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Dad's beating taking a big toll on his young daughter

Question: My ex-husband recently beat our 4 1/2-year-old daughter, and now she is afraid she will have to visit him. She goes to bed asking who will pick her up from day care and wakes up with the same question. She also wakes up in the middle of the night, crying. When I go to her, she begs me not to let her go.

Nothing that I say seems to make her feel better. What can I do to help her? -- S.N., Williamstown, N.J.Dr. Brazelton: This is an example of the long-term effect of physical punishment. It's not respectful, and it leaves anger and unresolved feelings in the child.

I'd certainly try to talk to her father. If possible, have him sit down with both of you together so he can apologize to her, explain his behavior and promise not to repeat it, and try to re-establish his relationship with her. Your presence might help, but if it doesn't, arrange it with a safe person -- such as an understanding nursery school teacher.

Your daughter needs her dad, and it would be a big step if they could re-establish visits together.

Meanwhile, don't turn her away from him as you might be inclined to do. Comfort her. Tell her all adults "lose it" sometimes and of course it scares little girls. You won't let her go yourself, and you'll be there to protect her.

If her father wants to mend the relationship, reassure her about how badly he feels. Tell her he is going to promise not to let go again, for he loves her so much and misses her.

In that way you can protect their relationship for the future. A child needs two caring parents. It may take time for her to accept him again, but I surely hope she can.

If either the beating or the fears continue, get professional help.

Question: Mealtime with my 18-month-old son has become extremely stressful. Sometimes he willingly eats his breakfast, lunch or dinner, but most meals are a battle. He sometimes cries and resists until he is forced to ingest the first bite. Then he cooperates for the rest of the meal. Other times he resists through the entire meal.

I don't like the idea of force-feeding him. I feel he'll eat when he's hungry, and I don't want to make mealtime an unpleasant time for him. My husband believes we should control him and not let him control us.

What is the best way to handle mealtime with a reluctant eater? -- L.D., Hebron, Ky.

Dr. Brazelton: You will never win by trying to control him. Eating has got to be up to him and his independent decision about what he eats.

Even the pressure you are using to get him to cooperate sounds dreadful. You may be setting up a severe feeding disorder for the future.

It isn't a matter of who's in control, for he is. He will always be. If his memories are of force and control, eating will always be a problem. Stop quickly. You and your husband get whatever therapy you need to turn meals and choice over to him.

All toddlers are negative about food. What he eats is not the issue. Read my book "Touchpoints" (Perseus Press, 1994) for a minimum diet in the second year, for all toddlers are negative about food. One pint of milk, 2 ounces of iron-containing protein or its equivalent, 1 ounce of fruit, a multivitamin -- and that's it! Meanwhile, you may have to feed him before you eat and separately to take off the pressure from you two at mealtime. Then make up for it by letting him be at the table to socialize, but without food. Offer him small bits of whatever you have at each meal, but less than he'll eat, so he must ask for more.

At his meals, when he plays or teases with the food, take it away and make up your mind. No more feeding between meals, no matter how much teasing, no matter how you and his Daddy wish he'd eat.

You'll be surprised how it will resolve as a problem as soon as you and his father settle your own problems about eating.

Questions or comments should be addressed to Dr. T. Berry Brazelton, care of The New York Times Syndication Sales Corp., 122 E. 42nd St., New York, NY 10168. Questions of general interest will be answered in this column; Dr. Brazelton regrets that unpublished letters cannot be answered individually. (C) T. Berry Brazelton, M.D. Dist. by New York Times Special Features