Pushed Buttons

As parents, we at times “lose it” with our children and may say or do things of which we are not very proud.  By way of explanation, we often say that kids know how to “push our buttons.”  By this we mean there are ways in which our children seem to know how to get to us.  Like a match to a wick, children can engage in behavior that touches some nerve within us.  There is something about that behavior, or something within ourselves that is set off, or some combination of the two that causes a conflagration.

One example might be a challenge from a child to our authority at a time or place when or where we feel particularly exposed and vulnerable.  Perhaps others will make negative judgments about a child who is defiant, or see us as an inadequate parent.  Or it may be their response to something we have asked of them that they know is particularly offensive to us.  On the other hand, at times it may not be the child who is particularly provocative, but rather something in our own life story, personality, or personal stress that is engaged by the offending behavior.

     Part of the problem is that many of us have difficulty with angry feelings, our own or others.  We speak of people needing to learn anger management, and even have  devised methods to help people for whom it is a problem.  In relationships with our children – actually in many relationships or situations – angry feelings are generally triggered by conflict of one kind or another.  But a conflict with a child often reawakens our own childhood conflicts with a parent. 

As adults, most of the time our angry feelings are expressed in words – or maybe by slamming a door.  But children usually express anger in behavior – behavior adults find unacceptable.  When we ourselves were children, we may have been punished for expressing anger in ways our parents didn’t like.  But equally upsetting may have been the anger we experienced from our parents at our behavior.  The anger of others toward us – especially the anger of parents, feels like a rejection and a loss of love.

In conflicts with our children it is easy to start feeling both like the child and the parent.  As the parent, our child’s behavior is enraging.  But as the child, we identify with our own child and remember what it felt like to have our mom or dad angry at us.  That may be why we often feel guilt after “losing” it with a child.  In any case, most of us have not been helped to experience “anger management” when we were children, and anger still feels dangerous.

Many of us have also become aware that there are times when we are better able to accept children’s angry behavior than at other times.  Certainly times of stress have an impact on all of our relationships.  During this period of economic stress and widespread unemployment much has been written calling attention to the fact that economic hardship within families leads to stress, which then results in a breakdown in the quality of parenting.

Now a new study, the findings of which were published in “Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS)” this past August, shows that it is the anticipation of adversity – the fear of losing one’s job – that is a greater factor in “harsh” parenting than the actual economic conditions a family faces.  In other words, uncertainty about the future is more difficult to deal with than even hardship one is already experiencing.  Also shown, is that economic distress in the larger community can also affect parenting, regardless of the situation of a particular family.

Perhaps the most startling finding to emerge from this study is that the effect of  deteriorating economic conditions on parenting was found only in mothers who carry a gene variation that makes them more likely to react to their environment.  “Harsh” parenting, defined as hitting, or shouting at children, increased as economic conditions worsened for mothers who carried what has been called the “sensitive” allele, or variation of a particular gene connected to a behavior-regulating chemical in the brain.   Harsh parenting also decreased when economic conditions improved.  The findings highlighted the fact that the effect of genes on people’s behavior may depend on the quality of their environment.

It is not clear what percentage of mothers carries this gene variation.  Perhaps some of us can find some reassurance in the thought that our behavior is regulated – or deregulated – to some degree by a gene that we are unable to control.  In interactions with our children, however, most of us try to find solutions to conflict that won’t end with either our children, or ourselves, “losing it.”

Perhaps such solutions may lie in thinking back to similar situations in our own life that can help us understand – and even change – why, and how, we are reacting to thebuttons being pushed now.