“What wires together, fires together” – Neuropsychologist Dr. Donald O. Hebb, 1949
Resentment. Dismay. Frustration. Helplessness. These are often the feelings parents have when your children are pushing your buttons, or simply having a really hard time.
Your teenager sleeps through her alarm again, insisting she can’t get up without your help. You find yourself extra irritated knowing that from the time you were ten, you got up with your alarm, so why can’t she? Again, it doesn’t feel fair that you have to do this for her.
You ask for your child’s help with dinner prep and even offer to make it fun, but instead of jumping at the opportunity to help, he rolls his eyes, sinks back into the couch, and reaches for his smartphone. Not only are you frustrated that he won’t help and your enticement didn’t work, but you also feel strangely angry that he is about to get away with avoiding something you were always made to do. You feel a bit like a kid focused on how unfair the situation is.
Your three-year-old refuses to hold your hand while crossing the street in spite of your reasoning and even bribes. Having to grab her hand to force compliance is irritating. Why can’t she just listen? You would have NEVER gotten away with this as a kid, you think.
Dr. Donald Hebb, a Harvard PhD psychologist, in studying long term memory formation, discovered that the brain wires for efficiency, such that when adjacent neurons continually activate – or “fire” – together, they will become joined – or “wired” – together through protein synthesis. This process facilitates continual synchronization, and efficiency with repetition. In plain language: If something happens today that your brain registers as a similar experience from your past, you’ll likely feel the same way now as you did then.
Buttons reveal themselves when the past amplifies the present, and we feel confused by our strong reactions, even at times like a kid ourselves. Few responsibilities are tougher – or elicit more childhood memories – than parenting. Getting a handle on buttons is one of the most common topics I discuss in my practice, especially with parents. Here are a few key ways to take control when your kids are pushing yours.
- Familiarize yourself with your buttons. Remember, our buttons are pushed in situations that recall earlier, frustrating experiences. Start noticing the situations and experiences that leave you vulnerable to overreaction. How similar are they to parts of your past that have left you feeling unsure of yourself, ashamed, or even scared? The more you understand your buttons outside of the heat of the moment, the better you’ll be able to learn to handle them.
- Recognize the button for being what it is: Just a button. An emotional button is a toxic combination of past and present that work together to exacerbate your emotional reaction. By activating your rational thinking, instead of an immediate emotional reaction, you’ll move toward taking control of the button. Identifying a button can be powerful.
- Detangle past from present: Recognize what is happening now versus what is a ghost from the past, and look to leave the past in the past. You are no longer the helpless child or adolescent you once were – you are now an adult who has control, with access to an array of cognitive resources that in the past were not yet developed. Harnessing these resources to forge a more adaptive solution in the present situation and begin to detangle the original associations that formed the button in the first place.
- Choose new thoughts and behaviors. Specifically, harness your anxiety about the situation into doing something different. Even if it feels like quicksand pulling you into a familiar pattern, recognize your choices and try something new, even if it is simply viewing the situation differently.
With practice, it is possible to “rewire” our reactions. Science is proving that our brain activity follows suit with new habits. This won’t happen overnight, but with effort and insight, it will. Once you recognize and learn to detangle your emotional buttons, you will experience more choice over your reactions, and it won’t take long before this new practice becomes a habit.
So the next time your daughter dodges wake-up responsibility, your son refuses to help, or your toddler experiments with defiance, you can take a deep breath, size up the situation more efficiently, and choose a calmer, more effective path. Not only will this boost your parenting confidence, it will also make it easier to do it the next time. Remember you are building a habit after all – what fires together, wires together.
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