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Empowering Your Young Child

March 03, 2014, 11:00 AM
How to Empower Your Young Child
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“We’ve created a monster!” my husband sighed. He was right. Our son, Oscar, had stopped taking his naps and flat out refused to go to bed. Once a superstar sleeper, he had turned into a whiny, raging child who screamed, “I want my passy!”

When Oscar was 2 years old, I decided to wean him off his “passy,” or pacifier, as we adults call it. What started as a source of comfort for him had turned into a full-on addiction. When he asked for his pacifier, or we were in desperate need to calm him down, I always made sure I had one on hand. If I didn’t, I paid for it big time with resulting meltdowns or public tantrums. Oscar needed it all the time, which left me digging in my purse or searching the floorboards of the car trying to find one. It was out of control.

The worst part? I realized that I needed Oscar to be pacified. We were, just like all the co-dependence experts say, enabling each other.

Whether a pacifier, thumb, blanket or one-eared rabbit, children connect to that object and the immediate comfort it brings them, according to experts at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth).

Cathy Guttentag, PhD, a child psychologist and assistant professor of pediatrics at UTHealth Medical School’s Children’s Learning Institute, says more than half of infants and children in the United States use comfort objects. “These objects can be very beneficial to young children,” she says. “They can help children tolerate separations from parents, help them self-soothe when they are tired or not feeling well, be a comfort when falling asleep, and help them feel comfortable exploring and playing in new environments.”

Guttentag says comfort objects also may be called transitional objects since they are thought to serve as a bridge between the comfort provided by the primary parent and the child’s own ability to cope with separation and mild levels of stress.

While blankets and pacifiers do not replace the warmth of a cuddle from mom or dad, Guttentag says they also help children cope with stressful situations such as medical exams, calming down after minor scrapes or starting a new child care program. “When something more serious happens, young children still need the direct comfort of parents to recover emotionally, but they also may want to cuddle with their special object at the same time,” she adds.

Guttentag understands when parents aren’t thrilled with their child’s thumb sucking, blanket toting or pacifier-loving habits. “Parents may have legitimate concerns, for example, that sucking pacifiers and thumbs interferes with talking or may cause problems with teeth alignment,” she says. “We grow tired of dealing with the nuisance of lost, forgotten, or unclean security objects. We wonder what we did wrong, overdid or didn’t do enough of that created and perpetuated this once covered-up but now exposed habit.”

Bye Bye Binky

While I knew Oscar wouldn’t still be stashing his pacifier in his college dorm, I felt it was time to nip it in the bud–literally. We decided on the “Bye Bye Binky” approach, which involves gradually snipping the tip off your child’s pacifier until it is finally down to the nub. After a week using this approach, Oscar’s fussing had escalated to trauma.

We started to wonder: Is there ever a right time to address this issue?

Mfon Ekong, MD, assistant professor of pediatrics at UTHealth Medical School, says the best solution in this case is to stop. “If it’s really a battle and causing a lot of distress, it’s actually better to stop the weaning and readdress it in a couple months,” she says. “I think you have to know the personality of your kid and not be worried about what will happen if they’re 3 and they still have this attachment.”

Every child is different, Ekong says, and you have to know his or her temperament. “If they’re really distressed and need it, taking it away may become a big deal for them. In this case, it’s not worth the stress to the parents or to the child.”

When you think it’s a good time to try pacifier weaning with your child, Guttentag offers these tips:

  • Use natural opportunities to prompt children to “unplug.” For example, tell your child you can’t understand what he’s saying with the pacifier in his mouth, or that he needs to take the pacifier out before he eats a snack.
  • Set reasonable limits on a time and place for use of the pacifier:
    • Make sure the pacifier stays in the cubby at daycare or preschool except at naptime.
    • Let your child have the pacifier after an upsetting event; after saying goodbye to you in the morning (at child care or preschool); and in bed at home, on a long car ride or when sick.
  • Gradually decrease the number of pacifiers available in the house until you’re down to one in your child’s room.

Our own pacifier battle with Oscar ended with a late night trip to the corner drugstore to buy two more pacifiers. This time, we set limits: the pacifiers had to stay in Oscar’s bed to be used for naptime and bedtime. If he needed to comfort himself for a few minutes, he could curl up in his bed with his pacifier and blanket. Now we have a much happier household.

Fingers and Thumbs

Sucking of fingers or thumbs is one of the tougher habits for a child to break for the obvious reason that you can’t take them away.

Ekong notes, however, that the majority of children usually will stop finger and thumb sucking when they enter kindergarten. So, how can parents help their child stop this habit sooner?

“I think the best thing to do is positive reinforcement with praise at home and at school,” Ekong says. “For example, ‘I saw you didn’t suck your thumb all afternoon.’ Children internalize those types of remarks.”

Another great method is distraction. “Keep children busy to the point that it’s not needed during the daytime when they’re having fun. Get it down to only at night when they need that security to relax themselves and for self-soothing behavior,” she says. “As they get older, that behavior will fade as well.”

When children are in a child care or preschool program, it can be common for them to give up finger and thumb sucking on their own. Ekong notes these programs can help children to see how others soothe themselves to sleep at naptime or when they’re getting tired. “They’re lying down for their naps without needing anything to comfort them,” she says, adding that having caregivers and teachers show support for this behavior helps.

Guttentag says that some of the same ways parents use to wean children off pacifiers also works for fingers and thumbs.

“With preschoolers, involve them in the process actively, such as helping to decide what signal to use to remind them to take their thumb out of their mouth,” Guttentag adds.

Parents with an older child who still sucks a thumb or fingers can become worrisome. Ekong advises parents to examine why their child is still doing it. She recommends parents explore the following topics:

  • Is there something going on in their social environment that is causing the child stress?
  • Are they moving a lot?
  • Is there a pending divorce?
  • Are they struggling in school?
  • Are they being bullied at school or in the neighborhood?

Blankies and Loveys

We all have our anecdotal stories about what happened to our beloved blankets, Teddy bears, and other comfort objects.

Whether it’s snipping, tearing, losing or hiding, parents come up with creative ways to wean children off these objects. As with any comfort item, parents should watch children for signs that they are really ready to let go.

“Children will usually start to show some readiness by leaving it behind or not asking for it,” Ekong says. “They may go to a sleepover without it and be OK. If they’re showing that they need it on a regular basis and they’re distressed without it, it’s not time.”

Be careful not to take the security item away too soon. If this happens and chaos occurs, Ekong simply advises to find another one. “It is going to be a very unhappy household because you have taken away their big comfort item,” she says. “They no longer feel safe. They no longer feel secure. They may have been OK with being alone in their rooms at night, but you may have this child crawl into your bed because they don’t have their blanket for comfort.”

Luckily, peer pressure may set in – in a good way – and help children drop their habits.

“By the time they get to preschool, children may experience some self-consciousness about other children seeing them with their blanket, and this motivates them to decrease their use of it,” Guttentag says. “It should certainly become easier to set reasonable limits, such as keeping the blankie in the cubby at school except during nap time, or leaving it at home altogether.”

Here are some more guidelines from Guttentag to help your child “graduate” from their blankets when the time is right:

  • Read picture books about the issue and talk about it with your child. Examples include Owen by Kevin Henkes and Geraldine’s Blanket by Holly Keller.
  • Use natural opportunities to prompt children to let go. For example, tell your child that “the blankie is dirty and we need to wash it.”
  • With preschoolers, involve them in the process actively, such as helping to decide where they will keep their blanket when they are not using it.

Cold Turkey

Going “cold turkey” might work to quit smoking, however, if you’re thinking of using this method to rid your child of their comfort object, think again.

“I really do not recommend this strategy unless your child is showing a decreasing attachment to his special object,” Guttentag advises. “If your child is still using the object daily for comfort, it is kinder to handle the weaning process more gradually. Remember that these special ‘loveys’ are, in many ways, providing your child with a healthy and safe way to cope with stressful moments or sad or anxious feelings.”

Guttentag says a foundation of good parenting is honesty, as well as being attentive to and respectful of our children’s emotional needs. This is why she says she is not a fan of parents “losing” their child’s comfort objects.

“In general, it’s best to base your relationship with your child on a foundation of trust and truthfulness, and that generally means open, clear communication rather than sneakiness,” she says. “That’s not to say that we shouldn’t set limits and help our children outgrow their need for security objects. However, it’s okay if this is a gradual process, and in most cases, it will start to happen on its own if parents are patient.”

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