Q&A: thumbsucking starting at age 3

Maitha writes:

"I have a problem that no one else I know has. I have a 3 year old daughter who never ever sucked her thumb or a dummy….until she was 3. She then changed child care centres and made friends with a thumb sucker at the new centre. I thought it was just a phase and didn't say too much to her about it. Unfortunately it has kept going for the last 6 months.

I wouldn't be too worried if she was just sucking her thumb for comfort or for naps, but she sucks her thumb ALL the time. She can be in the middle of a game and the thumb will sneak into her mouth. She is actually biting her thumb and has marks/scabs on both thumbs. I have been asking her to stop in a gentle way. Sometimes when I ask her to stop she says she's hungry….which leads me to believe she is biting her thumb! She does eat a lot (big meals and lots of snacks) so I don't think she actually is hungry.

Does anyone else have this problem? Any ideas of how to stop the behaviour or should I just wait it out?"

Yikes. I am normally not concerned about thumb-sucking, but this is the exception. The fact that she's sucking it all the time and leaving marks means it's going to damage her teeth. Plus, it's not good that she's continuing a behavior that must hurt her physically–it sounds like she's addicted to thumb-sucking.

I'm not sure there's any unhappy motivation for her sucking her thumb, though. It sounds to me like she was maybe stressed out about the child care switch, and that happened to intersect with her friendship with the child who sucks her thumb. Kids at this age are very susceptible to peer pressure (which is why some children potty train easily when they go to school or are around other kids who are potty trained), so she probably just took up thumb sucking because her friend did it and that made it cool.

But now it's spiraled out of control. 3-year-olds can be intense little creatures of habit, and my guess is that she's turned the thumb-sucking into a pressure valve for emotions while at the same time reinforcing it as a habit.

I do think you should try to stop it, but don't have a guaranteed method. I know I sucked my thumb (for comfort and bedtime) through the painted-on stuff that made my thumbs taste bad, and through all kinds of psychologically dicey methods my grandparents used (without my mom's knowledge) to try to get me to stop.

I'm wondering if addressing it with her as a safety issue (this is hurting your thumbs and it's also hurting your teeth) and then setting up a rewards system for going without sucking, or figuring out (together) some other thing she could do instead, would help.

Has anyone else successfully helped a chronic thumb-sucker to stop at this age? How did you work through it?

Q&A: lobster murder exposure

Maeve writes:

"This Friday I plan to murder crustaceans for the sake of a tasty dinner. I plan to sever that nerve bundle in the back of their head, then plunge them live (but insensate, I hope) into boiling water. My sister will provide potato salad.

Now, I'm not too worried about the effect on my 23-month-old twin boys of watching whole potatoes being sliced with a giant knife. It did, however, cross my husband's mind that it might not be a good idea to show them a wriggling creature and then demonstrate how we kill then eat it. With emphasis on the kill part. Even though I do not sugarcoat where meat comes from, I know that it's all pretty abstract to the toddler set. I also try to eat "ethical" meat, and will pass on those values to my children, as they become old enough to understand such matters. What do you say about showing the boys live lobsters and what we do with them? At this age will they just think that's kind of a funny looking critter and not think about what happens next? Or will they be traumatized for life and become commune-dwelling vegans (not that there's anything wrong with that).

gotta run, one of the twins is awake. hope this email makes sense, I've written it in a rush."

This made me laugh, so I had to answer it today, especially after yesterday's question, which made me really sad.

First, I'd like to congratulate you on choosing the most humane method to kill the lobsters. We learned the knife-through-the-nerve-bundle method in culinary school, and it's so much more humane than just dropping them in boiling water is. (FWIW, probably the most humane method is to put them in the freezer for long enough to knock them out, THEN do the knife through the neck offing.)

Now, I doubt your kids are going to be that upset. They'll probably be more upset by the fact that you're all going to eat giant cockroaches than that you're killing them. (I'm now becoming extremely hungry for a lobster roll.)

But it depends on the kid. Some kids might be really, really upset about the killing. In which case, they should be sheltered from it until they're old enough to understand that animals are killed all day every day (and in some nasty ways) so that we can eat them, and then they can decide whether they want to keep eating animals or not.

I also think this goes back to our discussion on killing bugs. Some of us don't care about killing bugs, whereas it would really upset us to kill birds or mammals, etc. Others don't want to kill bugs, either. I wouldn't be too upset about killing a lobster or shucking clams, but would not want to see (or have my child see) a chicken or mammal being killed. Which may be hypocritical, but that's where the lines are drawn in my mind.

What do you all think? Is seeing an animal killed appropriate for a 2-year-old? For older kids? Does it matter if the animal in question is a crustacean?

Q&A: Mom’s in the doghouse

Ahhh! Too much going on behind the scenes here, so I sequenced these posts out of order. Scroll down to see the cool free Math Growth Chart, unless it appears above this post…

Andi writes:

“I’m feeling kind of hopeless right now. My 7-year-old essentially hates me. It’s been this way ever since he was a baby. I tend to get very stressed out, and when I’m stressed, I’m vocal about it. Not in a mean way, and not directed at him, but I do talk about what’s bothing me and vent and occasionally yell. My husband barely communicates, so when things are bothering him he keeps it all inside. That ends up stressing me out more, and I vent that verbally.

Basically, I’m the safety valve for all the stress in the family. And my son has always been very sensitive, and I think it scares him. He doesn’t like to deal with emotions any more than his dad does. So, essentially, he doesn’t want to be around me. He cries more with me than with anyone else. I have no idea what to do, and feel like I’m failing at the only thing I’ve ever known for sure I wanted to do.”

Oh, no. This just makes my heart break for you.

And I have no easy (or even hard) words of advice, except that I think the three of you need to see a family therapist together. (You don’t mention if you have other kids, but if you do, they should go along, too.)

This is something you need help with from someone who’s trained in helping families and can observe and identify the way you interact with each other.

The one thing I do want to say is that your husband is going to need to take some responsibility and start to communicte more. For one thing, he needs to be a role model for your son. But also, his bottling things up contributes to the tension that you think is separating you from your son.

So it’s something that needs to be addressed as a family problem, not just something between you and your son.

I am positive that your son doesn’t hate you. He may be afraid of you and your emotions. But a good therapist will be able to help you figure out how to get into better patterns of communication so you can heal things.

Have any of you been through anything similar? How did you deal with it?

Q for the community: insect bites and bug repellant

It's that time of year again…

Redheaded Wonder writes:

"Very quick and easy – do you or the other Moxettes know of a natural bug repellent that works? Last weekend we went to my parents' in the country, and my poor little guys are covered with mosquito bites. We want to go back, but I need to find a solution that does not cover them with chemicals. My sister in law thinks I'm overreacting about the chemical thing, so my concerns are legit, right? (I hate second guessing myself, I shouldn't let those people get in my head.)"

And then Marci writes:

"So my question is about bug bites.  My nearly 11-month-old's back got ravaged by some mosquitoes or something similar the other day.  He had at least 10 bites on his back (I won't go into how I missed this happening, but will say he had two onsies on so it was a determined bug).  He was up for most of the night and completely inconsolable for which I have complete sympathy.  I have prescription hydrocortisol for him for other rashes he tends to get and so put that on and also used deodorant as I saw that was recommended by parents.com.  Both of these did seem to help and the bug bites are much smaller and apparently less irritating. 

My questions are: Do you have any recommendations for avoiding bug bites that don't involve him only being outside in mosquito netting or covered in repellent?  I am not totally opposed to repellent and would love a recommendation for a safe one for babies who are still putting everything in their mouth (I just don't want him to always have it on and we live next to a wooded wetland so mosquitoes are always a problem).  And do have any suggestions for treating bug bites when they occur? "

Wow! Yet another parenting problem I've dodged the bullet on so far. Bites don't seem to bother my kids that much.

FWIW, I don't think anyone's ever wrong to worry about chemicals they put on their kids. The skin is the largest organ in the body, and anything you put on your skin gets soaked into your body. So, yeah, it's definitely a worry. But you also have to balance that with the perspective that you can't avoid everything, and it's really the buildup of multiple chemical in our environment that makes us sick, not any one time of having a chemical applied.

So if you can find a safe, nontoxic (which doesn't necessarily equal "natural" or "organic") bug repellant that works, awesome. But if you have to resort to something not quite as safe to keep your kids from being bitten, then cut yourself some slack for making a decision that made the most sense at the time.

That's all a long-winded way to say that I don't know much about bug spray. I've used the Burt's Bees stuff with some success in the past (on trips to Minnesota, even, where the state bird is the mosquito), but we're not particularly bothered by bug bites (certainly no reactions like Marci's son had).

I know some of you must live in places that have lots of biting insects. So please share with us your best suggestions for nontoxic bug bite prevention, or any compromises you've come up with in using chemical repellants. Thanks!

Loss of school skills over the summer

There's a discussion of 3-year-olds and their sleep habits below this, so scroll down when you're done reading!

As school lets out for the summer (here on the North American continent), kids are leaving their books and lessons behind for long days of running around and getting wet and eating ice cream. Which I think is as it should be. But one effect of having an extended summer vacation is that kids lose some of the skills they learned in school because they're not being reinforced over the summer.

Teachers see it in the fall–kids who were reading at one level in June may be reading at an easier level in September, just because they aren't practicing as much over the summer. The same happens with math, science, social studies, etc. If you don't use it, you lose it.

If you're looking for an easy way to keep your child's math skills up over the summer, DreamBox (our sponsor!) is the answer. Kids love the games, and giving them 15 minutes of playing time a few times a week will keep their skills up over the summer (while also giving you some quiet time or a good activity for the transition times of the day). Free trial and special deal for Ask Moxie readers in June, so check it out.

Discussion: 3-year-old sleep habits

Lately I've been bombarded by questions about 3-year-olds and their sleep habits.

I've been trying to figure out a pattern, but the only thing I can put together is something like this:

1. Right around age 3, many kids go to sleep decently with a routine, whether that routine is fast and easy (PJs, brush teeth, book, lights out, child asleep in 5 minutes), or more protracted (PJs, brush teeth, book, water, singing, parent lies down on floor next to crib/cot/bed, child falls asleep in 30 minutes). Whatever it takes, the routine works, and seems to be getting progressively more reliable.

2. Some time approaching 3 1/2, it all goes to hell and the child simply starts refusing to go to sleep. For hours and hours. Despite being clearly tired and having gotten plenty of exercise. Whether the child still naps or not.

These ages may vary, but that seems to be the basic structure. And there doesn't seem to be an easy solution. Parents try reasoning with the child, developing rewards systems for going to bed (and staying in bed), being nasty, locking the child in a room, threats, bribes, starting bedtime later, moving bedtime radically earlier, eliminating gluten/dairy/artificial everything from the child's diet, letting the kid go to sleep in your bed, and/or giving up entirely*.

None of those seem to have any greater success rates than others.

It's frustrating. And I think we try to look for reasons (time change, daylight, external noises, fear of monsters, etc.), but maybe there aren't any.

So I'm opening up a discussion, and you can say whatever you'd like. Complain, offer suggestions, theorize on why this happens, tell funny stories, or concoct elaborate revenge fantasies for when your children are older and want to sleep.

* In my house we like to call that "if you won't go to sleep you're going to have to sit here quietly on the couch and watch The Bachelor with me, and no, you can't have a popsicle."

My new project

A few weeks ago I posted that I was working on a new project that had to do with a bunch of us. I've been getting more and more emails from people who've lost jobs or had hours cut or are worried about losing jobs or businesses. My own freelance work has been in flux, and lots of my friends are worried about losing jobs or have lost jobs. (Even my dad is now involuntarily furloughed every Wednesday from his job.)

So I've started a project called The Downsized Parent, about staying emotionally healthy and connected to your kids while under job/financial stress. The website is up now, and is a connecting spot for parents who have lost jobs or businesses or hours or are worried about it. I have an agent and am writing a book (called The Downsized Parent), and while we're waiting for the book I'm getting the website up and running to connect and support all of us in this scary economy.

Right now I'm primarily trying to gather stories from anyone who wants to share them. The worst thing about being an un- or underemployed parent is the fear and shame, so getting our stories out there is going to connect us. Sharing your story will help you feel less alone, and it will also help everyone else out there by letting them know they're not alone, either. Share your story in the comments here (as usual, anonymous comments are welcome!).

I'm also sharing content from the book–sign up for the mailing list (sign-up box is in the right-hand column at http://www.downsizedparent.com) and you'll get a short email every few days with another idea from the book.

And I'm trying to get the word out about staying emotionally healthy, so if anyone out there has media connections that would be interested in covering the emotional side of parenting in a recession (not just the financial stuff), please pass them on to me.

Welcome June’s sponsor: DreamBox Learning

I am so happy to announce that June's Ask Moxie sponsor is DreamBox Learning. You may remember the review I wrote of their online math video games for kids from preschool through Grade 2. They are offering a special deal for Ask Moxie readers throughout the month of June, so click through the image in the right-hand column or through this link: http://www.dreambox.com/askmoxie to get to the discount. They're also going to give us some great math-related content to look at during the summer break. So please sign up for the free trial and see if your kids like playing math games online. All June posts will appear under this one, so scroll down.

Q&A: twins, anger after naps, and loving your kids the way they need it

Anonymous writes:

"My twin boys are turning three, but this is not about being three -because it's been an issue all year long.  Of all the things I've
grappled with, some have gotten better, some have gotten worse, but
this one stays the same: right after nap is the worst part of my day. 

One of my boys wakes up from his nap crying incoherently, and
nothing I do soothes him.  He wants to be held, but he doesn't actually
seem to derive comfort from me: he doesn't cuddle or even relax his
body – he thrashes around, or holds himself rigidly a little away from
me.  He doesn't want me to sing, he doesn't want me to ask him what's
wrong, he doesn't want me to offer him anything.

This can go on for half an hour or more, if all I do is keep trying
to comfort him.  Meanwhile his brother is a little groggy and cranky
too, and would love to be held for a minute in any case, but certainly
gets more anxious to be held when he sees his brother hogging my lap. 
If I try to hold them at the same time, they both get angrier.  If I
try to put one down and pick up the other, they both get angrier.  Even
though I know it will be over sooner or later, it's awful for me. 

Some of my most ridiculous moments as a parent have been in this
scenario.  Like the time we were at my in-laws, and the boys were
napping upstairs but I needed to bring them downstairs when they woke
up, and neither one would walk down the stairs OR let me carry the
other one downstairs first.  So I put one on each knee and bumped down
the stairs on my tush.  It took a long time.

Anyway.  Sometimes reading a book works; at first he's still
screaming, but as the book goes on he gets interested despite himself
and quiets down.  But often he goes right back to crying when the book
is over.  The only thing that really works to distract him is to ask
him a question where he really needs to think, either to remember
something, or to work out the answer.  He immediately stops crying and
answers in a normal voice. 

So my biggest question is <i>why don't I do that
first.</i>  I mean, granted, I can't always think of a good
enough question.  But the fact is, it's also not my first instinct.  I
want to comfort him, even though I know he won't accept it from me, and
I keep trying.

On some level, I should understand all this.  He has always been
intense, very reactive to distress, just wired in general.  Sleep has
been especially tough for him, and probably he's just disoriented or
doesn't feel good when he first wakes up.  And physically he's a bit
rigid too.  He was born with torticollis, and although it's gone now,
some overall stiffness remains.  It's not just me he won't relax
against.

He also had colic and undiagnosed reflux, and I spent most of the
first year of his life knowing I was powerless to comfort him.  I
actually started to believe I was the one making him miserable, because
he would be smiling or laughing with someone else, until he saw me and
cried to be held.  He always wanted me to hold him, but he would keep
crying in my arms.  At the same time, I felt so guilty for hardly ever
being able to hold his brother.

So I know these half-hour episodes bring back a lot of that anxiety
and sadness for me.  I'm guessing, also, that I've been interpreting
his rejection of physical comfort from me as a rejection of my love,
when it's really nothing of the kind.  If that's true, then what I'm
doing is to keep on trying to make him accept my love on my terms.  Not
what I want to do at all, and yet I can't help it.  Physical comfort is
a big part of the language of love for me. 

How common is it for a child to wake up inconsolable like this? 
How do I break free of this perception of my relationship with him that
was set in infancy?  And how do I learn to give and accept love in the
language my child needs, not the one I need?

p.s. I know this problem will probably go away when he drops his nap, but I'm
really hoping that doesn't happen anytime soon.  I don't think my son
is capable of sleeping more than 10 hours in a row, so it seems to me
he still needs the nap.  And in any case, I think the underlying
emotional issues will still be there, if not so blatantly."

Yet another problem that could be solved with a Trained Monkey Assistant. I'm just saying.

Seriously, though, it sounds to me like you've always been the one he could trust. He could cry and be sad and angry at the world or his intensity or his pain and know that it was safe to be upset in your arms. So you got the release while other people got the smiles.

And, you're right that the most immediate manifestation that's causing problems for you is the nap wake-up, but the emotional issues aren't going to go away just because he drops his nap. There's the issue of why he gets so upset in the first place, and also the mismatch you feel between what you're offering and what he seems to need.

I think it's super-common in our culture to want everything to be OK. And we're really, REALLY not comfortable with expressions of anger (or distress, but mostly anger). Especially from women and children. So you combine those things and we've been trained to try to comfort babies and fix things for them.

It sounds to me like your son is angry. And that he's got a lot of that anger stored in his body, and it triggers when he wakes up, because that's kind of a groggy, pooky time before your brain engages fully. Which is also why asking him a question to engage his brain then makes him forget about crying.

I think you don't think to ask a question first every time, because you're trained to try to comfort, because we all think a crying child needs to be comforted (emotionally, but also physically).

Maybe over the long-term, though, what would give him the most comfort is working at it from the other direction by letting him be angry and helping him express and release that anger. If he's encouraged to express his anger enough, eventually he'll get it out of his system enough that it doesn't overwhelm him physically when he wakes up.

Then, if he does have more anger temporarily and go into a post-nap crying jag, you can use the deep-question technique to stop his crying and get him some space by engaging his brain, but know that he needs more release.

I would also use this as a time to think about whether you were allowed to be angry when you needed to. If you weren't, maybe you can use your son's experience to help allow yourself to be, too. Maybe it's just my own experience with this exact issue (and my second son), but it seems like sometimes feeling such a strong disconnect and not knowing how to bridge it can expose needs in ourselves that were never met, and once those become obvious the connection takes care of itself.

Are there parents of multiples or closely-spaced siblings who could talk about dealing with the feelings that you're not meeting your kids' needs because there are two (or more) of them and only one of you? I feel this way sometimes as a mom of two, but know it's nothing like having had two from the get-go. Anonymous definitely needs some support.