I am sure everyone would agree that the best way to cope with a behavior problem is to keep it from happening in the first place. If it doesn’t occur, then it isn’t a problem. Of course, you have to be realistic about the limits of your own crystal ball. After all, you are not all- seeing and all-knowing. You can’t keep children happy or even placid all the time. For many problem situations that you can anticipate, though, there are things you can do that will help your child cope.
As with so many aspects of discipline, the first adjustment is yours, the parents’. The job of settling down an upset child is a lot easier if you can maintain your cool and think about the situation in a positive, constructive way. To do this, you have to understand that your child’s tolerance for stimulation is different from other types of behavior problems. Your child is not just testing limits to learn the family rule system, your child is out of control. She can’t regulate her behavior and she probably feels irritable as well. But she doesn’t just need sympathy or “a little space.’’ She needs someone who can give her some direction and supervision. She needs your help.
Often the distinction between overstimulation and willful limit testing is a difficult one to make. For one thing, if you miss all of the early warning signals and your child starts spiraling out of control, she is probably going to start acting out and testing all sorts of limits. Then when you try to intercede, she is more likely to be defiant and disobedient. As a parent of two small children, I have come across this situation many times. I have also encountered it professionally. So many times parents will say to me, “I can’t tell whether she can’t control herself or simply won’t control herself. ” For some reason the difference between ‘can t and “won’t” is important. Why?
Apparently the distinction is important because it legitimizes a specific emotional response from the parents. If your child really “can’t” do something, then you sympathize, reassure, and make soft cooing noises. But if your child simply refuses to behave or willfully misbehaves, then you are right to be angry and increase your demands for compliance.
But the distinction between “can’t” and “won’t” is a false one. When your child is out of control, she simply isn’t behaving. It is usually very difficult, if not impossible, to really understand how much is willful and how much is involuntary. Besides, when your child gets upset, your own emotional response is no longer important. Your child probably isn’t going to pay attention to your feelings, since she is too caught up in her own. To get a child to attend to your feelings at this point, you would have to turn up your own speed and volume past the point of reason. So you yell, threaten, and perhaps swat your child in anger. Your child probably doesn’t learn anything from this and feels angry at you, and you feel angry for losing control. This is why it is important to anticipate trouble spots or to respond to ticklish situations before the feelings get out of control.
But positive, constructive attitudes don’t just happen—they need to be actively shaped and worked on. You have the great gifts of thought and language, and you need to consciously use these as instruments of self-control. Try to lead yourself through a mental process to construct a positive attitude:
1. Allow yourself to recognize potential problem situations. This will give you the chance to work on them while your child is still feeling relatively happy and receptive to your rational thinking.
2. Separate your problems from your child’s problems. All of us are prone to stress either at certain points in our lives or in response to some situations. If you have had a bad day at work and find you are screaming at your five-year-old because his shoelace is untied, then you probably have some feelings of your own you need to take care of. For now, though, try to be as fair to yourself and your child as you can.
3. Focus in on the child’s problem. What is likely to set your child off? Flow is he likely to go out of control?
4. Think about what your child needs to learn. You are now in a situation in which your child can learn some necessary skills for living. What is it you want to teach?
5. How can you help your child? This is a critical question, one you might allow yourself to keep in mind: “You are out of control, how can I help you?”
6. Always remember that your child is fortunate to have someone like you to teach him.