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Wednesday, April 16, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 47.0° F  Mostly Cloudy and Windy
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Don't look back in anger
Parenting can be trying -- but avoid the negative mode


Credit:Joe Rocco
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Alec Baldwin gets caught calling his 11-year old daughter a "rude, thoughtless little pig," and you are quick to judge his inability to parent because of his seemingly complete and total loss of control. You may even laugh at how ridiculous he sounds. "Only a celebrity would take it to the extreme," you think -- and then start to realize his jaded voicemail message is not that far off from some of the conversations you've had with your kid. Fortunately, no one is interested in broadcasting your missteps in heavy rotation on CNN. But you sometimes end up replaying them yourself in a mental loop. How can you avoid this destructive parenting pattern?

"Everyone makes mistakes with their kids," says David Riley, associate dean of the School of Human Ecology at the UW-Madison. But "you have to avoid making the same mistake over and over again. Be thoughtful about how you're going to react differently."

It's easy to become trapped in the negative mode, using only "can't" and "don't" and "no" with your kids. Riley suggests turning that around: Find competent behavior you want to teach. "You're almost always better off telling your child what they can do," Riley says. "It's very hard to stop unwanted behavior without replacing it with appropriate behavior."

If you realize that you're being too negative with your kids, come up with a plan for how to react differently. Imagine yourself at the grocery store with your child. You're trying to get everything crossed off your list so you can get home and start dinner. Your kid is crabby and hungry and just wants to get home, too.

If your child is acting out and putting you at your wit's end, Riley suggests giving her a task. For a younger child, you might ask her to help you find the cat food to put in the cart. For an older child, you might have him do a cost comparison of which cat food brand is the better deal.

Riley also recommends giving your children choices. If they are irritating you, it's important to tell them that their behavior is bugging you and to have them come up with some ideas or alternatives to their current behavior. "Let them suggest and select - they'll be on-board and willing to do it because it was their choice," says Riley. And in turn, you're modeling how to respond to frustration and problem-solve.

Of course, no parent is perfect. You will find yourself, at times, blowing up at your kids. How do you recover from that?

It's important to act maturely with the child, and respond almost the same way you would with an adult. You'll teach your children a valuable lesson if you apologize and say what you should have done or said instead. It's your job to show them how mature relationships work, says Riley.

"It's okay for parents to admit their mistakes and be accountable," says Barb Knutson, a licensed professional counselor and educator who works with families in Madison. "You're teaching kids how to cope and problem-solve."

Common mistakes parents make include belittling their children, wrongly accusing them of things and being disrespectful. Parents may fall prey to being constantly in a rush; they need to take time for daily communication with their kids, says Knutson.

Knutson suggests keeping a shared journal, where parent and child have a running conversation with each other. They can exchange ideas and ask questions, but avoid making judgments during the process.

It's also important to start a conversation when both parties are calm. "It's not good to talk in the heat of the moment," warns Knutson.

"Show respect for and interest in your child's life," says Knutson. Getting to know your child's friends by hosting get-togethers at your house is a great way to learn about your child and feel better about her choices. "Always tell your kids when you appreciate something, without overindulging" says Knutson. "You're feeding the good part."

Parents may find this hard to believe, but kids are very forgiving. Parents can (and will) make a lot of mistakes, but the family will recover, according to Krista Roys at the Respite Center, which provides crisis child care 24 hours a day, seven days a week to parents experiencing high levels of stress. "Don't give up on yourself because of a negative pattern."

Parents can take some of the pressure of parenting off by having a sense of humor and realistic expectations, and finding healthy outlets for their own interests, besides being a mom or dad. Finding other parents you can relate to will make the job much more tolerable, too. "Isolation is a big risk factor for big problems in parenting," says Roys.

When talking to your kids, Roys explains, you shouldn't talk at them, but rather with them. Listening and hearing are key. "Hear what's on their minds. If you think you can pull them to what's on your mind without hearing what's on their mind - you're in for frustration," says Roys.

Keep the conversation simple and clear, and don't let one person do all the talking. You may need to give yourself space and time to breathe, Roys suggests. Try saying something like, "I have to think about that, but I will get back to you." Don't talk to your kids when either of you is angry. Know your child's state of mind before you start talking.

When you do sit down and finally talk it out with your kids, give them a chance to respond. "Kids are able to, and need to, hear reasons," Roys notes. "They want to know what's in it for them, so be ready with a rationale that makes sense."

While you want to allow your children to have reasonable choices, they also need to know you're the boss. "Your child wants the safety of knowing you will provide limits," says Roys. "Children are afraid of the sense that they're in charge."

Erin Thornley of the Parental Stress Center in Madison, which focuses on child abuse and neglect prevention, agrees. "Children feel safest when they know someone is in charge. They want to know what comes next and what the rules are - even though they may break them."

If you're yelling or screaming, you are giving your kids the message that you are out of control, and you're not modeling proper communication techniques for them. Break the momentum, if necessary, to get back on track. "Step back, leave the room, sit on the floor, drink a glass of water - give yourself a chance to compose yourself. Staying calm is always going to accomplish more," says Thornley.

Role-play with a partner or friend about how a conversation will go. You may even want your kids to try practicing through role play. If a child makes a bad decision, have him play it back and try it a different way. That way everyone learns from a mistake. Kids will know how to handle this because they've practiced the right way.

It's critical to remember your children's developmental level when talking with them. It's like learning to ride a bike: "You wouldn't start your young child on a ten-speed without training wheels," Thornley says. Kids understand a lot less than you think. "They have a delay in processing information as you talk; they're not absorbing it at the rate that most adults do. They need time to let it sink in."

Finally, "Be plugged in and recharged, and take time for yourself. To be the best parent, you have to have what you need and put yourself first."

"Kids at different developmental stages have varying abilities to think in the abstract," says Mike Kenitz of Family Enhancement, an organization in Madison that works with parents to strengthen families. He suggests being more specific and concrete when your kids are young. You can challenge their thinking as they grow older by asking questions to lead them to more complex reflecting.

Be a good listener. "Kids, especially teens, are really good at focusing in on whether you're paying attention," says Kenitz.

Kenitz suggests paraphrasing what your kids say back to them so they know you heard what they said, and also to give them an opportunity to clarify something they may not have communicated effectively. "Don't jump in - let them complete their thoughts," he says.

Kenitz also recommends using "I" messages when talking to your kids. "It's taken better if you say, 'When you this, I felt this.' Explain how their actions affected you." Using these "I" messages will feel less critical to your kids.

As a parent, you have to know when to stop the discussion when it's not productive anymore. When your child is trying to pull you into negotiation on something that is non-negotiable, it's time to disengage, says Kenitz. "We can't be apologizing all the time as parents," says Kenitz. "You have the right to set limits, to create boundaries. You're doing your job, and that's not something, as a parent, you should apologize for."

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