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Control Your Reactions

Avoiding meltdowns so your child can, too

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It's bad enough when your child is out of control, but reacting to all that bad behavior can make you feel out of control, too. Anger, pleading, blame, guilt, and other emotional reactions to your child's actions are not only ineffective as parenting tools but make you feel stressed out and upset for hours afterward. Break the cycle of provocation, overreaction and regret by taking charge of the one thing you can: your own behavior. Mastering your reactions makes your discipline more effective, models good stress management techniques for your child, and leaves you feeling calm and in control. Here are some ways to make it happen:

Be prepared. Strategies like having a big bag of tricks and an escape plan aren't just good for your child. They're good for you, too, because they offer preplanned reactions that are constructive and unemotional. It helps to have something specific to do when your child misbehaves. Since it's hard to think of those in the heat of the moment, try to have some solid ideas worked out before you need them.

Know your limits. Our reactions to our children's actions are often determined as much by the way we feel and the kind of day we've had as by what our children actually do. If you're feeling ill, upset, stressed, impatient, overworked or otherwise emotionally distracted, it may be a good time to relax your expectations for your child -- just as you would if he or she was having those same feelings. If your child tries to provoke you or you feel unable to keep from picking on problem behavior, this is an excellent time to practice giving yourself a time-out.

Know your child. Techniques like behavior analysis can help you fine-tune your reactions so that they will help and not hurt your child. Behavior that is truly motivated by malice and intentional rule-breaking needs to be reacted to differently than behavior that is motivated by sensory issues, inability to manage stress, or frustration-tolerance problems. Some kids respond well to loud, sharp-toned commands, others fall apart if you seem to be the least bit angry. Knowing how your child deals with different activities or times of day -- losing control in a crowded room, for example, or right before bedtime -- will also help you tailor your reaction.

Stay emotion-neutral. Emotional reactions to your child's behavior can be trouble on a number of levels. Emotion may make you feel out of control. It may scare your child, or feed into an emotional overreaction on his or her part. And it may ultimately be counter-productive; if your child feels the best way to get strong emotion and connection out of you is to misbehave, he or she may do it deliberately. Save the emotion for times when you want to reinforce positive behavior, and then pour it on. When dealing with negative behavior, try to stay unemotional and matter-of-fact. If you can't, take a time-out until you can.

Be active, not reactive. The best way to handle misbehavior in a child with special needs is to change the environment so that the misbehavior never happens in the first place. Analyzing your child's behavior and making a plan puts you in charge. Micromanaging your child's behavior may not be a lot of fun, but it's easier than dealing with bad behavior after it happens, and far more empowering. It also enables you to have many more positive reactions and interactions with your child than negative ones, and that's good for everybody's stress level.

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