Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Becoming Aware of Your Own Reactions

One of our greatest strengths as parents is our emotional attachment to our children. This is the force that drives us forward, that gives us the strength to do what needs to be done in order to give them the best possible start in life. Teachers and therapists may be dedicated and competent, but they will never have the emotional bond that you have with your child.

At the same time, our emotional attachment can bring obstacles into the guided participation relationship. As a parent who is also an RDI Consultant, I have come to realize that it is much easier for me to use RDI strategies with other people's children. I care about the children who I work with, but I do not have the parent-child bond and the history that can often bring obstacles in the guided participation relationship. I've spent some time reflecting on these obstacles, in an effort to help myself, and other parents become aware of them, so we can move past them and help our children to succeed.

Here are some of the obstacles I've become aware of through my experiences as a parent and consultant:

1. Thinking about what is ahead, instead of focusing on the here and now.

As a parent, it is natural to hope for the best. Of course, when you start an RDI program, you are looking forward to the day when your child masters each new objective. We create mission previews during the Readiness and Committment stage in order to clarify our goals. This is an important part of the process.

Equally important, however, is focusing on the here and now. I often find myself getting frustrated with my son, because he is not mastering new obectives as quickly as I'd like him to. On the other hand, when I am working with a client's child, I am focusing on what the child is able to bring to the interaction, and on the actions I need to take in order to help the child be successful. I sometimes have to remind myself to come back to this mindset when I am working with my own son.

2. Falling into old habits.

One of the first things an RDI Consultant looks at during the initial assessment is the dynamic between parent and child. Every parent-child relationship has its own patterns and norms, and one of the most challenging aspects of RDI is becoming aware of the patterns that are hindering your child's progress, then working to change them.

Habits are not easy to change. This is due to the neural connections within our brains. When a group of neurons link together, they form a loop. The more often that neural loop fires, the stronger it becomes, and once that loop is engrained you have a habit that will be difficult to break. This is the same process that occurs with our children, when they form static habits that they feel the need to repeat again and again. Before we can work on forming new connections for them, we must work on our own neural loops.

This is the stage where we are working on changing our communication style, slowing down our interactions, and learning to frame activities for our child. As a veteran parent, I must warn you that this process never truly ends. With each milestone my son achieves, there is a period of excitement, but I must be vigilant, because this is where new habits will be formed. It is so easy to get comfortable with the way things are, especially once your child reaches a certain level of mastery. It is important to reflect on your current relationship, and to find ways to keep opportunities for dynamic learning coming, for both you and your child.

3. Reacting to Setbacks Emotionally

This is one of the most difficult habits to break. It is really an extension of the second obstacle, in that our emotional reactions to setbacks come from long-standing neural loops that tend to go into overdrive when faced with certain stimuli.

The key here is to become aware of your own emotional reactions. This is where journaling can be very helpful. Whenever you are interacting with your child, and you find yourself becoming reactive, write down what was going on at the time. This process will help you to become aware of your triggers, situations that "push your buttons". You won't be able to change your reactions until you are aware of them, so this is an important step.

Once you have an idea of your triggers, you can work on strategies to de-fuse your emotional reactions before they become full-blown attacks. We know that it is much easier to de-fuse a meltdown before it is full-blown. The same process works for us. If you know that a certain stimulus triggers an emotional reaction, you can use strategies to prepare yourself and reduce your emotional response. For example, if your child has a tendency to whine in a high-pitched voice when s/he is feeling challenged, and you know that this is a trigger for you, there are several strategies you can choose from. You could mentally prepare yourself for the whining by repeating a mantra in your mind. You could wear headphones so you do not have to listen to it. You could set a limit with your child by stopping the action until the whining ceases. The specific strategy you use would depend on what works best for you and your child. With consistent practice, you will be able to defuse your emotional reactions to some of these triggers, which will allow you to be fully present when you are working with your child.

These are only a few of the obstacles that I've found. I welcome feedback from other RDI families out there.