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Help 8-year-old son foster independence night or day

SHARE Help 8-year-old son foster independence night or day

Question: I am a single parent of an 8-year-old boy. When my son was a baby, I was faced with a divorce, which meant returning to my parents' home to live. There wasn't much space, so my son slept with me. After about five years, I could afford to move out. The house I rented was a one-bedroom, but my son had his own bed and slept there most of the time.

We now live in a space where my son has his own room, but getting him to sleep in his own bed has been difficult. I have tried to let him cry. I have pleaded, bargained and grounded him to get him to sleep in his own bed. All to no avail. If I let him cry, he becomes so upset he vomits. Any advice? — L.D., Houston

Answer: You two have had to make adjustments for a long time, and it sounds as if you've worked things out together. When one parent is gone, a child may well feel that he needs to be near the other, not just to reassure himself that he won't "lose" her too, but also to protect her through tough times. He is also bound to become very attached to being with that parent at night, which has become a time for being close. Asking a child to become more independent — by learning to sleep alone — may feel like a rejection. Punishment will only make him feel more rejected. Of course he'll fight to hold on.

You can get out of the struggle and turn this into a project of his growing up that you can work on together. Let him know how much it has meant to have him close. Reassure him about all the ways you still can be close. Wonder with him about whether he needs some space of his own now, and tell him that you're ready to help him make the difficult transition. Don't pressure him; that will only make him anxious and less available to learn.

A child may resist the separation of sleeping alone when his parents have divorced. He may think that people separate only when they are angry, or that when they're angry they must separate. Punishing him now will only make it harder for your child to see that you can sleep separately without getting angry or losing each other.

Help him see that you can value each other's independence and still feel close. Start commenting on times when he is independent during the day, when he decides something for himself, or even when he resists your pressure on him. You might say, "We both know you are going have to do what I say about this, but I'm glad you know what you want and how to stand up for it!"

Helping him feel safe and confident about making his own decisions in the daytime should begin to pay off at night. Even such gestures as setting the table, solving a problem on his own or pushing himself to face a new challenge become further opportunities to let him know how much you value his independence. Make this new kind of independence your goal, show him that you still can be close, and the separate sleeping will follow.

Question: I have a 3-year-old who has suddenly started lying face down and rubbing himself against the floor. Lately he has also been walking around with his hand down his pants. Is this normal? Is he just discovering? — Name and address withheld

Answer: Though it is common for children this age to discover the sensation of touching their genitals, the rubbing on the floor and the sudden onset of these behaviors are concerning. Are there other unusual behaviors that have accompanied this, such as wincing when you undress him, or when he moves his bowels or urinates? Does his play give you any clues? For example, when he plays with dolls or toy animals, does he focus on their genitals, or use them to mimic sexual behavior? The rubbing could have a simple reason, such as pinworms, though this causes itching around the anus. Ask his doctor to check for this, and more serious causes, such as sexual abuse or other traumatic experience.

Meanwhile, don't comment on his rubbing on the floor, but think of it as self-comforting. At such times, offer him a lovey to comfort himself with — such as a blanket or a toy.

Questions or comments should be addressed to Dr. T. Berry Brazelton and Dr. Joshua Sparrow, care of The New York Times Syndication Sales Corp., 609 Greenwich St., 6th Floor, New York, N.Y. 10014-3610. Questions may also be sent by e-mail to: nytsyn-families@nytimes.com. 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