Button Pushing

By Kate Wilde, Director, The Son-Rise Program and Son-Rise Program® Senior Teacher

Children are forever moving and interacting with their world. Everything is new for them and their job is to be curious, explore and learn. Nothing is off limits. If your child is young enough they have not yet learned (from the world around them) to be self-conscious and to restrain their behavior. With this wonderful curiosity comes the desire for our children to button push.
Button pushing is our children exploring our reactions to their behavior. What will we do if they throw water on the floor… or if they dance in front of the television when you’re watching your favorite program?  What will happen? Will it be fun? It is all about finding out about us. We may even be giving them good reason to continue to button push, because our reactions can be fun and amusing. We may shout, jump up and down, speak in a high squeaky voice, turn red, or stiff with rage. We may be as funny for them as their favorite cartoon character.
When I was younger I knew exactly how to get an amusing reaction from my Dad. I just had to get a fit off giggles at dinnertime and I would never be disappointed with his reaction. He would point his finger at me, stiffen his face and talk in a stern voice, threaten all sorts of consequences … which  I didn’t want,  but I totally enjoyed inciting his predictable behavior. My sister and I named  his reaction “the wobble effect”. Being a large man his whole body would wobble when he got angry, and despite  the consequences of my behavior, I found this amusing enough to continue button pushing.
Nearly every child I have worked with will button push at some stage. Some spend a lot of time button pushing and some only do it occasionally. Button pushing is usually an activity that your child does even though they know you do not want them to do it. It could be them peeing on the floor instead of in the toilet, drawing on the wall, throwing their food, spilling water, spitting, swearing, picking their nose and eating it, throwing a toy or breaking it, or touching you in way you do not want them to like twirling a finger through your hair or touching your breasts.
Button pushing can also be talking about things that you feel uncomfortable about. I worked with a family who had a 6-year-old boy with autism. His whole family where vegans — they did not eat any animal products, and were very concerned for the welfare of animals. This little boy would love to talk about eating meat. He would talk about eating a “juicy steak of animal flesh” and lick his lips while looking intently for his family’s reaction. They were horrified — believing that they had failed to pass on their own values to their son. I do not believe that this boy wanted to eat meat,  he just wanted to watch the horrified reactions of his family.
I worked with another boy who due to his food allergies was on a gluten and casein free diet. He would tell his Mom that he had just eaten gluten or casein. Then sit back and smile as she shouted and lectured him on how this was not a good thing. He actually never ate the gluten or casein laden food,  he  just loved watching his Mom’s reaction.
Another girl of 16 would ask questions such as, “When am I going to die?”  “When are you going to die?” These questions would create a lot of discomfort for the people taking care of her.
Why do our Children Button Push?

  1. It’s fun! It is as simple as that. We can be very entertaining for our children. Our reactions at times can be disproportional to the actual action our children have committed.  All of us have experienced walking away from our child asking ourselves, “Why did I just react that way?” It is this over-the-top reaction that our children start looking for again and again. All of us have pushed other people’s buttons too.   We do this, not only as children, but also  as adults.  Why?  Because we think the reaction is funny.
  2. They feel powerful. When our children realize that they can get a reaction from us, not only is it fun, but also it gives them a sense of power. Our children start to realize that they can now “make” another person react. Along with this new found power comes predictability and control. Gaining control over their lives is a very important  for our children —  thus button pushing becomes another way to gain this control. Every time I do “x “ Mom does “y”.
  3. They are becoming more interactive. If you find that your child is going through a particularly intense period of button pushing it may be because they have become less exclusive and are growing in their ability to interact. When an autistic child becomes more aware of their environment they start to notice that what they do can cause another person to react in a certain way. If this is the case for your child,  it is exciting and important time of growth for them.
  4. They are bored. Button pushing can also be a sign of boredom. If your child has increased their level of button pushing,  it may be a sign that they are being under stimulated.  They are button pushing as a form of entertainment because they have nothing better to do. Often school programs or home-based programs can become stagnant. As your child grows, they will have an increased need for more interesting and more challenging activities and learning opportunities. Reassess your child’s  program to see if this is the case.

How to Identify Button Pushing?
As described above,  button pushing is usually your child doing an activity that they know you do not want them to do. This alone however does not define button pushing. Our children may get into lots of unusual and interesting activities that you may not want them to do but that does not mean they are  all a button push. For example,  your child may draw on the walls … they know that you do not want them to do this, but they do it anyway. This may be a button push, but is also could be something that you child just finds irresistible. Therefore this is not as a button push but rather something they are doing for themselves, not for your reaction. The key thing to look for is “where their motivation lies”?  If your child’s attention is on the actual activity, it is most likely NOT a button push. If your child’s attention is on you and your reaction to the activity,  it is most likely a button push. Look for the following signs:
  • Are they looking at you while they are doing the activity?
  • Do they look at you right after they have done the activity?
  • Did they announce to you that they have just done the activity?
  • Did they smile or laugh when you reacted to what they have just done?
  • Did they do it again right after you asked them not to, while looking at you?

How to Respond to Button Pushing?
Deactivate the Button by changing your reaction
Our children button push to explore our reaction to their action. When our reaction is interesting to them,  they will continue. The fastest way to stop your child from button pushing is to deactivate the button by changing your reaction. You want to do this on an internal level as well as an external level. Many times parents tell me that they were furious with their children,  but that they managed not to show it.  Very unlikely!  If you are actually furious, it will show on your face and in your body language.  Our children are masters at detecting our attitude. They know when we feel furious, or uncomfortable.  We cannot fool them. So yes it is very important to change our external reaction, but also our internal thoughts and feelings.
How to React Externally?
The idea is to react as little as possible. For example,  if your child is button pushing by spilling water on the floor, give it no attention. Do not acknowledge verbally or physically that it matters to you that they have spilled the water on the floor. If you are playing a game together,  carry on with the game. If you are talking to them,  carry on with the conversation. If you are involved with your own activity, carry on with that activity. Show them that spilling water on the floor is not moving you emotionally. Wait a few minutes before you clean it up.  You can either clean up  the water yourself, or matter of factly ask your child to clean it up.  If your child is talking to you about a subject that you previously found challenging,  answer their questions or talk about the topic in a calm and understated way.

6 Responses

  1. Anonymous says:

    Kate, this subject is exactly about my current challenge; thank you so, so much!
    Can you please specify how to react externally when it is button pushing with sexual behavior, like rubbing against us or touching brest or kissing us in the mouth, among other?

  2. Hello,

    Thank you so much for your question! Well this would be a time that you would want to set a boundary in loving and non-judgmental way that will help this particular child/adult to know that you are not going to allow him/her to do this anymore. So the first step is to get really comfortable and calm and to know they are doing the very best they can to get what they want. So with a non-reactive calm and unexcited energy you can sweetly explain "I'm going to ask that you don't touch me in that way/kiss me on the mouth because this is my personal body" Then you slowly move away, placing a therapy ball or large cushion between you if the child/adult is persisting.

    All the very best!

  3. OptimumMom says:

    Thanks, Kate! this is a very thoughtful post, broken up easily to digest. It's always beneficial to know that we're reacting – then to change what we do systematically. It is a process, and we must be gentle on ourselves (parents). Thanks again for the wonderful post!

  4. Anonymous says:

    Kate, My son is throwing everything in the playroom: chairs, table, board games and ripping all the games. He is at stage 4 and was really good and playing games with us. He changed 2 months, now he is kicking, spitting, hitting…..I am just lost. Dint know what to do.

  5. hello, we have this very same problem with my little brother ,he is 9. he throws everything on the floor , in the playroom and outside the playroom. of course we have reacted in many ways screaming, yelling at him etc of course the contrary of non-reacting!he think is both button pushing and he is bored but when we try to add/ or bring a new game in the playroom he gets bored really easily. i admit we react in a big way towards him throwing things on thefloor , you can only take so much. what would u recommend ? woud it be ok to teach him to pick it up? like telling him u have to pick up coz u threw it, even tho it probably wud take us like 2 hrs.

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