A FAIR SHAKE IN DISCIPLINING SIBLINGS

NEW YORK TIMES COLUMN: FAMILIES TODAY:
A FAIR SHAKE IN DISCIPLINING SIBLINGS
By: T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua Sparrow, M.D.

This article is adapted from “Understanding Sibling Rivalry,” by T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua D. Sparrow, M.D., published by Da Capo Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group.

Can discipline be the same for different children in the same family? Not always. Is it fair to treat them differently? They won’t think so, and they’ll be playing close attention. But of course it may be, because they are different. Differences in discipline depend on age differences, differences in ability, sensitivity and temperament.

Siblings will reproach parents: “You’re always so much easier on her than you are on me.” I would advise parents to lay out their reasons openly so that differences in discipline won’t be seen as playing favorites: “Do you really think it would be fair to treat you alike? You’re three years older.”

Parents may also find that they discipline their boys and girls differently, or they may do so without realizing it. Many will naturally soften to speak to a girl, and are more likely to be tougher with a boy. Will boys see this as unfair? Probably. Parents will need to stop and consider whether their different responses to a boy and a girl really fit the child or, instead, are based on a stereotype.

Fair discipline does not necessarily mean the same discipline for all. If different children really need different kinds of discipline to be contained and to learn from it, all the children can be helped to understand and accept this.

What happens when two or more siblings are involved? When they gang up to make a ruckus that you must stop? An older child may set up a younger one to do his dirty work because he’s more likely to “get off easy.” Sometimes, parents may know that the mischief goes beyond the younger child’s abilities. Sometimes they won’t.

What should you do?

  • First of all, parents will need to get themselves under control.
  • Then, address both children together. This is their chance to learn that they’re all in it together as a family.
  • Afterward, separate each child for individual discipline, in private.
  • Finally, bring the children back together again. Remind them that they are all responsible for each other, even when only one is guilty. Then, plan for a family time – a meal, reading together, a walk, or anything else that allows everyone to feel close again.

Separation from each other has the powerful effect of getting each child to listen to the teaching that goes with discipline, and defuses the excitement of ganging up on a parent. It also makes them realize how much they want to be together, no matter how upset they’ve been with each other.

When children keep misbehaving, over and over, either they’ve not yet learned from your discipline or the motive to misbehave is stronger. It is essential to help children discover their own motivation to get along with each other and to comply with the family’s rules and expectations. Then they can begin to assume some responsibility for self-discipline.

If this doesn’t happen, siblings are likely to find it far more rewarding to gang up against parents and to goad each other to test parents’ patience and resolve. When you can, turn it back to them and make the misbehavior their problem, not yours.

Another possibility is that your response has not been consistent. If you respond on some occasions, and not on others, children are bound to keep on testing. They need to find out whether or not you’ll respond next time. If you mean business, show them by responding the same way, every time. But don’t get worked up about it. That may make the misbehavior even more exciting, and hard to resist.

FAIR AND APPROPRIATE DISCIPLINE

  1. Make the punishment fit the crime.
  2. When you find yourself spending a lot of time disciplining your children for fights and rivalry, stop and consider how much to leave to them. They’ll be more likely to listen if they haven’t heard you nagging for a while.
  3. Balance positives with the negatives. When your children are quietly getting along or working on their own projects, surprise them with a word of praise.
  4. When problem behavior happens too often, ask the children what would help them behave. Let them plan solutions together.
  5. Don’t compare one child to another.
  6. Don’t talk about one child to the others.
  7. Don’t humiliate one child in front of the others.
  8. Discipline is best absorbed by a child when it can be done in private. But it often happens that two or more children need it at the same time. You can remind them as a group of expectations and consequences that apply to all of them, without singling anyone out.
  9. Match the discipline to the child. A parent who knows each child’s temperament, stage of development, learning style, and thresholds has a better chance. Watch her face and body movements for evidence that you are reaching her.

Responses to questions are not intended to constitute or to take the place of medical or psychiatric evaluation, diagnosis or treatment. If you have a question about your child’s health or well-being, consult your child’s health-care provider.

Dr. Brazelton, prior to his passing, was the founder and head of the Brazelton Touchpoints Center, which promotes and supports community initiatives that are collaborative, strength-based, prevention-focused sources of support for families raising children in our increasingly stressful world. Dr. Sparrow, a child psychiatrist, is currently the Director of the Brazelton Touchpoints Center. Learn more about the Center at www.touchpoints.org.

Reprinted with permission from the authors.

ALWAYS THE NAUGHTY BOY

NEW YORK TIMES COLUMN: FAMILIES TODAY
ALWAYS THE NAUGHTY BOY
By: T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua Sparrow, M.D.

Q. My 4-year-old son is very active, though he can concentrate for a long time on a task and complete it well.

His teachers always tell him to sit. His aunts tell him to stop jumping.
We tell him to be careful. We encourage athletics, at which he excels, and we have him work on blocks and art.

He rises early and just keeps going. Will he be diagnosed with ADHD? How can I help him to be accepted by teachers so he isn’t always the “naughty” boy?
His pediatrician says he is normal. Teachers say he is too active.

A. When I was a boy in Texas, I never would have been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder – it hadn’t been invented yet. But “mischievous” sure was a popular term.

What helped me stay out of trouble – when I did – was finding out what I liked to do and what I was good at. I only had one brother, but I had a busload of cousins, and I was the oldest. They looked up to me and I liked taking care of them.

When I was only a few years older than your son, my grandmother told me, “Berry, you’re so good with children.” Her encouragement helped calm me down and probably had something to do with my calling.

Let your son’s teachers know you need their help. People enjoy rising to the occasion.

You’ve got an active boy, but he’s still young. Maybe someone would diagnose him with ADHD; I can’t say without getting a glimpse of him. Some children with ADHD can concentrate for long periods on activities that interest them, especially in a quiet setting. And many 4-year-olds without ADHD are very active.

Let the teachers know that you want to help him stay out of trouble, and that both you and he want them to like him. Their acceptance will go a long way toward improving his behavior. Ask them whether the “straight and narrow” for a 4-year-old isn’t a bit wider and a lot more crooked.

Perhaps you can tell the teachers a story like the one about my grandmother – or about a person who helped you find your own talents and direction.

Ask them, “Can you help my little boy find out what is good about him? Maybe even something he is good at? Can you help him remember these things when he is being bad or feeling bad? Can you help him find his own ways of helping others? I’d so appreciate it, and so will he.”


Responses to questions are not intended to constitute or to take the place of medical or psychiatric evaluation, diagnosis or treatment. If you have a question about your child’s health or well-being, consult your child’s health-care provider.

Dr. Brazelton, prior to his passing, was the founder and head of the Brazelton Touchpoints Center, which promotes and supports community initiatives that are collaborative, strength-based, prevention-focused sources of support for families raising children in our increasingly stressful world. Dr. Sparrow, a child psychiatrist, is currently the Director of the Brazelton Touchpoints Center. Learn more about the Center at www.touchpoints.org.

Reprinted with permission from the authors.

WEANING A 13-MONTH-OLD

NEW YORK TIMES COLUMN: FAMILIES TODAY:
WEANING A 13-MONTH-OLD
By: T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua Sparrow, M.D.

Q. How can I wean my 13-month-old daughter? She’s on at least three feedings a day, won’t take a bottle and isn’t interested in formula or cow’s milk. She’s also pretty skinny so I’m reluctant to withdraw without a substitute.

A. The second year is a likely time for struggles over food. Many children seem to shut down, taking in the bare minimum and only what they want. So we’d hate to see you take away such a wonderful nutrition source.

What else is your daughter eating? Has she started drinking from a cup? Before you stop breast-feeding, see whether you can interest her in other approaches.

Will she take breast milk from a bottle or a cup? She may try a new food if it’s doused in breast milk – a pasty cereal, preferably with lots of protein and iron. (Ask your pediatrician to check your daughter’s height and weight to be sure her growth curve is on track. A multiple vitamin or vitamin D and iron may be in order.)

We recommend keeping these experiments low-key and relaxed. Your daughter will sense your anxiety, which may turn her off.

Without making a fuss, you should expect to introduce a new food 10 to 15 times before she even tries it. Some children’s taste buds are very sensitive, and they need a while to get used to anything new.

So don’t give up – but don’t push. Just place a small amount on her highchair. Say nothing. Any suggestion to try it is likely to backfire. You may find you can mix a favorite food with a tiny amount of a new one, gradually increasing the proportion.

Breast-feeding is important to your daughter for more than nutrition. Do you and she have special quiet times together when you’re not nursing? How else can you soothe her, and how can she soothe herself? She may become more interested in other ways of feeding if you have other times when you’re close.

At this age a child already toddling may no longer spend as long at the breast to soothe and cuddle. But breast-feeding is important in many ways. For now, your daughter must face her own ability to get away from you and from her mixed feelings of fear and excitement when she does. It is reassuring for her to come back to you and to nurse again.


Responses to questions are not intended to constitute or to take the place of medical or psychiatric evaluation, diagnosis or treatment. If you have a question about your child’s health or well-being, consult your child’s health-care provider.

Dr. Brazelton, prior to his passing, was the founder and head of the Brazelton Touchpoints Center, which promotes and supports community initiatives that are collaborative, strength-based, prevention-focused sources of support for families raising children in our increasingly stressful world. Dr. Sparrow, a child psychiatrist, is currently the Director of the Brazelton Touchpoints Center. Learn more about the Center at www.touchpoints.org.

Reprinted with permission from the authors.

BATH TIME FEARS AND TEARS FOR A 3-YEAR-OLD

NEW YORK TIMES COLUMN: FAMILIES TODAY:
BATH TIME FEARS AND TEARS FOR A 3-YEAR-OLD
By: T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua Sparrow, M.D.

Our answer to a letter about bath time fears and tears has stirred up sympathy, salutary suggestions, and speculation in readers across the country.

Q. The 3-year-old who fears baths and showers might be willing to sit in a baby bath tub and get clean or to sit in a sink. Also, he might like to have a small inflatable swimming pool brought into the house or if the family lives in a warm climate have a bath outside in the small swimming pool.

Is the child afraid of taking off his clothes? Children are so exposed to mass media today it is almost impossible to isolate the source of fear but I find that asking a child to tell you what should be changed for him/her to like doing something sometimes works.

A. What great suggestions!

If the child slipped or swallowed water or had a traumatic shampoo in the “big” bath tub, simply switching bathing to another location might help. And a smaller place to bathe like the baby bathtub, sink or blow-up pool you suggest might also be less overwhelming to a small child to whom a “grown-up” tub might seem like a vast and gaping ocean.

Introducing water and the bath slowly, in small amounts, and on the child’s terms all make sense. Best of all, we like your idea of including the child in figuring out the solution and giving him some control. This way he might be more likely to tell you what the fear is all about, including whether it all started with some scary TV show.

We wondered what kind of media exposure you thought might prompt a child to fear taking his clothes off. When children are exposed to overstimulating adult sexual behavior, they are more likely to imitate it and act it out. When children are exposed to violence that makes them worry about the safety of their own bodies, they may spend more time inspecting themselves to be sure “everything is still there.” We certainly have seen children who have been sexually abused fear taking their clothes off. They do seem to see their clothes as a kind of protection, and staying dressed as a way of fending off unwanted memories of the trauma. (Often, though, other changes in behavior and mood are present too.)

Perhaps some of our readers have seen similar behavior in children who have been traumatized by media exposure without having actually been sexually abused.

Q. I read with interest your possible explanations for why a child would suddenly develop a fear of bathing. All of your possible reasons were valid. However, may I suggest a more ominous one?

Often children who have been sexually molested develop fears of being vulnerable as one is in the bathtub. Perhaps this child should be gently questioned regarding if anyone has frightened him in any way of was he touched by someone who made him feel uncomfortable.

Hope you find the cause of the problem and hopefully it is not as serious as I suggest.

A. We couldn’t agree with you more that this possibility is one to consider, although we would caution against scaring either the parents or the child in doing so. We appreciate your recommendation that the questions be gentle, and would underscore that they must not be leading, since the resulting replies would be harder to know how to interpret. Such questioning is best conducted by a professional trained to address such issues with young children.

We agree with your emphasis on the traumatized child’s fear of feeling vulnerable, and would add to this the fear of activities that contain some reminder of the traumatic event.

The original text of our answer to the  “fear of bathing” question did close with the following paragraph which was eventually cut due to space limitations:

Children who have been sexually molested may also appear fearful at bath time. But this is not likely to appear as the only symptom. Instead, other activities involving their bodies — using the toilet, getting undressed — also often stir up fear and attempts to avoid them.

This is a possible but unlikely cause in a child who shows no other changes in behavior. There are so many more common reasons for a child this age to become afraid of the bath.


Responses to questions are not intended to constitute or to take the place of medical or psychiatric evaluation, diagnosis or treatment. If you have a question about your child’s health or well-being, consult your child’s health-care provider.

Dr. Brazelton, prior to his passing, was the founder and head of the Brazelton Touchpoints Center, which promotes and supports community initiatives that are collaborative, strength-based, prevention-focused sources of support for families raising children in our increasingly stressful world. Dr. Sparrow, a child psychiatrist, is currently the Director of the Brazelton Touchpoints Center. Learn more about the Center at www.touchpoints.org.

Reprinted with permission from the authors.

CRITICISM AND PRAISE

NEW YORK TIMES COLUMN: FAMILIES TODAY:
CRITICISM AND PRAISE
By: T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua Sparrow, M.D.

This article is adapted from “Understanding Sibling Rivalry,” by T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua D. Sparrow, M.D., published by Da Capo Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group.

All children are hungry for their parents’ approval. As a result, parents know they can use criticism to curb unwanted behaviors, and praise to encourage others.

With siblings the dynamic of criticism and praise becomes more complex. Parents may not always realize just how seriously a child takes each criticism, each encouraging word. When other siblings become an audience, parents’ words take on even more power. Praising one child can feel like a criticism of another; similarly, criticizing one can certainly seem like praise to another.

When there is an imbalance over time – more criticism for one child, more praise for the other – the criticized child is likely to give up and behave as “bad” as everyone seems to think she is. The child who must bear the brunt of parents’ continual criticism also becomes the brunt of a sibling’s: “You’re a loser.” A sibling will rub it in, glad not to be the brunt himself.

Praise, too, can be uncomfortable for the sibling who receives it, especially if the others are around. The praised sibling’s successes then seem to come at the expense of the others. If a child such as this feels guilty, or is the target of jealousy and resentment, she might even stop trying so hard, preferring to be less special and more like the others.

Praise from a parent can easily be overdone. The child knows when it’s phony. Too much praise from a parent can interfere with a child’s learning to take satisfaction in his successes on his own. Yet praise can be a boost, particularly if it is fair and comes out of the blue. From a parent it is valued, but even more from a sibling.

When an older sibling can praise a younger one and say, for example, “You did such a good job. You worked and worked at it” – think how proud both will feel. A younger sibling is likely to praise his older sister with his eyes, and with imitation. Is it wise to comment on their praise and take it away from them?

If you must criticize, avoid words such as “always” and “never.” Rather than negative generalizations such as “You’re never ready on time,” focus on what’s happening now: “You’re late. We need to get going.”

Teaching Self-Criticism and Self-Praise

Be careful about using praise or criticism as a way of controlling behavior. Either one can quickly feel like a weapon to a child. Your long-term goal is not this kind of power. Instead, it is to help your child learn to face his own strengths and weaknesses, to praise and criticize himself as he learns to monitor his own behavior. Instead of saying, “Great job!” there may be a chance to ask “How do you feel about how you did?” Your smile and warm voice tell her how proud you are, but you leave your child room to find her own pride. The added benefit of this approach is that siblings are less likely to feel that your approval of this child takes away from your approval of them.

The same goes for criticism. Of course there are times when a child needs to be told very clearly that she’s made a mistake. But look for opportunities to ask her what she thinks she’s done wrong, what she thinks she could have done better. A conversation like this is best carried out when the other children aren’t around to add to her embarrassment.

Whenever possible, reserve criticism and sanctions for private times with a child. If the others ask, “How come you didn’t punish her?” a parent can answer, “That’s up to me, and it’s between your sister and me.” When the other children are present, stick to clear expectations and instructions that apply to all.

When siblings, or siblings and friends get out of control, there’s no need to single one out. Tell the whole group, “You need to settle down.” The others may protest: “But Susie started it!” Simply answer, “I’m not interested in who did it. I’m asking you all to help out.” They’ll get the message. Singling out a child for public humiliation, on the other hand, strikes terror in the hearts of children. But it won’t win you their respect. To protect themselves from it, they’re likely to turn against you.

Often, you may not know what really happened, or who started it. But when only some are guilty, all can still be helped to face their responsibility. This approach sustains a parent’s authority while encouraging the children to recognize their interdependence. They may all turn against one sibling, but over time they’ll learn to stick up for each other – an important goal for the whole family.


Responses to questions are not intended to constitute or to take the place of medical or psychiatric evaluation, diagnosis or treatment. If you have a question about your child’s health or well-being, consult your child’s health-care provider.

Dr. Brazelton, prior to his passing, was the founder and head of the Brazelton Touchpoints Center, which promotes and supports community initiatives that are collaborative, strength-based, prevention-focused sources of support for families raising children in our increasingly stressful world. Dr. Sparrow, a child psychiatrist, is currently the Director of the Brazelton Touchpoints Center. Learn more about the Center at www.touchpoints.org.

Reprinted with permission from the authors.

AGE 4 AND THE DAWN OF CONSCIENCE

NEW YORK TIMES COLUMN: FAMILIES TODAY:
AGE 4 AND THE DAWN OF CONSCIENCE
By: T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua Sparrow, M.D.

This article is adapted from “Mastering Anger and Aggression,” by T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua D. Sparrow, M.D., published by Da Capo Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group.

A 4-year-old knows that she matters. She no longer needs her earlier defiance. She can handle her feelings with less effort now, and can more easily make her needs known. Now that she is less focused on herself, she is curious about the world. She can only understand it, though, in terms of her own experience. But she can look more deeply now, and sustain her interest for longer.

More aware of others, the 4-year-old is watchful, almost on guard, as she monitors those around her for their reactions. At 4, a child is developing the ability to imagine the thoughts and feelings of others. She can begin to see, now, her ability to affect them: “If I hit her, she won’t want to play with me. If I take her toy, she’ll scream and Mommy will blame me.”

Now a child can judge the effects of her behavior with a better understanding of its consequences, a new sense of right and wrong. With this awareness comes the dawn of a conscience. Guilty feelings are new, too. They can be a powerful motivator.

A 4-year-old has also begun to be aware of her own feelings and to pay attention to them. She has more words to describe them. As she learns to name her feelings as they well up inside her, she has a chance to think about them, what they are telling her, why she is having them, and what she can do about them. This is the beginning of an important new ability that some psychologists have called “emotional intelligence.” It is also critical to learning to handle her aggressive urges.

Now that she is beginning to be aware of her aggressive feelings, and of their consequences, the 4-year-old may be frightened of herself. Her aggressive acts carry a new cost! As she tries them out, she is fearful. She knows she’s wrong, and she expects to be punished.

At night, when her defenses are down, when she is regressing to a helpless sleep state, fears and nightmares begin to surface. “Is that a witch under my bed? Is there a monster in the closet?” In her nightmares, they may be coming after her to punish her for her “bad” behavior. Or they may be aggressive in all the ways she’d like to be but knows she shouldn’t.

Fears that are near the surface — of being “bad” and hurtful, of deserving punishment — will be called up during the day by any frightening event, even a dog barking or an ambulance’s siren. Thunder and lightning terrify a child of this age. To her it sounds like an angry scolding from someone who sees and hears all the “bad” things she’s done. At night, fears like these overwhelm her. She is aware of her ability to hurt others. She is frightened of her own fantasies of being more powerful than she really is. At this age, losing control is more frightening than ever. Conscience and being aware of other’s feelings have made it seem more dangerous.

HELPING A CHILD WITH NIGHTMARES

  • During the day, look for monsters and witches under the bed and in the closet with your child. This is one way to show that you can take her worries seriously without reinforcing them.
  • At bedtime, read stories that help children understand nightmares, such as “There’s a Monster in My Closet.” You can also read stories about dreams – such as “In the Night Kitchen” – because they help children understand that dreams come from the worries and other feelings we store up during the day.
  • Show your child where the nightlight is. Shut off all the other lights and let her look around while you are still there.
  • Reassure her that you’ll be in your room while she’s in hers.
  • If she does wake up with a nightmare, go to her. Sit by her bed. Let her tell you about it. (My mother used to say that if you tell someone about your nightmare, it won’t come back. I think she was right.)

HELPING A CHILD WITH FEARS

  • Don’t put off facing a fear. Waiting will only make the child think that there really is something to worry about.
  • Make a list with your child of all the ways she’s learned to make herself feel better when she is scared: for example, holding your hand, talking together, trying to think of something different, or of times when facing the fear has helped. These are self-comforting strategies.
  • Then, make a list of all the things that are scary about the feared object or event, and rank them from most scary to the least: for example, “I hate when the dog barks, I hate just seeing the dog _ especially when she shows her teeth, I hate seeing her dog bone in the yard when she’s not there, I even hate just thinking about her.”
  • Now your child is ready to face her fear. She can think first about the least scary aspect of the feared object or event and then practice all her self-comforting strategies. Once she can calm herself while thinking about the least frightening part of the fear, she’s ready to move on to the next. Step by step, she’ll be able to conquer her fear.

(This article is adapted from “Mastering Anger & Aggression: The Brazelton Way,” by T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua D. Sparrow, M.D., published by Da Capo Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group.)

Responses to questions are not intended to constitute or to take the place of medical or psychiatric evaluation, diagnosis or treatment. If you have a question about your child’s health or well-being, consult your child’s health-care provider.

Dr. Brazelton heads the Brazelton Touchpoints Project, which promotes and supports community initiatives that are collaborative, strength-based, prevention-focused sources of support for families raising children in our increasingly stressful world. Dr. Sparrow, a child psychiatrist, is Director of Strategy, Planning and Program Development at the Brazelton Touchpoints Center. Learn more about the Center at www.touchpoints.org.

Reprinted with permission from the authors.

A BACK-AND-FORTH ON BITING (follow up)

From the NEW YORK TIMES COLUMN: FAMILIES TODAY

By: T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua Sparrow, M.D.

In a recent column a grandmother recommended her solution to the problem of children biting: Bite back. We demurred. Now another mother lobbies for the fight-fire-with-fire approach.

Q. This is in support of the politically incorrect biting mother and grandmother. There is nothing like experience to teach us, and I’m talking about biting toddlers. We can talk a blue streak, and it’s all abstract to a toddler; they need to learn that if they cause pain, it comes back at them.

These are my biting stories from the trenches. I was nursing my baby and his teeth were starting to come in. After having toyed with the idea for some time, he finally bit me while nursing. I let out a very loud bellow out of proportion to the pain, because I was not going to have that happen again. The poor baby got quite traumatized by my loud scream, but he never bit me again.

When he was a toddler, I took him to a day care where there was a hyperactive boy who was a frequent biter. Nothing the parents or day-care provider tried changed anything. Finally the day-care provider’s toddler took matters into his own hands and bit him back. End of biting.

When my boy was a toddler, he kicked my leg. Like the politically incorrect grandma, I very carefully placed a kick on his leg (I was so scared of hurting him that the first attempts were air kicks). He never kicked anybody again. I must add that this boy is now 14 and a joy (besides the fact that, being a teenager, he counters everything his parents say).

A. Small children’s biting certainly creates a red flag for everyone. Yet it is such a universal response in late infancy and toddlerhood that it deserves all its eminence.

Starting out as an exploratory and often loving response when a nursing baby bites the breast of his mother, it gathers drama from the surprised, angry and even frightened response, “Have I lost my baby? Do I deserve this negative hurtful response when I’m giving him everything I can? Will he turn out to be a monster?”

For him, it is likely to mean that when he suddenly raised such a dramatic response, “Should I try it again when I need to get her attention?” Then, he may begin to fall back on it when he is tired or overwhelmed or doesn’t know any other way to get the attention of someone he craves. He tries it out on a peer toddler. The world blows up. Everyone overreacts. “Wow! This is more important than I thought. I’d better shove this behavior way down underneath. I’ve learned there are certain behaviors that I don’t dare to express. They mean something terrible to other people, even though that’s not what I meant when I tried them. I’d better be more inhibited than I was.”

Inhibitions can be expensive in the long run. Your method of retaliation has surely worked. But what has it meant to the baby or toddler? “I’m bad, or she wouldn’t have hurt me, and I’m not sure why. But I guess I’m just a bad kid.” Is that what you meant to teach him by your response?

Meanwhile, seeing it from the standpoint of the baby’s development, it has been a missed opportunity. Each behavior which becomes an intrusive or painful one presents the child the chance for him to learn about how to control himself.

A child who learns self-control is already way ahead of a child who must rely on an adult’s presence to be controlled by force or by retaliation. Learning self-control is a major goal for childhood in our present out-of-control society. Discipline (teaching) is the second most important gift we as parents can give a child. Love first, but discipline that says, “I shall have to stop you until you can stop yourself.” That’s a much longer goal in time than just teaching him to suppress his responses and his feelings.

Everything we know from research in child development demonstrates that suppressing angry, hurt feelings just postpones them. For a parent or a teacher or any caring adult, each episode needs to be understood from the child’s standpoint. We can use his hurtful behavior, share the idea of self-control rather than just shutting it off. “I can’t let you bite. It hurts and no one likes to be hurt. Let’s find another way for you to say what you’re trying to say.”

The story you tell of the child’s learning from another child how biting hurts and how necessary it was to control himself was on a different level. Children learn so much more from each other than they do from an adult. It’s fascinating to watch two toddlers as they reproduce by imitation hunks of behavior from each other.

I have recommended putting two 2-year-old biters together. One would bite the other. They’d look at each other with a startled look. “That hurt.” And they wouldn’t bite again. This is an almost sure cure, but maybe one to be used sparingly, in case it could get out of hand. When it works, one can see on the biter’s face that he recognizes the fact that he’d hurt him. “I never knew what I was doing could hurt someone. I can’t do that again.” He will have learned (at 2) how to experience what another is feeling – a major step toward empathy for others.

When an adult bites him back, his reactions are hurt and anger. He may not have meant to be aggressive in the first place. Now, biting could become loaded with angry feelings. Certainly, it has not been a learning experience except to stop the biting – but not the anger that being bitten has generated.


Responses to questions are not intended to constitute or to take the place of medical or psychiatric evaluation, diagnosis or treatment. If you have a question about your child’s health or well-being, consult your child’s health-care provider.

Dr. Brazelton, prior to his passing, was the founder and head of the Brazelton Touchpoints Center, which promotes and supports community initiatives that are collaborative, strength-based, prevention-focused sources of support for families raising children in our increasingly stressful world. Dr. Sparrow, a child psychiatrist, is currently the Director of the Brazelton Touchpoints Center. Learn more about the Center at www.touchpoints.org.

Reprinted with permission from the authors.

IN TOILET TRAINING, A PREMIUM ON PATIENCE

NEW YORK TIMES COLUMN: FAMILIES TODAY:
IN TOILET TRAINING, A PREMIUM ON PATIENCE
By: T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua Sparrow, M.D.

Problems in toilet training nearly always arise because of an imbalance in the parent-child relationship. Children usually show signs of readiness between age 2 and 3. When parents can’t wait until then, and impose toilet training as their idea, the child will feel the pressure as an invasion.

All parents, of course, want their child to grow up and cross this threshold. Preschools often insist that a child be “trained” before he comes to school.

Other parents may offer advice and condescending comfort when their children are already trained. Grandparents may imply that toilet training is a measure of effective parenting and of a child’s overall competence. Some families may see the child’s entire second year as preparation for success in this area.

A toddler for whom independence is a passionate issue anyway will have his own struggles. He may stand in front of a potty, screaming with indecision. Or, he may crawl into a corner to hide as he performs a bowel movement, watching his parents out of the corner of his eye.

It’s a rare parent who won’t feel that such a child needs help to get his priorities straight.

When a parent steps in to sort out the guilt and confusion, the child’s yearning for autonomy becomes a power struggle between them. Then the scene is set for failure.

In bedwetting, as in many of the problems encountered with toilet training, a child’s need to become independent at his own speed is at stake. When a child’s need for control is neglected, he may see himself as a failure: immature, guilty and hopeless. The effect of this damaged self-image on his future will be greater than the symptoms themselves.

Given that toilet training is a developmental process that the child will ultimately master at his own speed, why do parents feel they must control it? My experience has led me to the conclusion that it’s very hard for parents to be objective about toilet training.

The child becomes a pawn – to be “trained.” It may take us another generation before we can see toilet training as the child’s own learning process – to be achieved by him in accord with the maturation of his own bladder and central nervous system.

When Problems Exist:

A.) Discuss the problem openly with your child. Apologize and admit you’ve been too involved.

B.) Remember your own struggles, and your eventual successes, so that you can let the child see that there is hope ahead.

C.) State clearly that toilet training is up to the child. “We’ll stay out of it. You’re just great, and you’ll do it when you’re ready.”

D.) Let the child know that many children are late in gaining control, for good reasons. Then, let him alone. Don’t mention it again.

E.) Keep the child in diapers or protective clothing, not as a punishment, but to take away the fuss and anxiety.

F.) Don’t have a child under age 5 tested unless the pediatrician sees signs of a physical problem. A urinalysis can be done harmlessly, but invasive tests and procedures – enemas, catheters, X-rays and so on – should be reserved for children who clearly need them.

G.) Make clear to the child that when he achieves control, it will be his own success and not yours.

(This article is adapted from “Touchpoints: Birth to Three,” by T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua D. Sparrow, M.D., published by Da Capo Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group.)


Responses to questions are not intended to constitute or to take the place of medical or psychiatric evaluation, diagnosis or treatment. If you have a question about your child’s health or well-being, consult your child’s health-care provider.

Prior to Dr. Brazelton’s passing in 2018, he was the founder and director of the Brazelton Touchpoints Project, which promotes and supports community initiatives that are collaborative, strength-based, prevention-focused sources of support for families raising children in our increasingly stressful world. Dr. Sparrow, a child psychiatrist, is now the director of the Brazelton Touchpoints Center. Learn more about the Center at www.touchpoints.org.

Reprinted with permission from the authors.

THE PACIFIER PROBLEM

NEW YORK TIMES COLUMN: FAMILIES TODAY:
THE PACIFIER PROBLEM
By: T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua Sparrow, M.D.

Q. My almost 4-year-old refuses to give up her pacifier and I am concerned about her teeth. Since her sister was born 10 months ago, she seems to be using it much more. Do you recommend we get rid of it cold-turkey as some pediatricians have recommended? Will the pacifier cause long-term damage to her palate and/or teeth?

A. Some studies associate pacifier use with orthodontic problems, especially as children get older. Such findings don’t mean that any child who uses a pacifier will need orthodontic treatment, but treatment appears to be necessary more often with pacifier use.

We know of no studies that link cold-turkey termination of the pacifier with significant psychological problems later. Concerns arise from the notion that interfering with a young child’s need for oral soothing may lead to overeating and other problems.

The practical challenge in stopping pacifier use is that there’s no sure way to do it. Often, when a parent tries, the child just clings harder to the pacifier.

You mention that a baby sister came along 10 months ago.

Children often suck their thumbs, fingers or pacifiers to reduce stress. They’re bound to feel more anxious when the whole family is.

When a new baby is brought home, parents are understandably preoccupied, worn out and less available to the older child. She may wonder why her parents had to go to all that trouble for this crying, demanding, inert little creature who won’t be much fun for a long time. The question may vaguely cross her mind, “Is the new baby here because I wasn’t enough to satisfy them?”

As she tries to adapt to her new role of older sister, and learns to wait until her parents have time for her, she’s likely to feel upset. As the baby grows, there will be new challenges for the older child – when the baby says her first words, or begins to crawl or walk and get into all of the older child’s toys. A thumb, finger or pacifier can be a welcome refuge.

It may help to offer this child other strategies for soothing herself – a “lovey” such as a soft blanket to stroke and cuddle, or a stuffed animal to squeeze tight. There’s no need for lots of dolls and animals – too many will just distract her. Instead, she’ll need to become attached to a single special one. Hand it to her when she’s distressed, tired or has scraped an elbow or knee, and tell her to hug it hard to help her feel better.

After a new baby is born, the older child feels the need to be a baby, too. The baby just seems to suck up all the time and get all the parents’ attention – so why wouldn’t an older child try the same thing?

Parents often think they can help the older child adjust by praising her for being such a “good big sister.” But the older child also needs reassurance that she can be a baby again when she needs to. The more her need to regress is openly expressed and accepted, the less she’s likely to do so.

Family life is especially busy with a 10-month-old, but the older child might need some extra time to cuddle with you. Don’t say a word about it, and don’t make it an issue, but try to give her some gentle one-on-one time when she doesn’t have her pacifier. Thus she’ll learn – through actions rather than words – that there are even more rewarding places for her to find the comfort she seeks.


Responses to questions are not intended to constitute or to take the place of medical or psychiatric evaluation, diagnosis or treatment. If you have a question about your child’s health or well-being, consult your child’s health-care provider.

Prior to Dr. Brazelton’s passing in 2018, he was the founder and director of the Brazelton Touchpoints Project, which promotes and supports community initiatives that are collaborative, strength-based, prevention-focused sources of support for families raising children in our increasingly stressful world. Dr. Sparrow, a child psychiatrist, is now the director of the Brazelton Touchpoints Center. Learn more about the Center at www.touchpoints.org.

Reprinted with permission from the authors.