Finding a Special Place in the Family

Q: Firstly, I must say I really enjoy reading your column and the sound advice you offer.

My second child, a girl of almost 8, has what I would call, “middle-child syndrome.” My oldest is a girl, only 15 months older. Then I have a one and only son and then a baby. So I do sympathize with her. But there is a limit how much attention she can ask for. Also, she demands it in such a negative way — something is always hurting; someone is always mean to her; she needs me to dress her, etc.

In addition, she has a habit that really annoys me. She sucks her thumb and can get distracted from doing what she has to do. Moreover, she likes to pick at the same time. It started at night when she would pick at the fibers in her blanket. But this has developed into a habit of picking at her clothes. And, at times, she has ruined some clothes.

I have tried applying foul- tasting liquid onto her thumb. I tried bribing her. I tried charts. I tried taking away her blanket. But all of this was to no avail. What would you recommend?

A: Your letter presents an excellent example of treating the symptom while ignoring the underlying condition. You want your eight-year-old daughter to stop sucking her thumb and to stop picking at her clothes. Aside from annoying you, these behaviors are not in your daughter’s best interests. The former could subject her to ridicule and other negative social consequences, while the latter leads to her destroying her own wardrobe.

Your assessment of your daughter’s behavior is that she is suffering from “middle-child syndrome.” Yet, that understanding is not reflected in your parenting, at least as far as you reported in your letter.

Let us take a closer look at the birth order. Your eight-year-old has a sibling of the same gender just above her. Under her there are two more siblings, a baby of the same gender and a one and only sibling of the opposite gender. All of this could naturally make her feel insecure about her place in the family and in need of more reassurance that she is loved and appreciated. And this need for reassurance is being manifested by her demanding more attention through complaining and acting immaturely.

The particular behaviors you presented as your primary concern, the thumb sucking and the fiber picking, both demonstrate your daughter’s emotional pain. The thumb sucking represents her attempt to soothe and comfort herself. It also represents an unconscious wish to be a younger, more dependent child who would naturally be entitled to more parental attention. And the fiber picking is a classical symptom of excessive anxiety. Children who are overly fearful and worried tend to twirl and/or pull their hair or engage in other repetitive, compulsive behaviors such as fiber pulling. It is certainly plausible, therefore, that the feelings of insecurity aroused by your daughter’s position in the birth order are causing these unwanted behaviors.

Applying foul-tasting liquid to her thumb or taking away her blanket, however, are techniques which only increase her stress and anxiety, causing her to cling more tenaciously to the behaviors which you are trying to eliminate. Or, to put it more bluntly, you are inadvertently contributing to the problem and not the solution.

What is needed here is for you to convince your daughter that her esteem in your eyes is secure. There are three ways you could go about this.

The most effective technique is to give your daughter unconditional private time on a consistent basis. Nothing demonstrates positive regard as much as private conversation. Shlomo Hamelech, for example, describes the unique once-in-history communication of Kabbalas HaTorah at ma’mad Har Sinai as an expression of affection between Hakadosh Baruch Hu and Klal Yisrael (See the Peirush HaGra on Shir Hashirim 1:2.)

Another option is to identify and focus on the talents, strengths and positive traits of your daughter. Let her know how much you appreciate her for those good qualities. And look for opportunities for her to shine at what she does best. All that is necessary is that she is recognized as special in the family for that quality or ability.

Finally, you must make a concerted effort to catch her in the act of behaving positively and then effusively praising her for it. Even if the only thing you can find is that she sometimes plays nicely with a friend or by herself. Let her know you notice and are proud of her for it. That way she will receive the attention she craves for positive behavior and will not have to resort to the negative, attention-seeking behavior she is currently using.