The mother of a 4-year-old boy shared an interesting story with me the other day. At age 2, her son began chewing meat to the point where it became liquid, but would not swallow. The parents became worried and began attempting various means of persuading him to swallow. Nothing worked, which increased the parents’ anxiety and, likewise, the energy they put into the swallowing project.
Finally, the mother read a book of mine in which I describe a technique I developed called “The Doctor.” It’s actually a modification of an approach to children developed by Milton Ericson, an outlier psychiatrist whose offbeat, creative work has never been given its due in the mental health community.
Full disclosure: Whenever, in this column, I have written about this technique, mental health professionals have complained that it may well cause children to be anxious about real doctors. To that, I can only say that over the perhaps 20 years that I’ve disseminated this recommendation concerning various problems involving young children, not one parent has ever reported that a child developed doctor anxiety. Furthermore, the “cure” rate of childhood fears, anxieties, and even major behavior problems has been remarkable.
The method involves simply telling the child in question that The Doctor has said that the problem, whatever it is, is due to lack of sleep. Therefore, until the problem has completely disappeared for a certain period of time, or on any day that the problem occurs, the child must go to bed immediately after the evening meal. Other privileges can also be made part of a package of consequences, but early bedtime usually does it.
Concerning the meat-chewing 4-year-old, the parents told him, “We visited with a doctor today and told him that you chew meat and won’t swallow it. He told us that this happens when a child isn’t getting enough sleep. He told us that when you chew meat and won’t swallow it, that you have to go to bed right after supper.”
That evening, the child had to go to bed right after supper. From that point on, he has chewed and swallowed, chewed and swallowed, chewed and swallowed. No problem since.
There are four points to the story, the first of which is that if the parents’ had consulted a mental health professional, there is some likelihood the child would have become afflicted with a disorder of some sort—sensory integration disorder, perhaps. When a problem becomes a disorder, it is rarely, if ever, cured in a day.
The second point is that the mother now realizes her anxiety was one reason—perhaps THE reason—why the problem worsened over a two-year period. When children develop problems, they need parents who are authoritative, not anxious. Anxiety and authority are incompatible. The former cancels the latter.
The third point is that the mother’s anxiety reflected the now-ubiquitous tendency of parents to “think psychologically” about problems that arise in or with their kids. This sort of thinking prevents problem-solving—not sometimes, but always—because the question “Why is this happening?” prevents a parent from focusing on what to do about it. The “Why?” question induces what I call “disciplinary paralysis.”
The fourth point is that we seem to have forgotten that children do odd things sometimes. These odd things do not necessarily indicate a problem. Sometimes, odd is nothing more than odd.
Family psychologist John Rosemond answers parents’ questions on his website at www.rosemond.com.