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Choosing Your Battles

Not every behavioral misstep is worth fighting over

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Mother talking seriously with young son.
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As parents, we all want to be consistent disciplinarians. We know our children will see waffling as a sign of weakness, and not take us seriously if we don't stand by our convictions. But kids with special needs sometimes present us with so many opportunities for behavioral correction that if we pursued every one, they'd never leave the time-out chair. How do we let them know the rules are important, and still use discretion when it comes to discipline? Here are some tips on being a benevolent dictator.

Order your priorities. In his book The Explosive Child, Ross W. Greene presents a great plan for figuring out which battles to choose and which to let by. He recommends using three "baskets": one for things that are truly nonnegotiable; one for things that are important but allow for some compromise; and one for things that just aren't important enough to make a scene over. The first basket should be the smallest, and the last the largest. Think of the things you fight with your child over. Could any of them get tossed in the second or third baskets?

Analyze your motives. The Tourette's Syndrome Plus site has a good set of criteria, developed for teachers, for determining whether a particular behavior will really benefit from modification attempts. Apply this "acid test" before picking a fight with your child over something. And if it fails, let it go.

Analyze your child's motives. Doing behavior analysis can help in determining what behaviors will respond to disciplinary action, which ones will be better served by changing the environment or your own expectations, and how to negotiate those that will respond best to that tactic.

Provide real options. Instead of presenting your child with a choice between doing it your way or being punished -- at which many kids with special needs, whether due to oppositional tendencies, impulsiveness, or fear of uncertainty will automatically choose the punishment -- try to present a choice between two options that would both be agreeable to you. Saying "Put on your shoes right now or you're in big trouble!" may be less likely to bring compliance than, "Which do you want to put on first, your shoes or your jacket?"

Be consistent. If you decide a rule is important enough to be enforced without negotiation and without exception, then enforce it every single time. Never let it slide, even when it would be convenient for you to do so. Your child needs to know that the outcome in those situations will be the same every single time, or else he's going to argue with you every single time. By the same measure, if you've determined to allow negotiations for some behaviors, allow them every time. Don't clamp down sometimes and ease up others. Your child needs to respect that you will listen to him as promised. And finally, if you've determined to let some things slide, let them slide every time. Don't suddenly decide to swoop down because you're in a bad mood and your kid has been pushing your buttons. If your child has to play by the rules, so do you.

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