WHEN A SMALL CHILD STEALS

NEW YORK TIMES COLUMN: FAMILIES TODAY:
WHEN A SMALL CHILD STEALS
By: T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua Sparrow, M.D.

Small children engage in stealing for at least two reasons. First, everything “belongs” to a 2- or 3-year-old until someone tells him differently.

If he sees a toy in a toy store or a bag of cookies in a grocery, he thinks they’re his – until he learns that such things belong to others. This lesson takes time.

Punishment will drive the behavior underground, only to come out later in less acceptable ways. Gentle explanations of how to respect possessions, coupled with firm limits, are much more effective.

A more subtle reason for stealing is the desire to identify with others. As a preschool child increasingly identifies with his parents, his siblings or his schoolmates, he may take things from them. Thus, in his concrete way of thinking, he becomes like them.

When stealing first appears, it’s exploratory and acquisitive rather than a sign of being “bad.” If you explode with anger, you’re likely to engender fear and repeated acts of stealing.

Of course it frightens a parent when a small child steals, particularly if he seems to realize what he’s done by lying about it. But if you can understand that stealing is universal among children, you can avoid overreacting – and turning such behavior into a pattern.

Your goal is to use each episode as an opportunity to teach. But a child will only be ready to learn if he isn’t overwhelmed by guilt.

Helping a child understand his reasons for taking others’ possessions enables him to hear you when you discuss others’ rights. Learning to respect others’ possessions and territory is a long-term goal. Handled with sensitivity, each stealing episode can lead in that direction.

Try not to label the child as a thief as you talk to him, and don’t harp on the incident afterward. It’s wise not to confront the child by asking him whether he stole; this may just force him to lie.

Simply make clear that you know where the object came from. Ask your child to produce it if necessary, and say, “You know you can’t take something that isn’t yours.”

Help the child return the object to its owner and apologize, even if it means going back to the store and suffering the embarrassment of returning the object or paying for it. Let the child work off the cost by doing chores.

Preventing stealing involves patient teaching – over and over. Be consistent in your reactions each time.

  1. Show the child how to ask for what he wants.
  2. Make simple rules about sharing with others, such as “You don’t take another child’s toy without asking her and offering her one of yours.”
  3. Explain the concept of borrowing and returning a toy: “You may ask whether you can play with it. If they say no, that’s it. If they say yes, you must offer to return it.”

“If we’re in a store and you want some cookies, ask me whether you can have them. If I say yes, wait until I’ve paid for them before you take them.”

In this way, you’re teaching the child respect for others’ things, demonstrating the manners he needs when he asks for something and helping him learn to delay gratification.

It’s also important to explain why such rules are necessary – “to protect others’ toys the way you want to protect yours.” Help him see your point of view: You can’t allow him to take others’ possessions.

Then ask him how he plans to handle the situation, to give part of the responsibility of limits to him. If he can come up with a satisfactory solution, you can give him credit. Finally, and most important, when he succeeds, be sure to let him know you’re proud of him.

If stealing continues, look for possible underlying reasons. Is the child guilty and frightened and reacting by a sort of repetition-compulsion? Is he so insecure that he needs others’ possessions to make him feel like a whole person? Do others already disapprove of him and label him?

If he repeats his acts of stealing, he may be asking you for therapy. Don’t wait until he feels like a failure and the labels stick. Seek outside help. Your child’s doctor or the child psychiatry department at a teaching hospital can make a referral.

(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.

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.

THE DOCTOR-CHILD RELATIONSHIP

NEW YORK TIMES COLUMN: FAMILIES TODAY:
THE DOCTOR-CHILD RELATIONSHIP
By: T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua Sparrow, M.D.

Routine visits are opportunities for me to develop a relationship with the child and the parents right from the start.

I never expect a baby between the ages of 9 months and 3 years to leave her mother’s lap for an examination. When I recognize the child’s need to be close to a parent, the child knows I respect her.

I never look the child directly in the face or ask for her to accept me. In this period, I gradually approach her, using a doll or teddy and her parent to show what I am about to do – like using the stethoscope.

I make a big effort to get a slightly older child to want to come to my office – loading it with toys, a fish tank, a climbing gym, a flexible cloth tunnel to crawl through, and a rock collection, and I offer stickers and plastic rings (for children old enough not to swallow them) that they can show off as tokens of their bravery.

As the child comes into my office, I watch to see how comfortable she is. If she’s frightened about me, I know that. Giving her time to get used to me is respectful. The time is well worth it. She’ll be far easier to examine. Her parents will be less hesitant to warn me of potentially serious problems – early – once they’ve seen this demonstration of my concern for their child’s comfort.

As I examine the child in her parent’s lap, I urge her to listen to my chest. We’re sharing the experience and she knows it. She also knows that I respect her privacy and her natural anxiety about being examined. We’re setting the stage now for a long future relationship.

I comment on the child’s temperament and mode of play. She knows I understand her. She listens. Anything her parents and I need to discuss is talked about in front of her, and I try to put it in her terms. I want her to understand what we are talking about. No secrets! I prepare her for a shot, honestly, and urge her to cry and to protect herself. After it’s over, I congratulate her on her success.

As a child gets older, at 4 or 5, I may even urge her to ask her own questions and to call me on the phone. She won’t yet. But by 6 or 7, she will.

We can discuss her illness between us, though of course I won’t leave the parents out. In later years, when she’ll let me see her alone, we can share confidences without its being a triangle – though she, her parents and I all know that I will help her to tell them what she needs to.

I believe in sharing all I know about each illness with the children themselves. My goal is to help them take an active role in conquering their own diseases. If they can call or talk with me, and carry out my advice, this lesson will stay with them. When they recover, I can congratulate them: “Look how you knew what to do – and it worked!”

When children must go to the hospital, it becomes even more critical that a physician explain the reasons and the procedures in front of the child. We have found that preparation for acute or chronic hospitalization cuts down on the child’s anxiety in the hospital, shortens the child’s recovery time and reduces the symptoms of anxiety afterward.

In my office practice, the best reward for me at the end of a busy day always came when I heard a child’s chortle of delight as she rushed in to see me and my familiar toys. Then I knew we were off to a good start.

Sharing Responsibilities

  1. Seek to establish a trusting, respectful relationship between your child and her doctor. You must do your part as well. It’s is no help to enter the office saying, “He’s going to cry” or “She hates coming to see the doctor.”
  2. Prepare the child ahead of time, truthfully, and with reassurance about what is likely to happen.
  3. Remind her that you’ll be there, and that it’s her own doctor who wants to be her friend. The doctor knows how to help her when she’s well and when she’s not. It’s surprising to me how much it helps a child’s self-esteem to learn to trust her physician. Working with a pediatrician is a mutual job of learning what you can – and can’t – get from each other. You must demonstrate respect, and you deserve respect in return. Both of you have the same goal – a healthy, competent, confident child!

(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.

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.

TOYS EXTEND A CHILD’S DREAMS

NEW YORK TIMES COLUMN: FAMILIES TODAY:
TOYS EXTEND A CHILD’S DREAMS
By: T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua Sparrow, M.D.

In our culture, toys play a major role in many children’s lives. In the first few months, a child is given a “lovey” to hold and to use for transitions such as when she’s going to sleep or feeling hurt or lonely.

The lovey – often a blanket, a piece of soft material or a beloved teddy bear – becomes an extension of herself and her caregiver.

With the lovey, she feels secure and ready to face transitions. Without it, she must rely on adults who can’t always be there, no matter how reliable they are.

From the time a child looks at or reaches for objects, some parents equip the crib with the latest toys for infants. “Learning” toys soon supplement cuddly ones.

Musical, speaking and reading toys reflect parents’ concerns about providing enough “brain stimulation” to enable toddlers to excel in competitive preschools.

Computer games have become part of many 3- and 4-year-olds’ lives. Children imitate their parents, manipulating handheld electronics, just like them. But watch a child’s face when a parent looks away to a smartphone at each intruding text message.

Such sophisticated toys can cause pressure rather than stimulate exploration and play. Parents who are away all day or are leading very busy lives may feel they need to satisfy a preschooler by offering constructive, educational replacements of themselves. Toys can become surrogates by filling the isolation in which many of us live. But toys don’t have to be used this way.

When a child chooses an object as a toy, it becomes part of her world. Toys extend a child’s dreams. A parent can attend seriously to a child’s choice of toys and observe how she plays with them.

If a parent can help choose a toy as a way to learn about the child and who she’s becoming, the process can become a form of communication. (Toy stores, too stimulating for most children at this age, are rarely set up to encourage such communication.)

For a toddler, pots and pans give her an opportunity to mimic kitchen chores. At 3, 4 and 5, simple dolls and toy soldiers help children live out fantasies.

The distorted anatomies of Barbie dolls and pumped-up action figures are intriguing to some children, as is the mysterious adult sexuality they evoke. But toys like these impose adult preoccupations on child’s play and don’t encourage a child’s self-discovery and self-expression.

Many children turn to safer toys, such as toy animals and puppets, when they play out the aggressive feelings that they need to test. Simpler toys leave room for a child to try out her own dreams and wishes, her own aggressive or sexual fantasies. Toys offer the child a link for play with a peer as well as an opportunity to learn about others.

A parent must ask: Does the toy elicit her own fantasies and imagination and allow her to spin them into dreams that sustain the play? Does it challenge her, while leading her to find her own solutions? How much room does the toy leave for her – or does it take over and make her give in to it?

Other considerations include:

  • Safety. Inspect toys for parts small enough to be inhaled or swallowed. A toy shouldn’t be breakable or easily taken apart. Toy safety is regulated, but not always enforced, so parents need to be careful.
  • Durability. Will the toys withstand the experimentation that is a necessary part of their future?
  • Noise. Can you stand the repetitious music or crooning speech that accompanies some toys?
  • Interest. Can the toy hold the child’s long-term attention, or will it be forgotten?
  • Appropriateness. One child may need a quiet, solitary toy that challenges her intellectually; another might prefer an activity-based toy.

(This article is adapted from “Touchpoints: Three to Six,” 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.

CALLING A TIMEOUT

NEW YORK TIMES COLUMN: FAMILIES TODAY:
CALLING A TIMEOUT
By: T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua Sparrow, M.D.

Q. What does a parent do if a child won’t stay in timeout?

A. Timeouts are widely used, and almost as widely questioned.

Timeouts don’t work when they are misunderstood or misapplied. They are just one step in the process of helping a child learn not only to control herself but also to know and care about the difference between right and wrong.

The term “timeout” was borrowed from sports in which a team may officially call for a brief interval – to regroup, to rethink or to slow the pace.

Timeouts were never meant to be used as a punishment or consequence or boundary-marker. They should be used to stop the action when things are getting out of hand and to help children settle themselves down and think things through.

Yet when a child is told to go on “timeout,” she must be ready to listen and self-possessed enough to pull herself together to comply. When she’s too upset, you may need to scoop her up and hold her until she’s calm enough to handle a timeout. If she’s too big for this approach, but she’s in a safe place, just backing off is often enough.

Children are far likelier to follow through with a timeout when they are calmly and firmly instructed to do so. Tone of voice is important. If a timeout is assigned angrily, or as a punishment, any but the most docile child is likely to respond with a struggle.

A child is all the more reluctant to accept a timeout if it is imposed by an adult who needs a timeout too. The same child may be happy to comply if, instead, the adult proposes, “Let’s both take a timeout.”

A child will also calm down faster if stimulation can be reduced during a timeout, with no more back-and-forth.

But the child needn’t be isolated. We know one child care center that doesn’t use timeouts. Instead there’s a “cozy couch” on one wall where children can go, or are told to go, when they need to calm down. But they can see all the action and can settle themselves down without feeling embarrassed or cut off from everyone else. The message is that learning self-control is necessary and completely respectable. These are timeouts without stigma.

Limit-setting and consequences come next. There is no point in reasoning with a child who is behaving wildly. As soon as she’s calm and able to listen, let her know that her behavior was unacceptable, and that she will be forgiven, but that she will need to make reparations.

The consequences should be as closely tied to the transgression as possible – if she hit someone, she’ll need to apologize; if she took something that wasn’t hers, she’ll need to return it.

But the rough-and-tumble challenge of mastering self-control often starts with a quiet timeout.

(This article is adapted from “Touchpoints: Three to Six,” 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.

PUTTING NIGHTTIME FEARS TO REST

NEW YORK TIMES COLUMN: FAMILIES TODAY:
PUTTING NIGHTTIME FEARS TO REST
By: T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua Sparrow, M.D.

Awareness of her own power brings new fears to a 4-year-old. She becomes more aware that she’s a small child, a part of a larger world, dependent on her parents or others at critical times. Her new understanding makes her conscious of her limitations. She feels pulled between this sense of dependence and a desire to master her world that propels her onward.

Play and fantasy are powerful ways to work this out. The child’s ability to verbalize and reason makes her fantasies more elaborate.

But these vivid fantasies lead to fears and bad dreams. “I dreamt of a witch in my closet.” “I know there’s no monster in my room, but I feel it.”

The monsters and witches may also represent the strain of facing “new” feelings. Becoming aware of powerful negative and aggressive impulses can be frightening. A parent can help her accept them. But to master them, the child needs to learn, gradually, the difference between having a feeling and acting on it.

Fears and nightmares are common in 4-, 5- and 6-year-olds. Children worry about “bad guys,” witches, lions, tigers and monsters.

These night problems occur at the same time as a fear of dogs, loud noises, sirens and ambulances. Such problems herald the child’s more openly aggressive feelings, which frighten her when they seem echoed by forces beyond her control.

At this stage, children want to test their own limits more openly. They want to act out aggressive and rebellious play. Such feelings are important to a child’s personality and sense of security. They need to know they can feel angry and not lose control.

Firm discipline and consistent limits are reassuring to a child at this time: “You may not wander around the house at night. I may well have to fix your door. I can come to you, but you can’t come out alone.”

What helps a child learn to cope with fears and nightmares?

  1. Comfort the child and take the fears seriously, but don’t add your own anxiety to hers.
  2. Look under the bed and in the closet. Let her understand that this is for her comfort, not because you really think there is any danger.
  3. Set firm limits on bedtime. They’re reassuring.
  4. Don’t forget the power of a comforting lovey.
  5. Help a child learn how to soothe herself when she wakes in fear. She can distract herself by singing songs, making up stories or thinking pleasant thoughts. In modified form, adapted to other situations, she will use these skills for the rest of her life.
  6. Help the child learn “safe” aggression during the day. Modeling your own ways of handling your aggression becomes even more important. Talk about them with the child when they occur.
  7. Read fairy tales together. They encourage young children to face their own fears and angry feelings. Or read, among many others, “There’s a Nightmare in My Closet,” by Mercer Mayer; “Where the Wild Things Are,” by Maurice Sendak; and “Much Bigger Than Martin,” by Steven Kellogg.

Books allow a child to face and eventually master such feelings: She can turn the pages at her own pace, study a picture as long as she likes, go backward or close the book tight. Television and movies have a pace of their own – they present scary situations too vividly and fail to respect the child’s need to control how much she is able to confront.

(This article is adapted from “Touchpoints: Three to Six,” 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.

6 YEAR-OLD WHO WON’T EAT MEAT

NEW YORK TIMES COLUMN: FAMILIES TODAY:
6 YEAR-OLD WHO WON’T EAT MEAT
By: T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua Sparrow, M.D.

Q. My 6-year-old son will not eat meat, chicken or cheese. Is half a peanut-butter sandwich, one yogurt and one glass of milk enough protein for a day? He eats plenty of fruits and several vegetables.

A. A few simple rules apply to nutrition and growth.

A child whose height and weight stay on his growth curve at each checkup is consuming enough calories.

For example, a child who has always been at the 25th percentile for weight on the standard growth chart should continue on that percentile over time. If he drops below it, he may not be eating enough calories, or may have a medical problem interfering with growth. A child’s height is determined not only by nutrition but also by his parents’ height.

Children are naturally programmed to seek the foods they need for healthy growth and nutrition. Processed foods that are unnaturally sweet, salty or fatty undermine that ability.

Around the world, a robust variety of healthy diets balance human needs with local foods. These diets typically include different kinds of foods. Many cultures have developed diets with small amounts of meats (the most costly protein source) and larger amounts of vegetables and grains.

Children’s taste preferences mature and broaden with time. A child who rejects a food early on may learn to like it later. Many children need to be presented with the same food up to 15 times before they’ll even try it.

Children’s interactions with the adults who feed them also drive what and how much they eat. Parents’ sense of urgency about feeding their child can backfire. A child is bound to react to pressure by becoming even pickier.

The menu can turn the kitchen into a battlefield. But healthy eating is more likely when mealtimes are relaxed occasions, with no pressure about food.

If the otherwise healthy child doesn’t like a particular food, he’ll just have to eat what’s on his plate or wait until the next meal.

A child’s nutritional requirements vary by age, gender, height, weight, metabolism and activity level. Protein requirements also depend on total daily calories.

Eating enough calories every day allows a child’s body to use proteins for growth instead of breaking them down to provide energy.

Milk, yogurt and peanut butter all contain proteins, as do eggs. Alternative sources include soy foods (soy milk, tofu, tempeh and ice cream). Children who don’t eat meat, fish, poultry, eggs and dairy products may need 1 to 9 grams more of protein per day than those who do.

Check with your pediatrician about your child’s protein requirements.

Children’s daily nutrition guidelines:

“The Pediatric Nutrition Handbook,” edited by Ronald E. Kleinman, M.D., offers these daily nutritional guidelines for 7- to 12-year-olds:

  • 24 to 32 ounces per day of milk or other dairy products. 1/2 cup of milk can be replaced with 1/2 to 3/4 ounces of cheese, or 1/2 cup of yogurt, or 2 1/2 tablespoons of nonfat dry milk stirred into other foods the child likes.
  • 6 to 8 ounces per day of meat, fish or poultry are recommended. 1 ounce of meat, fish or poultry may be replaced with 1 egg, 2 tablespoons of peanut butter, or 4 to 5 tablespoons of cooked legumes such as peas, beans or lentils.
  • 3 to 4 servings of vegetables (each one about 1/4 to 1/2 cup) per day should include a green leafy or yellow or orange vegetable.
  • 1 medium-size portion of fruit or 4 ounces of fruit juice (avoid added sugar, corn syrup or high-fructose sweeteners).
  • 4 to 5 portions of grain (especially whole grain) products such as bread (1 slice equals 1 portion), cereal (1 cup equals 1 portion), pasta, macaroni or rice (1/2 cup equals 1 portion), crackers (5 pieces equals 1 portion), English muffins or bagels (1/2 equal 1 portion), corn grits and the like.

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.

PRESCHOOL SIBLINGS

NEW YORK TIMES COLUMN: FAMILIES TODAY:
PRESCHOOL SIBLINGS
By: T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua Sparrow, M.D.

In the first months after the birth of a new sibling, the older child is likely to vacillate between ignoring the baby completely or treating her like a plastic – and indestructible – doll.

Yet there will also be moments of genuine tenderness, and the beginnings of learning to care and to nurture.

When a younger sibling is 2 or 3, she can be more of a playmate for the older one, even if there is an age gap of two years or more. However, the 2- or 3-year-old may now be more reluctant to be the older child’s “baby” or plaything.

By the time the younger child turns 2, shared words and gestures have deepened the siblings’ intimacy. They have developed their own language without words.

Watch the imitation between two siblings at this age. Once, while working with a Native American tribe’s Early Head Start Center, we were honored to be invited to a powwow. Two siblings, 3 and 5, were dancing at opposite ends of the gymnasium. The older one jumped, twirled and marched along. From all the way across the room, the 3-year-old studied every move he made, imitating him clumsily but almost precisely – and almost on cue.

I hadn’t known they were siblings until I saw that performance, when it became perfectly apparent.

What does all this imitation mean to the older child? He is watched, envied, copied, followed around all day. Although it’s flattering, it is also pretty hard to take. When his friends come over, the younger one wants to insert herself into their play and their relationships. When he tries to be alone, she is there.

When he wants to get involved in more mature pastimes, she pulls on him. His guilt about deserting her, and his secret sadness at abandoning her, are lurking just below the surface. She can and will play on it.

Meanwhile the meltdowns caused by their rivalry are proceeding apace. Interfering with each other’s play and bidding for parents’ attention, they just can’t stay out of each other’s business. Tripping each other. Rolling around on the floor. Splashing each other in the tub. Flicking food at each other across the table.

“I want as much ice cream as he got. One more spoonful.”

“No, you gave her more!”

Through their constant scuffles, they seem to be saying, “I want to be part of your every moment.” The older child has an unfair advantage. When he decides he’s had enough he can retreat to his room and slam the door. The 2-year-old, despondent, may throw herself on the floor in a flood of tears. Can you equalize their differences? Of course not.

Once you’ve separated them, you can treat each one as an individual. You can help each one to settle down. Both will push parents to take sides. Don’t do it. Instead, you can sympathize, and then ask each child to think about his or her role in the conflict.

To the older child, a parent might say, “I know it’s tough to have your little sister interfering all the time, but you can tell her to stop, or take your toys into your room and shut the door. You don’t have to hit.”

To the younger child, a parent might say, “I know you want to play with him so badly. But when he tells you he won’t, you’re going to have to learn to listen.”

Let her know you understand how hard that is for her, but that you can’t change it. Over time, this will help her to stop idolizing her older sibling and to start sticking up for herself. Right now, though, she’s bound to fall apart.

Predictable Times for Meltdowns

  • early morning, on the way to breakfast
  • at the table
  • shopping
  • attention to one child (nursing, reading, special help)
  • bedtime
  • birthday party of one sibling
  • Christmas and holidays with gifts and commotion
  • long trips

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.

BITING IN DAYCARE

NEW YORK TIMES COLUMN: FAMILIES TODAY:
BITING IN DAYCARE
By: T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua Sparrow, M.D.

Q. How can we help our 22-month-old granddaughter stop biting other children at day care? I know she is frustrated and needs help dealing with anger, as her daddy and aunts and uncles have.

A. Biting is a common and usually normal behavior in 22-month-olds. You compare the child to her father, aunts and uncles. At that age, did they bite? Presumably they also have trouble managing their anger as adults. Herein lies part of the problem.

As far as we know, biting in a 2-year-old doesn’t predict anger control problems later in life. Yet to many adults, biting is a serious problem and an ominous sign for the future. Parents and teachers who see biting this way may tend to overreact, unintentionally reinforcing the biting.

The child, who can’t understand what all the fuss is about, is bound to bite again – to see if the same thing happens again, and to get more information about what the frantic responses could mean.

The child may discover that biting confers a great deal of power: One little nip and a whole classroom can be catapulted into pandemonium. How exciting! Let’s try that again.

Harsh, repeated punishments may lead the child to conclude she is “bad.” This feeling can become another reason for more biting. A child who loses hope in her ability to change will not be motivated to try to get herself under control. She’ll continue what everyone now expects her to do – and keep on biting.

A clear but low-key response will help. Calmly separate the children. The bitten child may need adult comfort, but it’s important also to comfort the child who has bitten. She may be frightened by her own out-of-control feelings and by the other child’s screams. Reassure her you will stop her every time until she has learned to stop herself. Be sure she understands you know she’ll learn with time. Don’t think your efforts aren’t working just because you have to repeat them.

Why do young children bite? A pediatrician we know says that for children this age, “a bite is just the flip side of a kiss.” In the first year, babies will sometimes bite their mothers’ shoulders as if to say, “I love you so much I want to eat you up!” In the second year, when toddlers are interested in other toddlers but don’t yet know how to show it, they may bite as a bid to engage another child.

Sometimes young children bite when they are overstimulated. And sometimes they may bite out of anger. But at this age they don’t understand the connection between their action and its consequence – that a bite really hurts. That’s why some adults think the best disciplinary approach is gently to bite back. We can’t agree. Such a response throws a child’s understanding of adult caregivers’ roles into confusion.

All children this age need help with anger and frustration. They’re at the very beginning of learning how to handle these and other strong emotions. Perhaps you’re worried that this child needs help because she has been exposed to the behavior of adults in the family who continue to struggle with their anger.

If that’s the case, then the child’s biting may have a different meaning. Very young children are vulnerable to being traumatized by violent behavior of adults around them. They need help from mental health professionals trained to work with infants and toddlers. Check the websites of Zero to Three (zerotothree.org) and the National Child Traumatic Stress Network (nctsn.org) for more information, and ask the child’s pediatrician for a referral.

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.