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Act versus React

Air Date: 05/31/11 Cheryl can be reached at 775-331-6723 or at cheryl.erwin@sbcglobal.net.   It's undoubtedly the understatement of the century, but it isn't easy being a parent. It's not always easy being a child, either. Or a teenager. I have a huge amount of respect for the everyday courage and commitment that families demonstrate; sometimes, just getting out of bed in the morning and trying again takes all the energy and devotion you have. Still, there are times when, as a therapist, workshop trainer, and conference speaker, I find myself saying the same thing over and over again. When that happens, it's usually because it's an issue that affects everyone. And that makes it worth thinking and talking about again.             All children, no matter how loving or bright, misbehave sometimes. And all parents lose their cool from time to time. Still, parents have become so insecure about their parenting that we wound up with television shows like "SuperNanny" and "Nanny 911." Good grief, folks. Yes, I watched-and no, I was not hugely impressed. Sure, the nannies often had more success with the children than their parents did, but not everything they did was effective discipline or wise in the long-term. I'm convinced the reason outsiders sometimes are more effective with children than their parents is that outsiders don't have buttons those children can push easily. They're far better able to pause, think, and choose an appropriate tool from the parenting toolbox. There's no reason why parents can't be just as calm and collected as "supernanny"-they just have to realize how necessary it is. I noticed when my son was much younger that most of the parenting decisions I came to regret later weren't decisions at all-they were just reactions. My son would do something I didn't like or understand, and something unpleasant would happen. I'm not a screamer or a hitter. But I certainly had my sarcastic, ineffective moments, and I'm pretty sure my son could tell you that I wasn't always a calm, skilled mother. I practice family therapy and teach Positive Discipline nowadays for a very simple reason: what I knew about parenting when my son was little didn't work with the flesh-and-blood kid I actually got. I had to learn something different. From what I've seen-and I've seen a lot-most parents don't act. They react. And yes, there's a difference. Discipline, as you may recall if you listen to this commentary, is not the same as punishment. Effective discipline is directly related to the misbehavior. It is designed to teach life skills and character, and it's effective long-term, not just for the moment. Most parents nod when I say things like that because it makes sense. And in fact, the research shows that this approach to discipline is far more effective than the old stand-bys of punishment and reward. Where the difficulty comes in is not just thinking about it differently, but being able to do it differently. And that takes both patience and practice. Neurobiologists tell us that when we become angry, the prefrontal cortex in our brain-the part responsible for wisdom, logic, and sound judgment-disconnects, leaving us with only emotion and physical sensation. This, by the way, is known by the technical term "losing it." No parent alive is able to think rationally, act calmly, and discipline effectively when he or she is out of control. When parents react out of raw emotion and frustration, family life can become scary. I've talked to parents who slapped, hit, or threw things at their children because they were angry. I've talked to parents who boxed up all their children's possessions and threw them out on the front lawn because they were angry. I've talked to parents who've said nasty, hurtful things, words that linger in memory for years, because they were angry. And children don't learn life skills or character when parents react this way; instead, they learn to react themselves. The most effective thing you can do when your children push you too far is--  nothing at all. Take a moment to breathe; leave the room if you have to. Most important, think about what you truly want your children to learn, what should happen next. In other words, don't react out of anger and emotion; act with respect and kindness, and take the time to discover a real solution to the problem. There has been a great deal of research on the practice of mindfulness, and it turns out that simply taking a few breaths and being aware of your own feelings can change what you actually do dramatically. When you or your children are upset, the first step is always to calm down. Take a cool-off yourself, and teach your children to do the same. Then focus on ways to actually solve the problem. Anger and punishment can feel satisfying for the moment, but they usually lead to more of the problem that made you angry in the first place. Pausing to breathe, and to act thoughtfully with dignity and wisdom will make your family a safer and happier place for everyone. For KUNR, this is Cheryl Erwin.