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Question From L.:

My 4 year old son has recently started chewing the neck of his shirts until they are saturated with saliva throughout the day (I can’t connect the behavior with any particular situation). He has also started putting his fingers in his mouth or sucking his thumb, but only when I read to him. We’ve tried to say “a dry shirt is a happy shirt…”, but this doesn’t really help him to stop and we are concerned that it is just bringing attention to a behavior that we’d like to see stop. We just ignore the fingers/thumb in the mouth. I’ve also tried talking to him about feelings, “sometimes we worry….”, but he doesn’t acknowledge any of these feelings. Thoughts? or am I the one that just needs to stop worrying?

Thanks, L.

Raelee’s Suggestion:

Hi L.,

These self soothing behaviors result, as you intuitively felt, from pent up feelings. Feeling safe to express and release stress and tension is a skill for all of us to master. I know as mamas that we strive to model this as best as we can, but it can be a challenge.

Ultimately, your 4 year-old needs to channel his need to relieve his stress and tension (something we all have on a daily basis) through crying or tantruming or raging.  I know that this kind of behavior can be very stressful for a parent. I’m learning more and more how critical it is for us to recognize crying as a way young children “discharge” their stress.

Yesterday, for example, Keaton, my own 4 year old, wasn’t feeling well and being “off” was causing him a lot of stress. I knew that sleeping would be key to him feeling better and so I gently but firmly, without yelling or even feeling anger, held him on my bed in my arms until his tears and rage about taking a nap subsided into sleep. He tantrumed for 30 minutes, all the while I validated him, “I know you’re really upset and angry that you need sleep to get better. You want to play and you don’t want to rest.” I was very detached from his emotions – they were not triggering my anger or frustration – I was just present, knowing that he needs to release this pent up stress in order to get it all out. He woke up from a deep nap and had a wonderful, peaceful evening, renewed.

Last night, I felt really overwhelmed and hurt by an extended family situation. Usually I would distract myself from the stress of the day and choose to eat for comfort or just go to sleep. But I allowed myself to be present with my feelings about things and I allowed myself to have a really good cry until I had no more tears (obviously, this was not in the presence of my children). I woke up this morning feeling so much better!

Depending on how much your son has to discharge (one only can cry so much if allowed to completely let it out), he may tantrum (crying, being upset – not hurting himself, you, or property) for up to 90 minutes or less. To allow him to actually release and let go of the thumb and collar sucking, it would require allowing him to discharge.

Don’t yank out his thumb or his collar. Tap his thumb and see if he would be comfortable with you slowly pulling it out while saying, “Sweetie, you don’t need this, it’s okay to cry or be upset sometimes.” Sometimes just communicating and doing this will allow him to start discharging. If he would let you hold him while crying, that would be great, but sometimes by 4 that’s not possible. Stay with him and validate his feelings as he lets out his tears. If it triggers anger to hear him raging, you can see if you can allow yourself to cry rather than yell or start to feel controlling. It’s okay to discharge together.

This could be an option of getting him to let go of these stress outlets and for him to understand more how his strong feelings are okay and acceptable. I know it sounds a bit odd and even stressful. However, I have to say, that since I’ve been practicing this with Isabel and Keaton and myself, there is less whining and edginess in general. The kids cry when they need to in a way that isn’t so explosive as it had been in the past. It feels like we’re coming into a balance.

If ignoring it seems like a better way for you right now, that’s fine too; you may need to build up to this approach. Delaying his need to discharge may mean that he may give up the collar and thumb sucking eventually but that pent up stress and tension manifest in other ways as children get older – usually other negative behaviors. It would be a great advantage to you and to him if you could think about this idea of discharging now, rather than later.

Need More Information? Read this article about Understanding Your Child’s Feelings at Parenting With Presence.

I hope this is helpful.

Warmly,