TRIGGERS: The REAL Answer to, “HOW Do You Actually Do It?”

I meet people all the time that like to TALK the TALK. But rarely do I meet those that WALK the WALK. That’s right, I said it. And it happened again just recently as I met with a group of Dad’s that all had the answers to why “each of the OTHER Dad’s” were struggling even as THEY WEREN’T able to apply the information they know for themselves… and subsequently were unable to find the joy and happiness in their OWN lives and THRIVE as they served.

Yep, they all KNEW they should manage themselves in a way that allowed them to serve their kids best – they knew WHAT to do, but when things got tough, or they got tired, or the “right” buttons were pushed, almost none of them could admit they DID what was best. They almost all admitted they failed to “manage themselves” optimally – even though they knew what they SHOULD have done.

And THAT’S why they were missing out on joy and happiness that was there for the taking; THAT’S why they weren’t THRIVING as they served; and THAT’S why they were meeting with me. They didn’t need to know WHAT to do, they needed to know HOW.

You see, it’s easy to talk about what we should do when we’re calm and thoughtful (and not IN the moment of pain or discomfort) but when things get tough, we almost all default in to an emotionally unproductive state. And that “default” unproductive state is what we DON’T want to do but we keep falling in to.

There’s a big GIANT disconnect between knowing WHAT to do, and actually DOING IT.

So, to dig a bit deeper in to some ideas on how to “walk the walk” I want to cover with you 3 things now.

Those three things are: PATTERNS, HOT BUTTONS and creating new, productive TRIGGERS.

Let’s start by discussing PATTERNS. You see, we all follow patterns in our life – from the way we dry-off when getting out of the shower – face first, then hair, then left leg, followed by right leg, etc.; to the way we start our day at work – turn on the PC, sit down, check email, check the daily schedule, make important follow-up calls, etc.; all the way to the exact route we take to work each day or nighttime routines.

Not so sure? Don’t agree? Then, try drying-off DIFFERENTLY tomorrow. START with your back, then neck, then face, etc. and watch how weird it feels. It does. It feels weird to do something outside your pattern.

These kind of simple patterns are fairly easy to recognize and really do nothing more than create structure and certainty in our lives. But there are other patterns in our lives that are NOT SO EASY to recognize that do more HARM than GOOD.

So, PATTERNS are things we do without much thought. And that leads us in to Hot Buttons.

Hot buttons are triggers that can anger, frustrate or upset US – the parent or caregiver – during escalations or difficult situations that arise. Hot buttons are emotion that are triggered that get us flustered and “out of sorts.” Sometimes – well, a lot of the time, we then have a tendency to react in a way (Our Pattern) that pushes back at THEIR hot buttons and make the problem even worse.

Soon the situation is escalated “out of control” and nothing good is able to happen.

So, here’s how to KEEP struggling… like the Dad’s I was talking with. Simply, “KEEP DOING WHAT YOU’RE DOING.” Seem harsh? Sorry, but if we keep “talking” about what we SHOULD do, nothing will change.

Want to FIX the issue? Are you sure? Great. Do this.

First, you’ll need to identify YOUR hot buttons.

Before you can CHANGE the way we manage ourselves we MUST understand WHAT is happening that gets us “out of sorts.” It can be different for different people. Any certain word or action can have an immediate effect and set us in to an unproductive pattern of behavior. So, here’s a good question to ask yourself. “If I had big buttons with names on them all over me that others could push to make me feel upset or frustrated or manipulated or angry, what would they be called or look like?”

Write as many as you can think of, ask your spouse or those close to you if THEY know of any – don’t be too surprised (or upset) if they do. You can identify anything that clouds your judgement, sets you off or inhibits your ability to be calm and firm.

Some of our buttons may be described with words… like when we hear, “I HATE YOU!” or “NO!” or “I’M NOT GOING TO SCHOOL NO MORE!” or “NO GO TO BED!” Notice I’ve used all caps and exclamation points because my son has a tendency to YELL (mostly as he sticks his face in MY face) to ensure I was acutely aware of his demonstrative intentions.

NOTE: By the way, I don’t know if that last little bit made you grin, but my intent was that it would. You see, if I can see the humor in it (as I am writing MY list) I want you to experience that as well.

Some of our buttons may be described with actions… like, “ignoring us when we make a request” or “rolling their eyes or turning their back on us” or even “punching holes in walls” or “balling up their fists and leaning in threateningly” or even “hitting a brother or sister.”

Can you tell I deal with this too? Good. These are all things that can be “hot buttons” than when pressed can put us in a state where we are overly emotional, or frustrated or upset and unable to be at our best.

Now, as you create your list, it’s okay if you find yourself even smiling or grinning because you’ve never identified your confrontations this way. If you DON’T find yourself smiling or laughing just a little bit, now may not be the time to write this list as you may still be too much in the midst of a bit of turmoil. Stop now!

You’re back. Great, it seems you really WANT to better serve those in your care and you’re in a good, positive state. I congratulate you. Back to work.

Now we’re getting somewhere. Next we want to write out “how you react” when those hot buttons are pushed. Did we get mad or angry or hurt or defeated? Did we cry or slump or scream or lose our cool or yell back or “grab” the person to make them stop kicking the wall or even “push” them away from us to get a bit of space?

Or, did we “maintain our cool?” It can happen, right? Right? You don’t seem so sure? We’ll cover that in a minute.

So, here’s the next set of questions:

Was our reaction good or productive for those we serve or ourselves – I mean… long term? If we are reacting in a heightened emotional state are we HELPING or HURTING the situation long term?

These are “dig deep” questions and can be hard. Take me for instance. I grew up in a somewhat “tough” area of Dallas, Texas called Oak Cliff. Where I grew up, violence (or more likely) the THREAT of violence was a good way to “influence.” And THAT mentality was effective. Hey, the “threat” of violence can be VERY influential.

So, when I started having kids, I defaulted to a PATTERN of “the threat of violence” and noticed that the idea that they may get “spanked” had a powerful impact on my kids. So powerful, that rarely did I EVER have to spank them. No, they weren’t scared of me… but it worked. But I was unaware of all the “long term” damage I could be doing by influencing in that way. But it had worked in my past and so far, had worked for me now.

Then my son affected by autism (Erik) came along and shortly after I realized that the THREAT of spanking meant nothing to him. When, to my amazement, even the ACTUAL spanking didn’t work, I knew I needed to change.

Now, I COULD have FORCED him (when he was smaller) to comply with my wishes by giving bigger – or more frequent – spankings or threats. But, luckily, I was able to ask myself, “Was my reaction to his defiance good or productive for HIM or ME – I mean… long term? If I was reacting in a heightened emotional state was I HELPING or HURTING the situation long term? In addition, he WOULD get bigger… and THEN what?

I’m grateful now, that the answer for me… was an obvious… NOOOOOOOO! Even before he was diagnosed with Autism – or became bigger than me – I realized that my emotional reaction (my pattern) to his defiance may have caused really bad long-term results. I’ve seen what fear and anger in the home can turn kids in to and am not interested in that result – IF I can help it.

So, do it today. Understand your patterns, learn your hot buttons… AND.


Once you understand your patterns and know your hot buttons, THIS is where you can start to walk-the-walk instead of just TALKING about what you SHOULD do when things get tough.

And in the spirit of full-disclosure, you should know my life is RULED by triggers. I’ve written about it a lot. You can read more about it here: and here: and here:

But here’s the idea. Once you understand your patterns, and know your hot buttons, you can now create a new PRODUCTIVE TRIGGER that resets you when times get tough.

Let me give you an example. Quite a while back (before my boys affected by autism were even born) if one of my – two sons at the time – would break something – especially something expensive – that WAS a “hot button” and I would go in to a “pattern” of losing my mind. I’m not proud of this but I’d get in my kid’s faces and GO OFF on them. It got so bad – probably because at the time I had two young boys who were in to everything – that my wife one day told me, “The look on your face is frightening when you ‘lose it’ like that. The boys believe you are going to KILL them. They’re scared to death.”

So, I had to dig deep in to my issue here. My pattern was to GO OFF. My hot button was when they broke something. I had to ask myself, “Was my reaction to them breaking stuff good or productive for THEM or ME – I mean… long term? Since I was reacting in a heightened emotional state was I HELPING or HURTING the situation long term?”

I didn’t like the answers. They were just being kids. They weren’t TRYING to break stuff. Nothing they could break was worth more than THEM to me.

But my pattern and reaction to them pressing that hot button was telling THEM that I may kill them and frightening the HECK out of them. – That’s BAD for them. AND, my pattern and reaction to them pressing that hot button was telling ME that I completely lacked control of my emotions and was making THINGS seem more important than my sons. – BAD for me.

Once I understood what was happening I sat down (with my sweet wife) and together we pre-decided what my NEW pattern would be when THAT SPECIFIC hot button was pressed. I simply created a new reaction that was ‘linked’ to that hot button and pattern.

So, here’s how it worked in real life: The next time I heard a shatter (hot button pressed) and I felt myself JUMP UP out of my chair and my emotions start getting the best of me (old pattern starting to play out) I stopped, slowed down and remembered my new PRODUCTIVE TRIGGER and it triggered me in to the state and pattern I wanted to follow. A state I might add, that was helpful to both my boys and myself.

The first time this happened and I triggered myself in to a better pattern and approached them in a CALM, COOL, PRODUCTIVE state I noticed something I had never noticed before. As I walked in to their room, they were both against the back wall cowering in the corner with their hands up in defense.

Truthfully, it almost made me cry to think I had made them feel so horrible and afraid.

Then, as I talked to them in a calm way, asked them if they were okay, and told them that everything would be alright and we needed to be careful not to break things and the reasons why, I was shocked when they both threw their arms around my neck and told me how sorry they were and that they would be more careful. They then went on to say they would work to pay for the light fixture they had “whacked” off the ceiling with their wiffle-ball bat.

Needless to say, after this success, I went on to try and find other areas of my life I could apply this technique to. I decided that it wasn’t enough to KNOW what I should do in escalated situations. It wasn’t enough to be able to tell OTHERS “what THEY should do” during escalated situations. And it surely wasn’t enough to talk about what we ALL should do during escalated situations.

I had to DO it.

And now… you can too.

I can promise you you’ll reap the rewards of walking the walk. And the rewards are HUGE! For everyone.

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