Q: My husband and I are at our wits’ end with our 3-year-old. In the past month or so he has begun to go ballistic whenever we talk to each other. For example, we’ll be sitting at the dinner table talking about our day and he will start yelling, “No talking! Be quiet.”
We send him away from the table for rudeness and then he melts down and cries in his room for half an hour. Family meals are becoming intolerable. My friends recommend a good spanking. It’s a tempting idea. R.W., Palos Hills
A: Actually, most parents have encountered this problem at one time or another. There are two causes: First, all children think that because you have to take care of them, they possess the power to control your personal life. This false but normal belief is reinforced by a corresponding immaturity we call the “all-powerful self.” To one degree or another, all children believe they have super powers. Very little ones may think they can push cars back with one hand; teens may believe that they can talk forever on the phone and get their homework done in 15 minutes.
Gentleness is the best response. When parents laugh, ridicule or become angry at children for these normal attitudes, children tend either to cling more tightly to their unrealistic beliefs or to deflate and feel helpless and powerless.
You want to try to help your 3-year-old with the upset feelings he has when you and your husband talk. Explain that mealtimes are when family members share things about their day—and that everyone needs a turn. Suggest that he go first. Then you and your husband can have a turn. If he protests, remind him that he will get another turn. Usually, this approach will work. But if he remains upset, give him a coloring book or something to do at the table while you are talking.
Unlike spankings or time-outs, this method will gently make the point that he cannot stop you and your husband from enjoying each other. It will also teach him that he can enjoy the conversation, too.
Children grow out of the unrealistic claims of their all-powerful self when they realize they have more fun when they ignore it. When you respond gently and positively to your son’s demands, you will succeed in making mealtimes more pleasant and assisting his development.
How do we get our daughter into her own bed?
Q: How do I handle my 7-year-old daughter who still sleeps with us? She has a lot of fear about sleeping in her own bed. My son, who is now 14, also slept with us until he was 7. When my daughter was born, he was moved out to make room for her. Help! G.S., Matteson
A:The move a child must make to sleeping in her own bed is the difficult part of co-sleeping. It’s important to transition gradually. If the choice were left to them, most children would stay in the parental bedroom until adolescence. You also need to be aware that, unlike your son, who could see that he had to make way for the new baby, your daughter is neither prepared for the change nor desires it.
Your strategy, therefore, should be gentle and gradual. Have family time in your room before your daughter heads to her own bedroom. This will make clear that your daughter is not being abruptly exiled. Read a book, listen to music or talk for 15 or 20 minutes. Then walk your daughter to her room and spend some quiet time there.
If she is afraid for you to leave, you may have to put in extra time the first few nights—perhaps even sleep on the floor. Don’t sleep in her bed. You want her to sleep by herself. If you have a family pet, perhaps it could keep her company.
Think of things to make her room as enjoyable as possible, such as a tape recorder, new doll or stuffed animal. If the problem persists, you can try two-way radios so she can communicate with you from her room. With your patient help, your daughter will become comfortable in her own bed.
How do I combat my child’s excessive sweet tooth?
Q:What is the best way to restrict candy and sweets? My 8-year-old has a real sweet tooth, but she also has three fillings. Fortunately, they were in her baby teeth, but the dentist is concerned that if she doesn’t change her eating habits, her permanent teeth will be affected. The dentist says she can have chocolate once in a while if she brushes her teeth immediately afterward.
My daughter is very upset. Today when I was cleaning out her backpack, I found lots of empty candy wrappers. When I confronted her, she said she got the candy from friends at school who felt sorry for her.
I scolded her, but I am still worried that she will beg candy from her friends (and hide the wrappers next time). Suggestions? L.N., Highland Park
A:The problem with scolding is that it can teach children to cover up behavior they know you won’t like.
Forming an alliance with a child is the most effective way to change behavior. Sit down with your daughter and review the dentist’s advice, including brushing, flossing and the restriction on sweets. Explain that she will have her permanent teeth for the rest of her life and that she needs to take care of them. Ask her what kind of sweets schedule she can live with. Suggest that she eat the allotted chocolate at home when her toothbrush is available. If you solicit her input and make sure she feels the plan is doable, she will feel she owns it and not that it is being imposed.
Encourage her to tell you when she slips and has extra candy by promising to rethink the schedule if it proves too difficult. Once your daughter feels she can share problems with you, you will be in a much better position to help her with solutions in other areas of her life as well as in this one.
Martha Heineman Pieper, Ph.D., and William J. Pieper, M.D., are the authors most recently of Addicted to Unhappiness: Free Yourself from Moods and Behaviors that Undermine Relationships, Work and the Life You Want (McGraw-Hill), which helps parents and other adults improve their own lives. They also wrote the best-selling parenting book, Smart Love: The Compassionate Approach to Discipline that Makes You a Better Parent and Your Child a Better Person (Harvard Common Press). The Piepers have spent more than three 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.