Magical Solutions

A mother told me she had spent several hundred dollars on sippy cups after being told by her doctor that it was time for her son to be weaned from the bottle. The child had protested the loss of his bottle by refusing to drink milk at all and the mom thought the right sippy cup might solve the problem.

Another example of various attempts to solve developmental issues is that of trying different potties or toilet seats in order to accomplish toilet training. Still another has to do with sleep issues and cribs. While different products might be useful as part of a thought through plan, more often the sippy cup, toilet seat or new bed becomes part of a power struggle between parent and child. The product itself becomes for the child a symbol of the change he is protesting, and can actually strengthen his or her resistance.

In addition to the search for the magical product, these days social media provide magical methods for such things as sleep and toilet training issues. One mother told of using the “potty training in three days” method for her first child without success. Currently, a familiar request from parents is for a method of sleep training for infants and young children. With both parents working and the consequent pressures on family life, the search for shortcuts to solve these issues is understandable.

But parents need to beware of getting into a struggle with a child over bodily functions such as eating, sleeping or toileting. This is a no-win situation since a parent cannot control a child’s body in that way. But more important than winning or losing is to understand what a child is letting us know through his behavior about where he is in his development. Such understanding can give us a clue about how to help the child and achieve our goals.

Most often, resistance is a form of protest about the next step being expected of a child. A child may not be ready for that step, or not happy about giving up his bottle, his diaper, or his crib. Part of our job as parents is to determine how significant the protest is. Many times, it reflects an understandable ambivalence about giving up a pleasure in exchange for growing independence. A parent’s emotional support and understanding of the feelings involved will help a child make the transition.

A strong protest that begins to turn into a power struggle is often a clue that a child is not ready to take the step a parent may be ready for him to take. Or it may reflect too abrupt a change, which carries with it the threat of permanent loss, and ignores the mixed feelings that change can bring. An example is the mom and the sippy cups. Her idea was to go “cold turkey”, which meant for the child absolute loss with no possibility of salvation. He used the only power available to him by refusing milk altogether.

This does not have to mean mom’s capitulation. Introducing the sippy cup more gradually, before the total loss of the bottle, might have had a different outcome. Mastery is involved in using a sippy cup, and this can usually hold great appeal for a child – especially if it doesn’t at the same time hold the threat of the immediate, total loss of the treasured bottle.

Magical solutions seem tempting, but gradual transitions and assessing where a child actually is developmentally (not where some chart says he should be), is probably a better rule of thumb in making “next step” changes.