• By: Adele Blair

How children and grandchildren push our buttons


Dear Adele,

Our grandchildren have become great button pushers! They seem to know exactly what to do to get their way with their parents. Sometimes they beg, sometimes they yell, sometimes they pout! I cannot tell you how annoying it is to see them get their way, with some of these behaviours. My daughter and her husband are loving parents but sometimes I think they don’t see exactly how badly their children are acting up. Can you help with a column on this topic?



Dear Onlookers,

How difficult it is to not be in the driver’s seat with children you love! Your grandchildren are likely bright, active, energetic little ones who test and manipulate their parents successfully to get what they want. I know they are successful because the behaviours are repeated and you are observing them.

May I suggest an excellent parenting book with a section on button pushing. Perhaps you can tuck it into a Christmas stocking or add it to a birthday gift. I am borrowing from it for purposes of this column and highly recommend the book for all young parents. It is called 1-2-3 Magic: Effective Discipline for Children 2-12, revised fourth edition, by Dr. Thomas W. Phelan.

Dr. Phelan says there are six basic testing tactics or button pushers which children use to try to influence their parent’s behaviour.

  • Badgering. This is the technique where children wear the parents down by repeating their requests or verbal phrases. For example, you might hear “Why, why, why, why, why?” Or “Just this once, just this once, just this once,’ or perhaps “Please, pretty please, please mom, please”. When combined with ‘Martyrdom’, the most annoying behaviour of ‘whining’ occurs.
  • Temper displays. Younger children may throw their body on the floor, throw their heads back, bang their heads on the wall, yell loudly and kick. Older children hurl accusations at their parents, swear, angrily complain and sometimes damage the parent’s property or things in their rooms. With age, tantrums become more concerning and hopefully they are not displayed after the age of five or six. Temper tantrums are prolonged with an audience and verbal responses.
  • Threats. Parents might hear things like “I’m going to run away,” or I’m not going to do my homework” or “I’m going to kill myself”. It can be quite concerning when children use the last phrase and parents need to assess quickly whether it is simply a button pusher or something a child may act upon.
  • Martyrdom. You can recognize this one with phrases like “No-one ever listens to me” or “I never get anything around here,” or “No-one loves me anymore”. With this one the child may be self-punitive. He/she may not eat dinner, may hold his/her breath, cry, pout, go silent, and look sad. With this technique the child tries to make the adult feel guilty. Dr. Phelan says it is a very powerful guilt button.
  • Butter up. With this manipulative technique children try to make the adult feel good. The parent laps up the verbiage telling him that he is “the best dad ever”, or “the best friend in the world”, or that he/she is “the person the child admires most”. The message here is don’t discipline me or deny me what I want, or you will lose my love, affection and admiration. This one sets the parent up for parental guilt as well. Apologies also fall into this category. Butter Up is the least annoying manipulative form.
  • Physical tactics. This is the worst form of testing in which the child attacks the adult physically. It is most concerning after age 4 when children have the ability to express themselves verbally. With this one, children kick, bite, scratch, pinch, hit, yell, smash and break things. Running away falls into this category and causes the parent worry and guilt as well.

Once the parent understands the purpose of these assorted testing and manipulative strategies, they are better able to assess how effective they are for the children. If the adult gives in, it is a win for the child. If the youngster gets revenge and punishes the adult with guilty feelings, it is a win for the child. If the behaviours are repeated, the adult knows it is a win for the child.

Dr. Phelan suggests that the adult show no emotion when the children behave like this and that the adult not get caught up trying to talk them out of it. It is best to stay calm, say little, and to not give them the attention they are seeking by the manipulative strategy. Most importantly, the parent should not give in. Dr. Phelan calls this the “No Talking, No Emotion Rules”. Your family might find it helpful to read more on this subject in Dr. Phelan’s book.

I will conclude with a quote from 1-2-3 Magic which might inspire you.

“You don’t need a huge parenting book that asks you to be a genius, saint, or professional psychologist, but you do want to raise emotionally intelligent kids. Discover how your silence can speak louder than your words and enjoy your children again.”

Best to you, Onlookers.

Sincerely, Adele

I'm looking forward to your questions! Email me at maryadeleblair@gmail.com and please put Heart to Heart in the subject line. Note that all columns will remain anonymous.