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

Q. I am writing on behalf of my friend in India. He and his wife were divorced, and the mother was given custody. The father could visit the child once every 15 days for not more than 24 hours.

The child is a 4-year-old boy. The father has noticed that the child speaks bad language and also uses dirty remarks on people, especially females. The father suspects that the child, being with the driver and the watchman most of the time, has picked up this habit and the father is really concerned. The mother is busy in her own life and most probably hasn’t paid any attention to this problem. The father on the other hand has tried communicating about this to his father and his ex-father-in-law but no one seems to be taking any steps. Since the father meets the child once in 15 days, he doesn’t want to scold him all the time they are together, but has spoken to the child about it, and he is just not improving.

The boy’s parents are not in contact at all. I have asked my friend to speak to his ex- wife about it, but he says he has tried and her family doesn’t let him keep any contacts with her. He is really very worried and his work is suffering a lot because of it too.

A. Your friend is right not to want to spend all of his precious time with his son scolding him, nor would this be likely to have any effect on the child’s use of “bad language.” This would not set the tone of a relationship that the boy might value and want to look forward to. Instead, I would suggest that he use that time to become close and try to become a model for him — one that the boy might want to know better and emulate to over time. He and the boy can do cozy things that bring them closer, tell stories and dream together.

This would be the most effective way to help him learn about the power of words and to care about being respectful of others. The attitude your friend shows towards the boy’s mother is bound to be a potent influence in shaping his behavior with women.

Although he can listen to the child’s complaints and empathize with him, it won’t help for the father to criticize the mother. Any criticism would be bound to get back to the mother, prolonging the painful period during which all contact is cut off. It would also leave the child feeling torn between the two parents, and leave him worried about the security of the home he does have. The boy can’t help but feel protective of his mother and her supports or they might “vanish” as his father no doubt seemed to, and leave him all alone — the most frightening thing a child that age can conceive of. The most destructive thing a child of divorce can experience is anger and tension between his divorced parents. Of course this is inevitable, and can’t be hidden from children, but children needn’t be drawn into it, or made to feel that they must choose one parent over the other.

When parents can support each other for the child’s sake and keep the intensity of their conflicts to themselves, the child will worry less about the usual preoccupations that burden so many children of divorced or estranged parents:

  1. “Was it my fault?” A child may really feel it might have been, and conclude, “I have to be perfect now. Maybe then I `ll be able to bring them back together.”
  2. Any “badness” (such as language) is extra-threatening. Yet, the child is often compelled to try it out to see whether his bad behavior or dirty words will bring on the doom he is so fearful of. Testing a father with dirty words about females may be a way of checking whether the father can be pushed to criticize the child’s mother. “If my Daddy will leave me, my mommy might too and then I’d be all alone. What a terrifying possibility! Will my dirty words bring that on?”
  3. When trying to be perfect seems impossible, or pointless, a child may give up. When a child in this situation is enticed into the usual testing children engage in, for example, trying out “dirty words,” he may conclude that he has failed to be perfect, failed to reunite his parents. Then, he’ll give up.

For such a child, even a slight transgression may lead him to decide he really is a bad kid after all, that the family’s dissolution is all his fault, and that he might as well be “bad.” This is compounded by the expectable preoccupation of parents with their own wounds and fears, leaving the child to feel “no one really wants me anyway.”

As for the foul language, many 4-year-olds try out dirty words in order to learn what they mean and why they stir up such strong reactions. When a child says one, watch his face. Isn’t he watching you carefully to see what effect he’s having on you? It’s a sign of his new awareness that words matter, and that he can create excitement and dominance in his world by throwing around a dirty word. The quickest way to shut down his experimentation would either be to ignore it completely (which is very hard for a short-term parent), or to react as little as possible. A parent might say quietly and calmly, “I don’t like words like that and I don’t use them, as you know.” Then, change the subject without making a big deal. “Let’s go back to dreaming together. I look forward to these times so much and I want to be with you as much as I can. You don’t need to test me to see if I love you or will leave you completely. Nothing would ever make me do that.”

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.