Advice

This collection of Dr. Thompson’s answers to parents’ questions addresses children’s development, behavioral difficulties or other challenges at home or school. While he is no longer taking questions, you may find these questions and answers valuable. You can also join the conversation on Dr. Thompson’s Facebook page.

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Angry little boy a fierce challenge

Rachel from New Jersey, asks:

Our son is two-years-nine-months old and has a terrible time with anger. Whenever he gets upset (especially when it’s about something where he lacks control) his immediate response is anger—yelling, screaming, throwing things for effect, even smacking or kicking me. No matter how consistent we have been about saying “hitting hurts,” trying to remove him from the situation, or taking things away when he mistreats them, this behavior persists. I want him to have better tools for expressing his feelings—he is very verbal. Any suggestions for a child this young? Other than these episodes (which are entirely limited to home) he is excited, engaging and joyful.

When I read your question all I could think was: Thank goodness two-year-olds aren’t six feet tall! And thank goodness they don’t stay two (and three) forever!

Helping boys manage their anger is a HUGE issue for many mothers whose sons are between ages two and four. Why is that? Typically, not because there is something wrong with their sons, not because their sons are particularly full of anger. It is because their wishes are so strong, their capacity to bear frustration is so low, and their level of uninhibited aggression is so high. Human beings—both boys and girls—are at their least controlled and least apologetic around the age of two. They can lash out with their screams, their words, their hands and their feet. They can seem incredibly powerful. Under these circumstances, saying, “hitting hurts” or something like “That’s not nice,” just won’t cut it. They need to be managed.

It is very important that you do not allow your son to hit you. If he tries to hit you, grab his arms firmly (not harshly) pin them to his sides, raise your voice and say, “Don’t hit me! You may not hit people!” Get right in his face and say it with strength and power, conveying how upset you are by his behavior. This may make him cry. That’s okay, because your distress will be upsetting for him. That’s an early form of empathy. If he then tries to kick you, wrap him up in a bear hug—this is called a “therapeutic hold”—taking control over his arms and legs until he has cried himself into a calm state. You won’t have to do this many times, but you need to do it until he learns that hitting is not the solution and that you are big enough to control him when he cannot control himself. Though many people spank or hit boys at a time like this, I do not think it is a good idea. If you hit your son, you might lose control and become abusive. In any case, all you are teaching is that hitting is the right solution, and that the bigger person hits the hardest.

Wrapping him up and holding him teaches him that you won’t allow him to hurt anyone—not himself and not you. While you are holding him, just continue to talk soothingly to him, saying, “I know you can feel really mad when things don’t go your way (when I don’t let you have candy, when you want a toy your friend has), but I’m not going to let you hurt people.” And then tell him that you know when he gets bigger he’ll be able to control himself, because all big boys do.

More than anything he wants two things in life: to have you love him and to be a big boy. So if you tell him that you have confidence that he is going to grow into a self-controlled boy, he will experience your trust and the love in your voice. I guarantee you that if you do this for six more months, he will start to develop more self-control. If you want to read further about the therapeutic hold, I discuss it in the “Wild Thing” chapter of my book, It’s a Boy! Write me back if he is still behaving like this at three and a half years old. I bet he won’t be.

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Dad uncomfortable with sex scene in son’s bedtime reading

Michael from New Jersey, asks:

Our son Sam is a sixth-grader. I have been reading a book called "King Dork" to him. The book is billed as a modern day "Catcher in the Rye." Thirty or so pages into it, the book’s protagonist encounters a girl at a party. She smokes some pot (he abstains) and some heavy petting ensues. As the scene progressed, I stopped reading to him because a) it seemed strange to read a sex scene to my son, and b) the general material seemed inappropriate. I let Sam finish reading the scene by himself and then he went to bed. I’m not sure what to do from now on. Continue reading to him, let him read it himself, or take the book away?

I can understand your discomfort at suddenly finding yourself reading a sex scene to your sixth-grade son. That isn’t what most parents imagine as bedtime reading when they open the book. However, such scenes are common in what is called Young Adult reading, and your son is getting very close to adolescence. I think you picked up a book advertised as "the new ‘Catcher in the Rye’" because you recognized that he is growing up. You were hoping to keep him engaged and willing to maintain the night-time reading ritual by picking a book with an adolescent theme. Had you forgotten what adolescents find edgy and exciting?

You’ve got three decisions to make: 1) whether to keep reading "King Dork" with your son, 2) how to talk with him about the scene you read together, or 3) whether to keep reading to him at night as he grows up. I recommend that you stay with the book, but you should read way ahead in the book so you won’t get surprised again. That will certainly make the book less exciting to you, but will enable you to finish it with him without an unexpected embarrassing surprise. If there is another sex scene, you can decide whether you want to read it together, or you can let him read it on his own.

In either case, I hope it leads to a talk between the two of you about sex and relationships. I can assure you that all sixth-graders are talking about relationships with the opposite sex; that’s a staple of middle-school conversation. Many of them are thinking about the importance of sex, even if they are not yet actually imagining have it; many already have a masturbatory life.

I believe that you should and could use this book as a chance to talk about sex. Some good first questions might be: Are students in your grade talking about being girlfriend and boyfriend? What do you think about that? Do you know any boys who have kissed a girl? When do you think kids should first have sex? Have you had any sex education in school? Do you think you know everything that you need to know?

You might buy him a book like Robie Harris’s "It’s Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex, and Sexual Health," if you haven’t already purchased a sex education book for him. It is funny and accurate and the illustrations are compelling.

Finally, I hope you continue your bedtime reading ritual as long as he will let you. Find some classics, things he wouldn’t read on his own, but that are still exciting for boys: "The Red Badge of Courage" or maybe Robert Louis Stevenson. Check with the town or school librarian or buy the guide, "Best Books for Boys: A Resource for Educators," by Matthew Zbaracki. There are many books that the two of you will find exciting and that won’t suddenly embarrass you. Sexuality tends to make parents and children a little nervous in each other’s presence. That’s normal. Keep reading together. He can start reading books with sexual themes on his own time.

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Getting to the heart of senior boy’s reluctance to “launch”

Cheryl from overseas, asks:

Our senior in high school shows no interest in moving on, applying to college, or even getting a job. We have made it clear that no plans for further education means he is making a choice to get a job and support himself without the benefits of a college degree. No value judgment added there. In theory this should be fine but it seems to be leading nowhere and soon to booting him out and conflict that doesn’t seem healthy either. He has been tested at an extremely high IQ (155 across the board) with no learning disabilities and has always had a challenging education. Why is it so hard for boys today to "launch"?

I may not have enough information to answer your question. At the very least, I’ll have to ask you a lot of questions in order to figure out what’s going on with your son. You describe him as a senior in high school. I presume that this would be the spring of his senior year, yet he hasn’t yet applied to college. Did he not have a college counselor? Did he ignore her? Did he willfully refuse to apply to college when all his classmates were filling out their forms? If so, that’s unusual and makes me wonder whether he is depressed. Usually, seniors apply to college even when they are uncertain about what they want to do simply because all their classmates are doing it. The peer pressure for going to college is pretty strong and hard to resist.

Is your son tired, irritable, abrasive, or full of despair? Does he express feelings of futility or worthlessness? I am concerned about suicidal feeling when a boy does not seem interested in the future. Does he seem angry with you a lot of the time? Are you having trouble communicating? If so, you might need to see a family therapist to sort out some issues before he can go off into the world.

You haven’t told me whether your son has been a good student during his high school years. Sometimes very gifted students-and with an I.Q. of 155 your son is certainly in the 99th percentile, placing him among the very brightest young men on earth-are completely bored by school. He may have experienced himself as being smarter than most of his classmates and many of his teachers. Perhaps he doesn’t look forward to college because school has been a huge disappointment to him.

I have other questions? Is he in love and afraid to leave a girlfriend? You mention that you live overseas; is he anxious about going to college on another continent? Has he been an anxious boy? Has he ever spent much time away from home? Does he like to travel? If not, do you think he is afraid of being homesick?

I want to ask questions about his friendships, whether he has trusting relationships with adults outside the family, whether there are tensions at home, like an impending divorce, that might cause him to want to stay home to keep an eye on things. All I can say in conclusion is that it doesn’t sound to me as if your son is simply having trouble launching. There is something going on in his mind, and it is serious.

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Pretend play OK, but toy gun triggers dilemma for mom

Amy from San Francisco, asks:

My husband came home with a gun-like toy for my 3-year-old son. I was outraged—especially when my son pointed the thing at me and said, "Mom, I’ve got a gun. I’m going to shoot you." I’d like to throw the toy away but my husband says that I’m overreacting.

This isn’t the first time our son has engaged in gunplay. These days everything—celery sticks, wooden spoons, paper towel rolls—shoots out bullets, fire, or hot lava. My son seems to be "hard-wired" with the XY chromosome that allows him to see a stick as an M60 machine gun. I can tolerate the pretend play, but not a toy gun. Am I overreacting?We all know that high school is extremely challenging on so many different levels and no adult would voluntarily choose to go back. So, why is it that we are so nostalgic for that time of our lives when we reach mid-life?

Thanks for writing me about the "outrage" you felt when your three-year-old son pointed a toy gun at you. Since you’ve asked directly, I’ll answer bluntly: yes, you’re overreacting. But you certainly aren’t the first mother to feel the way you do. I am often asked variations on this question by distressed moms. My favorite was the Quaker mother from Philadelphia, who told me that like any good Quaker she believed in peace and pacifism. Toy guns of any kind were completely banned from her house. Yet, one morning her son chewed his toast into the shape of a pistol and "shot" his brother with it.

Since the beginning of recorded time, little boys have enjoyed games in which they project their power into the world, and that means playing with "weapons." I have no doubt that "cave" boys pointed sticks at each other in threatening ways, or chucked rocks at one another, or imitated the spear-throwing actions of their fathers. Once guns were invented, boys were bound to imitate them. You have to admit, such play has its evolutionary purpose; they are practicing their hunting.

Yes, you object, but why do boys shoot their mothers? My answer is that a boy’s mother gets to see everything he is proud of or excited about; she is his first and best audience. But why does he shoot at you? Doesn’t he love you? Yes, of course he loves you, and doesn’t really want to hurt you. He’s playing and he is quite confident that his actions won’t really hurt you. After all, he knows that it isn’t a real gun. He just wants to see you react to his imagined power.

When I was on safari in Africa years ago I watched two lion cubs pounce repeatedly on their mother’s tail, which she flicked repeatedly in order to tempt them. She was part of the fun; part of the training process. What is the human equivalent of turning apparently aggressive play against you into something fun? I’ve never heard a suggestion better than one my colleague, Larry Cohen, Ph.D., wrote about in his book, "Playful Parenting". He suggests that if a child shoots you with a gun you say, "That’s a Love Gun and when you shoot me with it, I have to kiss you." When your son shoots you with his toy gun, you jump up and chase him until you can grab him and kiss him. Do that a bunch of times and I assure you, the game will be transformed for you. You will begin to see it as play that you enjoy. Remember the 60′s motto: "Make Love, Not War."

What I want to guarantee you is that there is no relationship between childhood make-believe gun play and actual adult violence. You don’t stop adult violence by banishing toy guns or objecting to boys’ play. That just confuses them. As the father of a peaceful, loving seventeen-year-old boy who has owned plastic guns, water guns, light swords and even a paintball gun, I can offer personal experience that this kind of gun play doesn’t lead to later aggression. I bet your husband played with toy guns when he was growing up and I bet he’s not a violent gun-slinging man.

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Nostalgia for high school: rosy memories or thorns?

Millie from Miami, asks:

We all know that high school is extremely challenging on so many different levels and no adult would voluntarily choose to go back. So, why is it that we are so nostalgic for that time of our lives when we reach mid-life?

Nostalgic for high school? You are talking to the wrong man. I haven’t been able to get myself back to a high school reunion because I am so scared of all the embarrassing, painful memories that might suddenly rush up inside me and make me feel fourteen, fifteen or even seventeen again. My experience of life is that it has steadily gotten better since I was a teenager. I found my fifties the happiest decade of my life and that’s what research in human development finds for most people. Personally, if I could go back in time, I would be fifty-one again in a flash, perhaps forty-five, but I’d never go back to eighteen. But that’s me and you asked me to explain why people in general are nostalgic about their high school years.

I think people selectively remember high school. Either consciously or unconsciously, when they look back they focus on what was new, exciting, beautiful and idealistic. And there was a lot of that: going to the prom, being editor of the paper, driving a car alone for the first time, the excitement of breaking rules and getting away with it, first sexual experiences, etc. Teenagers feel things more keenly than adults do; their emotional highs are higher and their lows are lower than adults’. Those strong feelings from peak experiences literally create strong connections in the brain that stay with you for life. If you only revisit those memories, you can have a lot of fun talking about high school with friends.

However, there are other feelings-negative feelings-that were every bit as strong as the positive ones and they laid down tracks in your brain, too. Most of us experienced painful self-consciousness, acute embarrassment over a faux pas, feelings of failure in school, actual experiences of shame and failure, or unhappy or exploitative sexual experiences, feelings of inadequacy and incompetence. Just the other day I was driving the car and suddenly remembered inviting a girl to a formal dance in tenth grade and not knowing how to talk with her, not knowing whether she liked me or I liked her, not kissing her when I think she wanted me to (I couldn’t tell for sure!) and ending up feeling like a total dork. As these thoughts came into my mind I was suddenly suffused with confusion and shame, just as if I were a tenth grader again. Ugh! I turned on the car radio and tried to think about something else. The moment passed.

One of the things people are able to do in conversations about the past, however, is to bring them up and detoxify them by sharing the embarrassment, suddenly realizing that other people, indeed, everyone felt just as embarrassed as we did. Who knew? Who told? And once you’ve had that realization you can see yourself as part of the same struggling human community. Such conversations are therapeutic and healing. Think of how much squealing or shouting there is when people start to dredge up painful collective memories. "That was awful!" "Oh, I was so embarrassed!" "I didn’t know what to do!" After you have revisited these memories and laughed together, you all feel better (drinking helps, too).

If you can’t have those conversations with friends in public-and I couldn’t for many years-you can always go tell every embarrassing, humiliating, painful thing that ever happened to you to a therapist. If it works you’re cured. What does that mean? You can look back at your past and forgive yourself for having been young and inexperienced and human.

Finally, if you’ve been able to forgive yourself, looking back at the past can look quite rosy in comparison to all the humiliating and painful things that afflict you in the present: problems in your marriage, difficulties in your children’s lives, feeling stuck in your job, not enough money in your bank account, sagging breasts, cellulite, an enlarged prostate and trouble sustaining an erection. Hey, after thinking about all that, high school does look pretty good.

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Daughter going to college overseas: how do we help her prepare?

Parents in Beijing (From Little Star Magazine, Shanghai), asks:

Our daughter is graduating from high school this summer and going to college in America. Like many parents, we watched her grow up from a baby girl in kindergarten to a senior in high school. For years, we woke her up in the morning, picked her up from school and checked her homework in the evenings. This is the first time she is going to school alone and in a place so far away from home. She looks very unhappy, especially thinking of leaving us and being alone in the U.S. How can we talk with her, and what can we do to help her prepare for her new life without us around?

The departure of a child from her family is one of the biggest developmental transitions in all of life, almost as important as getting married or giving birth to a baby. When a child leaves the family it is the end of her childhood, the beginning of her young adulthood and the end of her (or his) parents’ day-to-day parenting. When your daughter leaves, everything changes, nothing will ever be quite the same. I am not surprised that your daughter looks unhappy at times; it is natural for her to feel a bit anxious and uncertain about the future. I am also not surprised to find that you are at a loss for what to say to her because you have not sent a daughter out into the world before.

You need her to know three things: 1) that this is a big adjustment for everyone in the family, 2) that it is scary and new, and 3) that you have confidence that she is going to make a success of it, because she is a strong person and she is prepared for this transition. Tell her that you see her nervousness, but also acknowledge your own. Seniors often tell me that they are worried not just about themselves, but their parents as well. What if the father of the family travels a lot on business and mother and daughter have been each other’s company and confidantes most days? A daughter might worry that her mother will be lonely without her.

I would advise you to say something like this: "Honey, I hope you know how much we love you. We’re going to miss you terribly when you go off to college. It has meant so much to be your parents that sometimes we don’t feel ready to have you leave, but we’re going to be fine and we expect you will too. All of your classmates will be going away to college; all of them will have left their homes; it is likely that a lot of them will be a little homesick and you can support each other. Please know that we will be in touch by phone and email as much as you need us to be."