Q. I have a five-year-old who is generally a good kid but very opinionated. She also whines a lot. Where do I draw the line between letting her have her own opinion and letting her be a smart aleck?
A. In the seventies parents and psychologists alike encouraged children to express their feelings. What they didn't realize is that children would express everything else as well and not always in an appropriate or respectful way. Fortunately today's experts recommend parents set limits for their children. While it is hard to figure out where the line is between healthy expressions of emotion and inappropriate behavior, here are some ideas to help you establish behavior guidelines:
Let your gut be your guide. If you're bothered by your daughter's behavior, you can be assured that others will be, too. When you feel irritated, let that be your signal to step in and teach her a better way to express herself.
Help her rephrase her statements. If your daughter whines, "You never let me have my friends over," physically move to her level, touch her arm, look into her eyes, and say, "I'm not sure you know what never means." If she responds with the correct definition, then ask her to restate her complaint using an "I" statement, where she expresses her need or want in a sentence that starts with the word I. For example, she might say, "I want to have Fiona over to play." Once she expresses herself this way, try to frame your response with an "I" statement like, "I understand you'd like to have her over. I like Fiona, too, but today won't work because we have MOPS. Why don't you let me dial the phone and you can ask her over for Thursday." Be sure to add positive verbal encouragement, such as, "I like it when you ask me sweetly."
Take time to teach. We can sometimes overestimate what our children are capable of. We need to remember that they only understand what someone has taken the time to teach them. A 5-year-old is still learning to be polite, to take turns, to reciprocate invitations, to look people in the eye, and to ask for something in a calm way. Your daughter also needs your guidance as she learns to control her own behavior. When she's being whiney or argumentative, gently tell her to take a time out until she has calmed down enough to talk with you. As she gets older, she'll learn to take herself out of a situation when she's upset.
Be a model. Set the example for your child by respectfully conveying your own feelings to others, especially to her. Role-play with your daughter and let her be the mother. It will make teaching proper behavior more fun.
Help her understand the consequences. If whining is a frequent problem, explain to your daughter that when people whine, they aren't very pleasant to be around. Say, "I know you want people to like being around you, so I'm going to teach you how to say what you want without whining. If you whine, I'll have you take a time out until you can tell me what you need in a different way."
Praise, praise, and praise. Notice the times when your daughter talks respectfully, politely, and thoughtfully to others. Your encouragement will go a long way.
Keeping Privates Private
Q. My son is 2 years old and often will fondle his genitals in public. I don't want to make him feel ashamed of his body by reprimanding him, but I'd also like to help him break this habit. How can I handle this with care?
A. At 2 years old, your son is at the age when children begin exploring their bodies, including their genitals. You're wise to avoid attaching shame to this perfectly normal developmental phase. This is an opportunity to teach your son when and where it's appropriate to touch his body.
Bodies are God's beautiful creation. It is important to convey to your son that God made our bodies and that they are beautiful and pleasurable to touch. But teaching your son about the boundaries of touching in public is just as important. Explain to your child that touching his private parts or genitals should be done in private or when he is alone. I have found that Stan & Brenna Jones' book, How and When to Tell Your Kids About Sex (Navpress) is an excellent Christian resource on children's developing sexuality.
Check for self-soothing. If he continues to touch himself in public, your son might be struggling with anxiety. If so, touching his genitals could be a form of soothing himself. The next time you notice him touching himself, observe the situation and determine if he is anxious about something. Talk to him about his feelings. If he needs some form of comfort in public situations, suggest he bring along a favorite stuffed animal or blanket to hug or ask him to hold your hand instead of touching himself.
Check for attention-getting. While this behavior is more likely to occur in older children, be sure your son isn't feeling left out. Is this happening when you're out with other family members? If so, give your son a special job such as holding on to the stroller or keeping an eye on the baby's bottle. If it happens while you're out shopping or with other adults who are taking your focus off your child, make sure to check in with him often so he doesn't feel ignored.
Karen L. Maudlin, Psy.D., is the mother of two and a licensed clinical psychologist specializing in marriage and family therapy.
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