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.

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.