QUESTION: Our daughter, our first and only, is just short of 3-and-one-half. She has recently started coming into our room in the middle of the night and making a request of one sort or another.
She wants one of us to accompany her to the bathroom, get her a drink of water, listen to something she’s thought up or something she has apparently dreamed, read to her, or a combination thereof. She has asked to come in our bed, but that’s the one thing we haven’t cooperated with.
She always goes back to bed, but only after we’ve done what she wants. At first, several months ago, we thought it was just a phase, but it seems to be more than that. Should we treat this like a behavior problem? If so, how? What punishment should we use and should we use it when she gets up or wait until morning?
ANSWER: Hold on there, pardners! You’re jumping the gun here! This IS a phase (or stage), which in this context is a word meaning “things that happen for no seeming reason in the course of raising a child.” Almost all young kids go through a phase where they get up in the middle of the night, come into their parents’ room, and ask for various courtesies. This too, will pass … if you make no big deal of it.
This is not a behavior problem! It is simply behavior. Yes, it can be a problem for the parents in question, who may need a good night’s sleep for various reasons. At the least, it is annoying to be awakened by a little person staring at you over the top of the mattress at 2 in the morning. It’s okay to be annoyed, by the way, but be the adult in the room, please, and keep it to yourself.
She likely doesn’t remember any of this in the morning, right? Right – they rarely do – so cooperating with her is not corrupting her. It is not letting her “manipulate” you or some such nonsense. By cooperating in going with her to the bathroom, getting her a drink of water, listening to something incomprehensible but nodding your head anyway, whatever, you hasten the day when this phase will run its course and be replaced by the next perplexing challenge in line.
Parents who react to little glitches of this sort with anger, who try to punish this sort of stuff into oblivion almost always end up making mountains out of molehills and setting the stage for all manner of future discipline problems.
You do not want to turn this into a conflict situation! Conflicts with toddlers are difficult enough to muddle through during daylight hours. Are you hearing me clearly? Good. The let’s move on.
FROM THE PEANUT GALLERY: A certified play therapist and clinical social worker writes from somewhere in the Lower Forty-Eight to let me know her disappointment in my factual assessment of child therapy: to wit, no consistent body of research done by people with no dog in the hunt verifies the general efficacy of any form of psychological therapy with children.
In fact, my experience – including trying to make it work – has led me to the conclusion that regardless of what name the therapy goes under, child therapy often makes a behavior problem worse, too often to justify it. My advice to therapists: Tell parents how to solve problems. That’s what they’re coming to you for – solutions, not analysis of their children.
Said therapist describes her experience – positive, of course – of conducting play therapy with special needs children.
Okay. I’m willing to concede that therapy with small, highly differentiated sub-populations of children may yield certain predictable benefits. It should have been obvious that I was referring to therapy with otherwise functional kids who bring “normal” problems of behavior and emotion to the table.
Within those parameters, I am unaware of any compelling evidence of reliable payoff regarding therapy with children.
Note that my contender is a certified play therapist. I do not expect her to be objective about her chosen profession. I would simply say to her what I have come to grips with in my own professional life: thinking you are doing the right thing and doing the right thing are not necessarily congruent.
[Family psychologist John Rosemond: johnrosemond.com, parentguru.com. Copyright 2020, John K. Rosemond]