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 until it became liquid, but would not swallow. The parents became worried and began trying to persuade him to swallow. Nothing worked, which increased the parents’ anxiety and the energy they put into the swallowing project.
Finally, the mother read about 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 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 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 telling the child that The Doctor has said that the problem, whatever it is, is due to lack of sleep. Therefore, until the problem has 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 included, 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.
Second, 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.
Third, the mother’s anxiety reflected the ubiquitous tendency of parents to “think psychologically” about problems with their kids. This prevents problem-solving 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.”
Fourth, 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.
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