Smart Love


Behavior change nothing to worry about

By Martha Heineman Pieper, PhD. and William J. Pieper, M.D.

Q:Our 10-month-old daughter has recently exhibited a significant change in behavior. She has always been an easygoing child. But she gets extremely upset when we do routine things such as placing her on the changing table. We understand that at this age babies are trying to express their independence, but seeing her get upset about such things is confusing. Is this typical and how should we respond? B.T., Chicago

A: Your daughter is becoming much more aware of the world around her and she increasingly knows what she wants and that she sometimes wants something different from what you want.

If she is engaged in an activity that interests her and you pick her up to change her, she may cry because she can remember that she was doing something she didn’t want to leave.

If you realize that your daughter is maturing right on schedule and not being difficult or contrary, you will be able to avoid taking her protests personally. More important, you will know that diplomacy is about to become one of your most valuable parenting strategies.

For example, if your daughter is playing with a portable toy, pick up the toy along with your daughter so she won’t have to stop what she is doing when you put her on the changing table.

Another strategy is to set aside some special toys to give her on the changing table. Or if you are sure she will be terribly upset if you take her away from what she is doing, you can even put an old towel under her on the floor and change her there.

At this age almost every transition can be difficult, because as your daughter’s cognition continues to mature, she will not be as easily distracted as she once was.

By planning ahead, allowing extra time and approaching changes diplomatically, you will help your daughter to navigate this delicate phase successfully and with a minimum of unhappiness.

How much unhappiness is too much unhappiness?

Q: I have three children, 2 months, 3 years, and 5 years. Would you please clarify how much a child raised with Smart Love should cry and be unhappy. My kids are generally very happy and loving, but each of them has bad moments or bad days sometimes. At what point I should be concerned? R.H., Batavia

A:The issue is not whether your children are occasionally unhappy but how you respond to their unhappiness. All babies and young children cry sometimes. Babies get hungry, overstimulated, or their tummies hurt.

Young children sometimes want to cut with real knives, cook on the real stove, take their older sister’s toy, stay up past their bedtime or refuse to ride in their car seat.

Most important is not to listen to advice that tells you to isolate or ignore children who are unhappy. If you leave children to go uncomforted, they will believe that you want them to feel badly.

Because they want to feel the way they believe you want them to feel, they will develop needs to feel bad and they will also grow up believing that they should not help others who are upset.

On the other hand, if you always do your best to comfort your children when they are unhappy, they will learn that you always want to help them to feel better and they will grow up able to soothe themselves.

They also will copy you and will be caring toward others who are upset or in need of help. So ignore all advice that tells you to isolate or otherwise discipline your children when they are unhappy. Show them the love and caring that your heart tells you to provide.

Who really benefits from mom-and-tot programs?

Q: I have a 13-month-old daughter and I wonder how important it is to take her to mom-and-tot programs. I prefer taking her places with my friends, going for walks or just hanging out at the playground.

When we get together with other mothers and their kids, there is a lot of grabbing and crying and the kids don’t seem to enjoy it that much. But if this kind of socializing is important for her, I am willing to participate in it. S. F., River Forest

A:Most parents worry that their children need to play with other children at a very tender age. The fact is, though, that while parents often benefit from having some time to socialize with other parents, children under 3 do not particularly profit from playing with other children because they are still in a phase in which they care mostly about having the things they want.

Other children are tolerated and even enjoyed so long as they do exactly what the toddler wants them to do and in no way obstruct her wishes. Children under 3 are not mature enough to care about having “friends” or to be consistently concerned with their playmates’ feelings.

Unfortunately, when parents see their young children grabbing and refusing to share, they often feel they must force them to be generous.

But because children under 3 are too young to understand or care about others’ feelings, if parents make them share they are not learning to be generous, they obey only because they are forced to or because their parents’ approval is important.

Underneath, though, they resent being made to give up a toy they really want and they may cling more desperately to it the next time.

If parents would just wait until the child is mature enough to realize that friends are a greater source of enjoyment than toys (usually about age 4) the child will want to share in order to keep friendships running smoothly. So you do not need to worry if your child is not regularly exposed to other children her age. At this point, her parents are the most important people in her world.

What she really wants and needs is for you to notice and admire her new words, her increasing ability to do clever things with her hands and for you to follow her as she runs off to explore new territory. She is lucky that you enjoy her and love spending time with her.


Martha Heineman Pieper, Ph.D., and William J. Pieper, M.D., have a new book, Addicted to Unhappiness: Free Yourself from Moods and Behaviors that Undermine Relationships, Work, and the Life You Want (McGraw-Hill, 2002), about helping parents and other adults improve their own lives. They also wrote Smart Love (Harvard Common Press, 2001). The Piepers have spent more than two decades practicing psychotherapy with infants, children, adolescents and adults; counseling parents; and supervising other mental health professionals. The parents of five children, the Piepers live in Chicago.


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