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Dr. Mom: Some basic behavioral strategies

Published: Thursday, Oct. 4, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1D

Whenever parents ask me how to handle a certain behavior in their child, or they're just venting about what a difficult developmental stage their child is going through, I often find myself returning to a few tried-and-true parenting strategies.

I offer them up because I've been there (am still there) and they usually work.

So I'll get right to my go-to strategies for heading off meltdowns and getting through our days with less tears and more laughter.

Validate feelings: It's easy to let our children's frustrations, sadness or anger get under our skin. I think it's a lot harder to not take it personally, but, our children are not actually looking for (nor do they need) immediate solutions or pacifying of their tumultuous emotional state. What they need is to feel heard.

That's it. They just need to know that we get it. They are sad or angry, and they have every right to be, even if it makes no sense to us. Echo their feelings and let the emotions take their natural course.

This is certainly an exercise in our patience, but more important, it's a chance for children to flex their emotional muscles and learn how to deal with them.

Give choices: Whenever possible, give choices. This has nothing to do with being too lenient, too permissive or too anything.

It has to do with letting children maintain some autonomy and control over their lives. For good reasons, we set ground rules and tell them when it's time to eat, sleep, and do homework.

Why not give them some say when possible? For instance, give them a choice between broccoli or carrots with dinner. Do they want to finish their homework now or after a little snack? Having a choice between two acceptable options goes a long way in facilitating cooperation and minimizing resistance.

Fair warning: Children need a heads-up before switching gears. Sure, in our minds it seems easy enough to just stop playing in the sand box because it's time to go in for dinner. But, our priorities and those of our children are rarely in sync.

Give them a five- to 10-minute warning instead. That gives them time to wrap up their work of art and to mentally prepare for what comes next.

This works for almost every scenario – bedtime, dinnertime, homework, you name it. Set a specified time (or timer) and believe me, there will be less whining and tears.

Positive reinforcement: If you want your child to share, play nicely with her brother and clean up her toys, praise her when you notice her doing those things. Contrary to popular belief, our children really do want to please us, and when they realize we appreciate and notice those behaviors, they're more likely to repeat them. So, yes, catch your children being good.

Connect every day: In our busy lives, it's too easy for a day to rush by without us having spent some quality time with our kids. Hug them often throughout the day.

Greet them at school pick-up with your un- divided attention and make sure you have some solid, one-on-one time with them. Whether that's at bedtime or at the dinner table, those moments of reconnection are vital.

I'm reminded of this quote by Dr. Laura Markham, a psychologist and author of the popular blog Aha! Parenting: "Connection trumps everything else in parenting."

I think of it often, especially when I feel my family is veering a bit off path.

So when all else fails and you feel your patience is slipping away, take a break, sit down with your child and just be.

You'll both feel better afterward.

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