than reason). Of course it can be hard, especially when kids say some awful things. So don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying to be a doormat- boundaries are absolutely necessary. But mirroring feelings back can help diffuse the situation and can help one attune to the moment. The child is afraid-they are experiencing fear and insecurity in their body. And they need tools to regulate that fear, tools they can learn to tap into consciously more and more as they mature. You can also take a very deep breath and you will notice the child mirror that even though you didn’t even tell them to breathe! Breath is my favorite regulation tool, and this is an incredibly powerful way to get them to begin to get back into the body. Hope this mind dump helps.

  2. Juliana says

    I will try to remember this when my buttons are being pushed by preschoolers or my third graders, which happens often. My biggest question is, how do I help my preschool student understand that she also is letting her buttons be pushed because she has them set for that? How do I help Her remove her buttons?

  3. Jen says

    What you said was so right on and will help me frame it more articulately as I guide my own clients. It’s so true that a kid being annoying is usually unable to identify what they are feeling (often sadness) and by triggering mom or a teacher they can finally get yelled at and cry (feeling the scary vulnerability of sadness). Seems like it took me forever to learn that my oldest daughter was doing this. Late at night she would start at me and I would get angry and then she would cry, and we finally recognized the cycle. Together we became more aware. I would say: “You’re doing that thing where you push me. What happened today? What are you feeling?” She would start talking and then whatever was REALLY bugging her would come out without us having to go through the button-pushing dance. Thanks, Seth.

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