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Bringing Down the Intensity

Recognizing the Instinctual Responses
Learning to recognize when you're "reacting" rather than thinking is the first step toward choosing a different response. There are four common instinctual reactions. Think about which ones are most typical for you and your child. What do you do when you get upset and you're not thinking?

Striking Back
When you feel threatened, you might find yourself attacking right back. You want to smack someone or something! Even when you're able to quell the urge to physically strike out, you may let loose words that escalate into full-fledged name calling or a shouting match.

Giving In
The opposite of striking back is giving in. Exhaustion drives you. You cannot bear to deal with another angry outburst, so you give in, or you let your child off the hook. The trouble with giving in is that later you feel as if you've been had. Your child just keeps pushing, asking for more as he tries to find out where the limit is. Resentment grows until ultimately you have taken more than you can bear. That's when you find yourself moving from giving in to striking back.

Shutting Down
Sometimes when that rush of adrenaline hits, you literally shut down. Flooded with emotion, it's as though you were a deer caught in the glare of headlights, unable to respond or perform. You can't think. You feel helpless. Your greatest fear is that there is nothing you can do to make things better.

Breaking Off
The fourth instinctual reaction is to throw up your hands and emotionally break off your relationship with your child. You might say, "I just can't deal with you!" "I don't want to be with you!" or "Maybe you should find a different parent or family!" It could be hours or days of silence. No matter whether the break off is verbal or silent, to your child the message is clear: I don't like you. I don't want anything to do with you. I can't think of anything about you I ever liked. I wish to sever this relationship.

These instinctual reactions tear apart relationships. They bring up a host of hurt feelings, leaving you feeling lousy and your child feeling angry and resentful. The emotional costs are great. Rather than finding a way to work together, you're pushed apart. Fortunately, you can learn to stop reacting and instead respond deliberately, with careful and full consideration of the situation.

We can decide even in those difficult moments to choose responses that connect us with our kids instead of disconnect us. These responses allow us to step back, collect our wits, and see the situation more objectively and sensitively. Our goal isn't to suppress, muffle, stuff, deny, or bury our feelings, but to express them more selectively. As we do it, we are teaching our kids how to express their strong emotions respectfully and how to manage their intensity.



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From the book KIDS, PARENTS, AND POWER STRUGGLES: Winning for a Lifetime by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka, published by HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. Copyright 2000 by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka. All rights reserved.

Buy the book at www.harpercollins.com.


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