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Out-of-control child is asking for clear limits

Question: Our 7-year-old daughter, "Ann," has always been a very bright, articulate child who doesn't give up on getting her way. She yells, bites, hits and screams if she doesn't get what she wants. For example, she will have a fit if I don't buy her something in the store.

She also likes to run through the house, being very loud, and often wakes up her 14-month-old sister from naps.

The punishments we have come up with obviously don't mean anything to her, and we are quickly losing our tempers.

This problem exists only at home. Teachers praise her for her respect of others and helpfulness in class. When she visits friends or relatives' homes, she is always well-behaved.

What can we do to change her behavior so we can restore peace and harmony in our home? — No Name, Alaska

Answer: Obviously Ann knows how to control herself outside your home, and that is reassuring. It's likely that her baby sister may have something to do with her demanding, provocative behavior at home. If she is angry at having to share you with a toddler, she is bound to aim her antics at you.

This is her way of asking for extra attention as her younger sister invades her space and steals the show with new walking, talking and other firsts.

Ann is also pushing you for clearer limits and more firmly enforced consequences. She's bound to be scared of her understandable but out-of-control and babyish behavior, as well as her anger at her little sister and you.

Often, parents feel that they must make up for the demands of a new baby by being "softer" on the older child. But your daughter is bound to feel more babied than respected. Instead, your limits on her behavior (biting, hitting and public fits are not acceptable at this age) and consequences (including brief isolations to stop the action and apologies from her) will reassure her that when she can't control herself, you will. Being firm about these will actually help her to feel loved.

(For more ideas about making consequences fit the "crime," you may want to consult our book "Discipline: The Brazelton Way" (Da Capo Press, 2003).)

At 7, your daughter is old enough for you to share your concerns with her and invite her to tell you hers. Let her know that you don't like to be upset with her all the time. Then encourage her to help find solutions and plan alternatives for the hitting and screaming at stressful times.

Is there anything she could suggest that would help her to control herself before she upsets you? If she has any suggestions, be sure to try them and give her credit for them when they work.

You should also give her plenty of positive attention before she starts prodding you to respond with negative attention. Be sure to talk to her and cuddle her when she's not acting out.

Question: A little over a month ago, I decided it was time for my 27-month-old son to give up the pacifier. He used it only for naps and bedtime, but I worried about his teeth becoming crooked.

We "gave" the pacifiers to a new baby, and my son participated wholeheartedly in wrapping and delivering the presents. He has never asked for the pacifiers back, but since then he has been unable to soothe himself to sleep.

After two weeks of naptimes full of screaming (and one particularly harrowing day of head-banging), I gave up trying naps. Bedtimes are also an hour or more of screaming before he finally sleeps.

He has a blankie and a teddy bear, but they have not been able to provide him with the comfort he had with his pacifier. I feel I made a mistake taking it away. Should I offer to give it back? — H. of Dallas

Answer: You are obviously feeling very guilty, but it's not too late. Give the pacifier back to him and call it "his old friend." He seems to miss it so much.

You should also apologize to your son for being so ready to take the pacifier away. After all, he has been devoted to that self-soother for more than 2 years.

If you want to try to wean him from the pacifier, start by tying it to a teddy bear or doll or other object that no one will object to. When he finally switches his affection and dependence to the new "lovey," you can help him gradually put aside the pacifier while holding onto the lovey. Do this little by little, first at naptime then at night.

To get him comfortable with using the new lovey as a support, encourage him to turn to it when he hits a snag or falls down and hurts himself during the day.

Be sure to congratulate him on being able to make this switch. It's respectful and more understanding of his dependence on an object such as the pacifier. Good luck.

Questions or comments should be addressed to Dr. T. Berry Brazelton and Dr. Joshua Sparrow, care of The New York Times Syndication Sales Corp., 122 E. 42nd St., New York, NY 10168. Questions may also be sent by e-mail to: nytsyn-families(at) Questions of general interest will be answered in this column. Drs. Brazelton and Sparrow regret that unpublished letters cannot be answered individually. Responses to questions are not intended to constitute or to take the place of medical or psychiatric evaluation, diagnosis or treatment. If you have a question about your child's health or well-being, consult your child's health-care provider. Distributed by New York Times Special Features