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Controlling Your Emotions and Behavior When Your Child Is Disrespectful

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By John W. Maag, Ph.D.

Combating Demandingness

Combating the irrational thinking involved in demandingness is deceptively simple: Instead of using demanding words as an attempt to magically change reality, you merely use demanding words to describe reality. Here are the most common demanding words:

• Must • Have to • Ought to
• Need to • Got to • Should/shouldn't

According to the American Heritage Dictionary, the definition for "must" is "imperative requirement," "compelled to." The word "must," and the others above, indicate that there is no choice involved. Therefore, the rule for not engaging in demandingness is to test whether the "demanding words" that pop into your mind live up to their definition and match the reality of the situation. If a behavior is a "must" or "have to," then there is no choice involved - you are compelled by forces beyond your control to do something. For example, dying is a must - we cannot live forever. Or, if we drop a pen or pencil, it must fall to the ground because of the law of gravity.

But, if you use demanding words when there is any choice at all, then you are engaging in demandingness. For example, if you say "I must be on time to work," as you leave the house 10 minutes late, you are engaging in demandingness. The only thing you accomplish by repeating the word "must" is to keep yourself in a state of emotional upset that gets worse with every red light you encounter. So ask yourself, "Is it possible for me not to be on time?" The answer is yes. You may not like the consequences, but it is possible not to be on time.

Another way to test whether a situation offers absolutely no choice is to imagine using a non-demanding word to describe it: For example, you might try saying, "It would be "preferable" to be on time." As silly as it may sound at first, when you actually say "It would be preferable . . .," you automatically decrease how emotionally upset you become.

Combating Awfulizing

Other terms for awfulizing that you may have heard are "catastrophizing," "making mountains out of mole hills," or "blowing things out of proportion." Awfulizing is a logical consequence when you engage in demandingness. If you say that something should or shouldn't have happened, your next interpretation of the event will be that it is awful that it did, in fact, happen. In order to effectively combat awfulizing, it is important to understand and accept the fact that bad (i.e., negative) things do happen to us.

To avoid awfulizing, put "bad events" into perspective so that you can prevent overreacting and respond rationally and effectively. The "physical injury scale" (below; adapted from Miller) is one tool you can use to combat awfulizing. The idea behind the scale is that when you are able to compare a negative event to physical injury - a tangible situation that we all understand and try to avoid - you will only get upset in proportion to the real unpleasantness of the event. If you train yourself to use the physical injury scale whenever you encounter a situation that you label as "bad," you will generate a response within yourself that is logical based on the "badness" percentage you select.

The Physical Injury Scale

100% - death     90% - paralyzed from waist down     80% - dominant arm cut off     70% - 1 hand cut off     60% - 2 fingers cut off     50% - 3 broken limbs     40% - dominant arm broken     30% - broken nose     20% - gash requiring stitches     10% - bruise      0% - nothing

So, for example, when a child tells you to "shut up," you can place that event on the physical injury scale and ask yourself, "How bad is it?", which you determine by looking at the scale and asking yourself: "How much physical pain would I be willing to trade to have prevented my child from saying 'shut up'." It's a good bet no one wants to go higher than 10% (bruise). Therefore, you choose to keep yourself calm by telling yourself that the incident only warrants your being 10% upset, which leaves you with 90% of your rational thinking capabilities to figure out how to deal with the situation. This takes practice, so be patient with yourself while you're learning.