Archive for Saturday, July 31, 2004

Distraction often best discipline for toddlers

July 31, 2004

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Please describe the best approach to the discipline of a 1-year-old child.

Many children will begin to gently test the authority of their parents as they approach their first birthday. The confrontations will be minor and infrequent at first, yet the beginnings of future struggles can be seen. My own daughter, for example, challenged her mother for the first time when she was 9 months old.

My wife was waxing the kitchen floor when Danae crawled to the edge of the linoleum. Shirley said, "No, Danae," gesturing to the child not to enter the kitchen. Since our daughter began talking very early, she clearly understood the meaning of the word no. Nevertheless, she crawled straight onto the sticky wax. Shirley picked her up and set her down in the doorway, while saying, "no" even more strongly as she put her down. Seven times this process was repeated until Danae finally yielded and crawled away in tears.

As far as we can recall, that was the first direct confrontation of wills between my daughter and wife. Many more were to follow.

How does a parent discipline a 1-year-old? Very carefully and gently. A child at this age is easy to distract and divert. Rather than jerking a wristwatch from his hands, show him or her a brightly colored alternative -- and then be prepared to catch the watch when it falls. When unavoidable confrontations do occur, as with Danae on the waxy floor, win them by firm persistence but not by punishment. Have the courage to lead the child without being harsh or mean or gruff.

Compared to the months that are to follow, the period around 1 year of age is usually a tranquil, smooth-functioning time in a child's life.

My daughter is 5 years old, and she has been having some very scary nightmares lately. She wakes up screaming in the middle of the night, but she can't tell us what frightened her. The next morning, she doesn't seem to recall the dream, but something is obviously troubling her. My wife and I are worried that she may be developing psychological problems that are being expressed in these terrible dreams. Is that possible?

I think your daughter is all right. She is probably having a "night terror" rather than a nightmare. Let me describe the difference between the two. Nightmares occur primarily in what is known as "stage three" sleep and are often remembered if the dreamer awakens. They are sometimes linked to emotional distress during waking hours and may play a role in "working through" those disturbing experiences. A person can often talk about a nightmare and recount its scary story.

Night terrors, by contrast, usually occur in "stage four" sleep, which is even deeper and further from consciousness. In this physiological state, the body mechanisms are reduced to a minimum to sustain life. Breathing, heart rate, metabolism and every other function go into super-slow motion. Some children experience strange dreams during this phase which cause them to sit up and scream in terror. However, when adults come to the rescue, they find that the child is unresponsive. The eyes are open, but the boy or girl is obviously not awake. And the next morning, there is no memory of what was so deeply disturbing.

This appears to be what you are describing with reference to your daughter. You'll be encouraged to know that there seems to be no connection between night terrors and psychological stress. It is not predictive of any known health problems or emotional disruption. Nor do we know what causes them.

The good news is that your little girl is apparently fine. The bad news is that you may have to deal for a time with her midnight terrors that drag you from your own stage four sleep.

-- James Dobson is chairman of the board for Focus on the Family, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the preservation of the home.

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