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Dealing with Toxic People

If you can't change their actions, change your reactions


And you think your child has problems. At least he or she has a reason for lack of impulse control, inability to think before speaking, tone-deafness to the social nuances of speech, and emotional childishness. What's the excuse of the neighbor who treats your children like crabgrass, the lady in church who glares at your child, the cousin who consistently criticizes your parenting, the former best friend who questions your judgment, the acquaintance who talks about your child's problems as if he wasn't standing right there. What kind of special needs do they have, other than a special need to be smacked down, hard?

Actually, it's not a bad idea to manage the toxic people in your life exactly the way you manage your special-needs child. They may not deserve that consideration, but you do -- and anything that puts you in control of the situation is a good, empowering thing. 

See how these behavior-management techniques work with those hard-to-tolerate personalities:

Change the environment. Just as you know your child is bound to behave unacceptably in certain situations, accept that toxic people are going to spread their poison whether you want to receive it or not. One great way to change the environment is to remove yourself from it -- avoid these people if you possibly can. If you can't, plan your escape just the way you might plan to get in and out of the mall quickly with your easily overstimulated child. Have a reason prepared for leaving early, or hanging up quickly.

Do some behavior analysis. Regarding toxic people as specimens to be examined can take away some of their power. Do they talk that way because they're insecure and want to build themselves up by tearing others down? Are they so unhappy with their own lives that they want others to be unhappy, too? Are they so rigid in their thinking that they can't imagine anybody having a different opinion? Do they get a feeling of power from hurting you? Is it even possible that they're speaking out of love and concern, and are just really bad at it? As with your child, if you can figure out what the person is getting out of the behavior, you can try to give them the same reward for behavior that is more acceptable.

Try positive reinforcement. Keep the conversation away from negative comments on your behavior by increasing positive comments on theirs. Flattery may get you everywhere. Children with special needs benefit from hearing lots and lots of enthusiastic positive or neutral statements and observations, with negatives delivered as unemotionally as possible. Try that with the difficult people in your life. If they veer the conversation toward your shortcomings, veer it back with something, anything, nice about them. Use distraction as a tool to head off unpleasantness. Keep up the positive chatter, and cut off any negativity with a brusque time-out -- find any excuse to walk away.

Keep your expectations realistic. Just as you can't expect your developmentally delayed child to act his chronological age, you probably can't expect your mother to all of a sudden appreciate you the way you'd like, or your sister to stop the sibling rivalry that's been going on all your lives. You may hope for a gradual improvement, and you may find ways to manage them better, but every time you expect them to act in ways they are fundamentally unable to, you set yourself up for heartache. In the end, as with our kids, we can only truly control ourselves. If you know you're in for a stressful encounter, talk to a sympathetic friend ahead of time to strengthen yourself emotionally. During the encounter, think only about what a great story this will make later on. Then, when you get home, share the outrageous behavior with your friend, a support group, or on the form below. If you've ever vented about your child's behavior, you'll know just what to do.

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