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child pushes buttons

3 Buttons Your Child Will Push

For such small beings, children are incredibly adept at pushing their parents’ buttons.  Many of us come to adoptive parenting with extra buttons exposed, practically begging small and grimy fingers to give them a fresh press. Or two or three.

Why do children push buttons? Because they feel powerless against giants. And when children can’t get what they want through non-manipulative means, they will resort to whatever tools they have available.

Enter our buttons. Here are three I’ve observed in myself and in talking with other adoptive parents:

parenting buttons your child will push

The “Real” Button

This button becomes obvious to your child around age 7 and gets triggered  in parents by the likes of:

These exclamations are usually said when a child is angry or frustrated, when reason is out the window. And when these words are received, your reason goes out the window. Your child senses that these sentiments are inflammatory, and she hopes to escalate a situation and gain power.

So what should you do when your child plays the “real” card? Want to know the secret response that will reduce the odds that your “real” button keeps getting pushed?

You do nothing to your child. You work on yourself. You deactivate this button through your own reasoning.

Thinking it through: What does it mean to be a ”real mom” anyway? Are you fake? Did you really get up all those nights? Change all those diapers? Arrange all those play dates? Then you are real. You did real things. You were there, you have always been there. Nothing fake about you. You are legit. This button clearly can be neutralized in your own mind. Just because you’re not the only doesn’t mean you’re not real.

The Wondering Button

This one is more of a trigger — a button your child doesn’t intend to push but may impact you just the same.

When you notice your child is wondering about his “what ifs,” his roads not taken, it can hurt. You may feel as if he thinks you’re not doing a good job, that you’re not enough, that you’ve failed to establish your legitimacy. Sometimes your child will wonder about his birth parents privately and, if you’re lucky, he may sometimes allow you into his innermost thoughts and wonder aloud with you. He may wonder who his first parents are or what it would be like to live with them. If there is a lack of information available, the wondering may turn to fantasy. Who can compare with fantasy? Give the information you have, age appropriately, to help ground the wondering.

If you have a child who is prone to wondering, such wondering will happen whether you are privy to it or not. Again, neutralize this button using your own reason so that you can be there for your child as he wonders, supporting him and giving space to integrate his two identities — that of biology and that of biography.

Thinking it through: Your child wondering about his genetic roots doesn’t take away anything from you. We fully expect that a parent can love more than one child. Can you also embrace the notion that your child may have feelings for more than one set of parents? Can you understand that such wondering about his biological parents do not cancel out his love and devotion to you? In fact, such thoughts probably have nothing at all to do with you.

Adoptive parenting at its best is about addition, not subtraction.

The Running Away Button

This button is not unique to adoptive families, but it can sting when there is another parent (or two) “out there” who also has a claim on your child. After all, your child may actually have another parent-type to run away to! My daughter, then 9, once set out with her pink hat, trailing her pink suitcase stuffed with her pink bear, to somehow plead her case with Crystal, her birth mom, who would surely allow her to watch The Wizards of Waverly Place before doing homework. (Wrong!).

Thinking it through: Again, we remove the button’s charge within us by realizing that our child is feeling stuck and has no other options at her disposal. If we remember to breathe and also remind our child to breathe, we are in position to re-engage our reasoning faculties and make space for other, more appropriate responses.

Redeeming Qualities of Having Your Buttons Pushed

While maddening, having your buttons pushed by pint-sized tyrants isn’t completely without merit. If you’ve spent any time at all in this space, you know that two of my most frequent topics are (1) adoptive parenting, and (2) how to live mindfully. Over the years I have been manifesting a connection between these two seemingly separate subjects.

Adoptive parenting — if I choose to do it in a way that doesn’t sap my sanity — requires that I become more mindful within myself, that I not parent on auto-pilot. In stressful moments when I want to contract and breathe quickly and shallowly (such as when one of my darlings has brought me to my knees by laying on one my triggers), I am instead cultivating the habit of becoming expansive and breathing deeply. In addition to scanning my environment for what/who out there needs to change, I also scan within to see what I may need to address.  I wonder if I would be so drawn to mindfulness if I didn’t frequently need to center and ground myself due to having my buttons pushed.

I can think of one more way that button drama has a silver lining.  Some of the best conversations I’ve had with my kids have begun with their attempts to push my buttons. From a place of rawness we find genuine connection devoid of artifice. We get real and we grow together.

What are you own parenting hot buttons? What have you done to deal with them?

Image courtesy Stuart Miles /

This article is adapted from one that appeared on

Lori Holden, mom of a young adult daughter and a young adult son, writes from Denver. She was honored as an Angel in Adoption® by the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute.

Find Lori’s books on her Amazon Author page, and catch episodes of Adoption: The Long View wherever you get your podcasts.

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16 Responses

  1. As a stepmother, I know the day will come when I’m told I’m not real. I don’t bat an eye at the ‘I hate you, I only love my mama’ anymore, though.

    And Abby’s made the solution so easy: when she’s trying to push my buttons by saying that, if I just step back and listen to her from outside the door, she actually turns it into a song while she’s sulking in her bed. The ‘mom and dad are mean’ tune is a classic chart-topper.

  2. “From a place of rawness we find genuine connection devoid of artifice. We get real and we grow together.” Love this. And love how you find opportunities for openness and growth where many would be inclined to close and shut down. Also yes, these moments require such mindfulness and intuition. Wonderful piece Lori, hope you share widely!

  3. Yes, all kids push parents’ buttons–what’s different is only the situation. I was expert at pushing them. I think the idea of a genuine connection is golden…a lovely, helpful post.

  4. I think the button-pushing wisdom holds true even for non-adoptive parents. I’ve recently tried to be more mindful when I respond to my kids’ button-pushing (or even “interruptions” to our “normal” relationship); those times are a call to reconnect, and a call for me to touch base with my kids in a deeper way if I can, or at least to check in with myself. Thank you for writing this!!

  5. Oh, those button pushing trials. At least they start small (not getting dressed, won’t eat that, telling me to go away) before they get into the big issues. I think that it’s practice for later when X is searching for identity. Hopefully, I can learn from the little ones how to act with the big, raw, and painful ones.

  6. Such a good post with a lot of great advice. One interesting thing that comes with this one: ” Just because you’re not the only doesn’t mean you’re not real.” The majority of people don’t parent alone. There are many other people removing the “only” and yet in all those other cases, those other people don’t diminish a person’s realness.

  7. Great post, as the daughter of an adopted child I have a sense for life as an adoptee.. Great post and it brought me back to my childhood and trying to fit into a family with all blood relatives when we felt like the plus one(s) in the group.. Thank you for sharing..

  8. The first button resonates with me a ton related to some struggles with my middle child, not the real part but this:

    These exclamations are usually said when a child is angry or frustrated, when reason is out the window. And when these words are received, your reason goes out the window. Your child senses that these sentiments are inflammatory, and she hopes to escalate a situation and gain power.

    How do you handle this situation? Their behavior is unacceptable and in my case he’s usually angry/frustrated because he’s not getting his way. I don’t want to raise an entitled hellion and just give him what he wants to let him feel empowered – so then what? Thoughts?

    1. I do have some thoughts. We’re looking into Beyond Consequences by Heather Forbes ( The main message is that while you may not be able to control your child during those super-charged moments, you can still regulate yourself. And if in doing so, you’re also able to abide with your child and give him all the space necessary to get closer to the real issue, you have created connection, strengthened the relationship. More of this should lead to less disregulation.

      Heather Forbes is worth looking into!

  9. Lovely post. I’m adopted, as are both my brothers, and I don’t recall ever telling my parents they weren’t my real parents, but I probably did. Kids are like that. I consider my adoptive parents my real parents, and I get politely cranky at people who dismiss that notion and talk about biology as the only thing that matters. However, that all takes time and reflection I think.

    My daughter is very much a button pusher and has been telling me since she was about 2 that she doesn’t love me, and only cares for her father. She’s 8 now. I think all children reject their parents at some point, adopted children have a easy go-to option for that rejection.

  10. My oldest is a button pusher. My youngest hasn’t learned the art of pushing Mom’s buttons…yet. I’m not hopeful that she won’t though. My husband and I have been working on our reactions to the button pushing. It’s helped us tremendously. If we don’t react to each jab then things tend to fizzle out a lot faster.

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