Keeping you cool

Expert advice helps parents, ‘button-pushing’ kids see eye to eye
By Pamela H. Sacks


Over the years, Ben Milner Winglass has had no trouble throwing his mother off balance — making her feel, well, that she could be imagining things.

For instance, Bonnie Milner might warn Ben, “You’re spending way too much time in front of the computer.”

He’d reply, “Mom, you’re wrong. Don’t you remember yesterday?” and go on to imply that he was only online for a few minutes. After all, he would remind her, he had been far too busy playing hockey, or visiting with a friend.

As Ms. Milner and Ben, 18, relaxed in the living room of their Worcester home one evening last week, she explained that this kind of manipulation was the result of Ben’s familiarity with her own childhood. He understood her underlying insecurity about distinguishing what’s real from what’s not.

“It’s connected to growing up with three older brothers, and it comes from the normal stuff kids do to keep out of trouble,” Ms. Milner said. “They often shade the truth.”

In other words, Ben has known just how to get his mother’s goat — and he’s done it since he was a small child.

Ms. Milner owns and operates Long View Farm Recording Studios in North Brookfield. When Ben was little, they lived on the farm. She was raised in a Democratic, progressive home, and she liked the long hair and jeans worn by the rock musicians who came to the studio.
Nevertheless, Ben would insist on wearing close-cropped hair and chinos. The musicians would tease her, saying, “You raised a little Republican.”
Ms. Milner would do a slow burn.
“I used to think, `I can’t believe this is happening to me,’ ” she said.
Ms. Milner has lived out a common phenomenon between parent and child, one that often creates havoc in the relationship: a child’s seemingly innate ability to zero in on a parent’s emotional and psychological sore spots and then go for broke, often in a bid for attention.
These sensitivities are the result of a parent’s own childhood, according to family therapists, and they frequently surface in child-rearing in the form of emotional explosions and contests of will.
“Our children bring us to our knees faster than anyone else,” Bonnie Harris, a mental health counselor, said in a telephone interview from her office in Peterborough, N. H. “We get down on their level, and when we start yelling, it’s like two 2-year-olds in a fight.”
Ms. Harris found this type of parent-child interaction so common in her clinical practice that she wrote a book, “When Your Kids Push Your Buttons,” which was published by Warner Books earlier this year.
The title alone apparently has pushed its own kind of button.
“There is not a parent I have met who does not laugh out loud when I mention the name of the book,” Ms. Harris said.
Even in a crowded field, Ms. Harris’ parenting book has prompted a flurry of media attention. The author has been on the “Today” show, National Public Radio and a host of local TV and radio programs across the country.
There is good reason for all the notice she has received.
Understanding the circumstances surrounding button-pushing is frequently the key to solving family problems, according to Norman P. Tonelli, a licensed mental health counselor from West Brookfield.
“When you get a family that might be having dysfunction, whether one or both parents are involved, you try to have them look back at the script they’re following from their own family,” Mr. Tonelli said. “Sometimes, the difference in solving a problem like that — having those buttons exposed — is to study the stimulus-response habits your parents taught you and identify new ways to approach things.”
After a series of sessions with Mr. Tonelli, Valerie A. Pontbriand realized that her angry reactions to her twins, Alex and Kat, who are now 13, often were connected to her difficult relationship with her own mother.
As a small child, Kat would express her anger by crossing her arms, stomping up the stairs and slamming the door to her room.
“I would go get her and enter into an argument,” said Ms. Pontbriand, who lives in Brookfield. Her own mother was always looking to be the winner. She wanted to be in control, Ms. Pontbriand explained.
“I’ve learned that being in control does not always mean winning an argument,” she said. “It comes down to respecting each other.”
Another button was the twins’ refusal to keep their rooms in order. Ms. Pontbriand wanted the rooms picked up. When the children ignored her, she said, she “felt like a doormat,” just as her mother had made her feel. She would become infuriated.
“For me to take control of that reaction, I had to set limits on myself and not draw on ancient history and take it personally,” she said.
So, Ms. Pontbriand sat down with the children and made a deal. She told them that their space in the house is borrowed, and they pay rent by keeping their rooms neat and clean. If they don’t, they will be charged for the space.
Ms. Harris had a light-bulb moment about all of this when she was engaged in a daily power struggle with her own daughter, Molly. The child was 4 at the time and would cry and resist getting dressed to go to preschool. Ms. Harris would shout, “Why can’t you ever just be pleasant and put your clothes on?” “Why do we have to fight about this every morning?”
One day, Ms. Harris decided to switch her focus from her own reactions to what Molly was experiencing. She told Molly she understood that it was difficult to get out of bed — that she didn’t like getting up, either.
“Suddenly, we connected,” Ms. Harris said. “She was glued. Our conversation continued as I acknowledged her frustrations and her point of view.”
Recently, Ms. Harris shared her expertise at a conference in Worcester that was organized by Parents Helping Parents, a nonprofit agency that sponsors 60 support groups across Massachusetts. Ms. Harris told several dozen men and women attending a workshop that she was not there to show them how to stop their children from pushing their buttons. Rather, she said, she wanted them to come to understand why it is that when their buttons are pushed, they explode in a torrent of recriminations, which she referred to as “the road rage of parenting.”
“With children there is always an emotional root to the behavior,” Ms. Harris went on to say. “We have to look at why the behavior is there in the first place. It’s always connected to a need — for acceptance or attention.
“If you take nothing more away,” she admonished the parents, “our children are never responsible for our emotions and behavior.”
In Mr. Tonelli’s view, successful parenting does not require years of psychotherapy.
“A lot of psychology is psycho-education, not traditional therapy, but learning to act in a different way,” he said. “So many parents use their own parents for a reference. When they learn about other ways to react, it all stops.”
Raising Ben, Ms. Milner said, has indeed been an exercise in self-education. Yet, she said, as she cast a good-natured glance at her son, he can still push a button or two.
For instance?
“Well, Ben knows that I’m a strong feminist. He’ll say something antifeminist and I’ll go nuclear,” Ms. Milner said, bursting into laughter.