Parenting Questions and Answers

Graydon G. Goss, MD

Christel, a 32-year-old mom writes, 

Dear Dr. Goss, 

I am remarried and live in a different state than my former husband who committed suicide a week ago. I told my/our son (he's a very smart 6-1/2] that his father died by accident. He asked but I did not tell him how. I took my son to the visitation (open casket) and to the funeral. He has seemed to handle all of this very well. He is still very interested in playing with friends, watching TV, etc. He does not seem to be grieving. He has not cried - he had 1 tear when I told him. At first I thought he was in shock but now I am not so sure. What is a ""normal"" reaction for a child who has just lost a parent?"  

My son was 3 when we separated. My ex and I both remarried when my son was 4. They (my ex and his wife) did make every effort to make my son feel that he was part of their family and not an outsider. She had a son from a previous marriage who just turned 9. (My son will be 7 in November.) My ex and I lived in the same town up until a year ago when I moved with our son to another state. Until the move my son saw his father every other weekend. In between visits his father never called him but there were nights that my son would cry himself to sleep saying that he missed his dad. From what I understand, and this is just from what I have been told from my son, his dad didn't do a lot with him while he was visiting. My son spent most of his time playing with his stepbrother. Occasionally his dad would take them both fishing, boating, or to the beach. After we moved, I let my son call whenever he wanted to. My son went to visit last Thanksgiving and for 2 weeks at the beginning of August. His dad was is the Navy and went on deployment in January and returned at the end of June. 

He did not call very often during that time, maybe once a month. My son did notice that he did not call often and would get upset about it. He was originally supposed to go down and visit for 1 week this summer and called me while he was there and asked if he could stay another week. Before he went he was very excited about going. When he returned he was still very excited and told me everything he did while he was down there -- mostly trips to the YMCA during the day while his dad and stepmother worked.  

In summary my son loved his dad but his dad did not make a big effort to keep in contact with him other than what he was obligated to do. What really upset my son was when I told him that he would not be going to visit for Christmas or next summer. He got really mad and started yelling that it wasn't fair; that his stepbrother and stepmother were his family too. I explained to him that the visitation was with his dad not his stepmother and that I would keep in contact with his stepmother and try to make arrangements for the boys to visit each other. I also told him he can keep in contact with his stepbrother by writing and phone. He seemed to understand this but was not happy about it. I feel bad for him because not only did he lose his father but also his other family. 

I realize you must get a lot of e-mail and it must be very hard to respond to all of it. I do want to thank you for responding. I am very concerned about my son's lack of remorse and do appreciated any advice you can give me. 

Dr. Goss responds: 

It is very difficult for me to give you a specific response to your question without having the opportunity to interview your son, but I’ll give it a try. 

At age 7, boys are emotionally and intellectually very concrete---they are into rules and absolutes. Abstractions don’t mean much. 

It sounds to me as though your boy can comprehend and feel the loss of the visits, while the abstract notion that his dad is gone hasn’t quite hit home. In between visits his contact with his dad was sparse and indirect. Dad was somewhere "on the phone" who called only infrequently. Even now, his calls are hardly overdue. 

It may take a while before the reality of the loss sinks in. For the time being you can help him engage in the grieving process by talking about his dad and by encouraging him to remember and imagine by having him tell stories about and draw pictures of his dad. See what he comes up with. Explore with him his concepts of death and afterlife. Does he believe in heaven? Where does he think his dad is? 

He may express a lot of anger at his dad for leaving, or for messing up his visits to his second family. That’s OK---encourage him to let it out verbally or creatively. 

Don’t burden him with the facts about the suicide.  

There is no "normal" reaction to the loss of a parent. Any problematic response, however, will show itself in the form of disruption to his other activities. If you begin to notice changes in his personality, his friendships, his schoolwork, or in his relationship to you--- these might be cause to seek some counseling. At this point however, I’d advise you to just let nature take its course. As his mind matures, so will his ability to conceive of, and deal with, the abstract aspects of his father’s death. Actively invite him to explore and discuss his feelings with you. He’ll probably be just fine. 

Keep me posted, and feel free to write back with any further questions. If he has any questions for me, help him submit them. You’ve done a great job so far --- just keep up the good work


Andrea, a 47-year-old mom, writes: 

My son will be 13 in November. He is a wonderful, creative and for the most part enthusiastic child. He is also an only child. Lately he has been extremely disrespectful. Whenever I ask him to do something he answers back, always has an excuse for not doing it and in general is very unpleasant. My husband and I are at a loss. We seem to argue constantly about his poor attitude and smart answers. 

The other night when I asked him to do something, he gave me the usual attitude, so I told him to go to his room - more attitude, so I pushed him up the steps towards his bedroom. I admit I had lost control - and slapped him at which point he hit me back in defense. This was a situation where we both lost control. He was very emotional and started to cry. I grounded him for the week, but also told him how wrong his behavior was and that he should never under any circumstances strike his mother. Somehow, I don't think he gets it and feels that he was justified in what he did. 

I'm lost. Please help.


Dr. Goss Responds: 

Welcome to Teen Raising 101! Being disrespectful is fun at 13. It makes you feel in control and free. It’s cool! 

Unfortunately it isn’t right. Therefore it must stop. The easiest way to accomplish this task is to make sure that your son knows that from this point on, his fun, freedom and control in life will be contingent on respect. Make a list of the ten most important possessions and privileges he feels entitled to. Right now he has them for free! 

Tell him that in honor of his 13th birthday, you are going to begin treating him like an adult. Explain that adults don’t get anything for free. Every reward in life must be earned. While you appreciate all the good things he does, you have decided that his continued enjoyment of the ten possessions and privileges will be contingent on your enjoying his respect. 

Give it some thought. Get creative. You may decide, for example that his favorite possession is his skateboard and favorite privilege the right to listen to his CDs or earn an allowance. Explain that you have no interest at all in taking anything away from him, but that his future appreciation of these things will only be possible if you feel his respect on a day to day basis. Should you experience disrespect, you will have no option but to withdraw your consideration of his desires. The skateboard and music will disappear for an appropriate time, and will only be returned after you once again have felt appreciated for a few days or so. 

Be sure he understands this ahead of time, then stick to your guns. It’s not punishment, for you don’t expect him to fail. It’s just real life, where there’s no free lunch. He makes you happy---you make him happy! 

Always make sure that rewards and consequences have meaning to your kids! Being grounded may have no importance to him at all. Figure out the things that have clout and use them. Better yet, ask him what they are and demand that he be honest. Then reward honesty. 

Wish your boy a happy birthday for me, and keep me posted.


Wendy, a 32-year-old mom writes: 

Dear Dr. Goss, 

My 7-year-old son does not listen to anything we say. He is very bright, well mannered, and generally well behaved most of the time. It's just the little things. Every day we tell him not to jump on the furniture, he still does it every day. Every day we tell him not to throw rocks towards the road, every day he does it. Every day we tell him not to swing sticks around in the air, he has a 3-year-old brother that is always a step behind him, every day he still does it. I have had very serious talks with him and explained why we need him to listen to us about these things. He is very sincere and says that he tries hard to listen, he just forgets. My husband and I have tried taking away privileges, making him go to his room, and everything else we can think of. By the end of the week, we have lost our tempers and start the really loud yelling. This has both my husband and I very upset. We try very hard to be good parents and spend a lot of time with our kids. With the problems we are having with the listening, we don't want to do things together, it's not fun. What are we doing wrong? It seems the harder we try the worst it gets. And all of the yelling is having a terrible effect on all of us. We are all willing to do what ever it takes to make things right, we just don't know what we are doing or not doing. Your advice would be most appreciated. 

Dr. Goss responds: 

As is usually the case, your boy appears to be genuinely enjoying all of the behaviors that are driving you crazy. He’s having a lot of fun! You are pulling your hair out with frustration. 

Don’t waste your breath explaining WHY he should behave and WHY he needs to listen. He couldn’t care less. At that age you wouldn’t either. 

While you have tried a few punitive measures, it sounds like the VOLTAGE of your efforts is insufficient. Let me explain: 

All behaviors have pros and cons results. The difference between the positive and negative feelings one gets from the behaviors I call VOLTAGE. Jumping on furniture makes you tired ---that’s the negative. On the other hand it’s exciting and gets a rise out of mom and dad, and most importantly makes him feel in control --- that’s the positive. If the positive outweighs the negative the behavior is fun and it will occur again and again. 

To make a fun behavior stop you need to make some changes that insure that for your son, the behaviors will result in an overall negative VOLTAGE. Sit down with your husband and your kid and explain about the new strategy you’ve figured out to help him "remember" to behave better. 

From now on, the moment you observe him jumping or throwing you will firmly tell him to "stop!" (This is a COMMAND, and very different from a statement like "I thought I told you never to do that again…", which is an interesting comment on your own uncertainty but doesn’t actually mean anything.) 

He will then be escorted to a spot in the house where you can observe him and will then stand there for, say, 15 minutes of silent time out. Then after apologizing, he will take one dime from his $1.00 a week allowance and give it back to you. He will also lose ½ hour of TV that evening and go to bed ½ hour earlier.  

Make sure he understands all of this AHEAD of time. Expect him to test you a few times. Quietly but firmly stick to the program --- no exceptions. Don’t get loud, get persistent!  

If the behaviors continue, increase the negative voltage further, either by increasing the severity of the consequences for misbehavior or by adding some positives for alternative good behavior. Describe to him what the positives might be. Cleaning his room rather than throwing rocks not only burns up energy but might result in a special treat. 

Get creative and make sure that the consequences, both positive and negative, have clout, importance, with HIM. If he has a favorite toy or activity, make its availability contingent on behaving well, refraining from misbehavior and "remembering" to be good. 

When behaving is more fun than misbehaving, he’ll behave. Keep me posted.



Rachel, a 35-year-old mom, writes: 

Dear Dr. Goss, 

My daughter is 17 months old. We do not permit TV and there is no violence in the home. However, when I come home from work, she frequently hits me. She also hits our house cat. My husband is a stay-at-home dad, and she rarely hits him. The hitting usually occurs in the midst of our play, so I doubt she is trying to get attention. We NEVER hit her (or anyone else). Sometimes she seems angry when hitting, but sometimes she has a big grin on her face. Where is she getting this and what can we do to stop it?  

Dr. Goss responds: 

Hitting is FUN! It gets out a lot of energy and elicits a whole lot of reaction and attention. At 17 months it’s a pretty good overall tactic. Kids learn it all by themselves and don’t need models or TV. (Stop worrying about where it’s coming from). 

To stop it, make it less fun. Physically put a halt to the behavior when it starts, say "NO!" really loud and immediately issue a consequence, like standing in the corner for a few minutes. Make her say I’m sorry. Pay less attention to her during this time out and then after it’s over jump back into attending to good behavior. Have a few little talks about hurting people and things and make your feelings VERY clear. 

Then, be consistent with this approach, using it every time she acts up. The violence should stop altogether within a few days. If not, write back and we’ll fine-tune a plan for you.


Riza, a 27-year-old mother, writes: 

Dear Dr. Goss,  

I live in the Philippines and I have been separated for almost three years, and I have a 7-year-old son who I am fortunate to have custody of. I have been having trouble lately with discipline. My son often has things to pay for in school like class pictures, donations etc. He studies in an exclusive school for boys and they are not allowed to bring money to school except for things like this. Recently, there have been several incidents where my son keeps the money he is supposed to donate to charity (it is a Catholic school and they collect donations every Wednesday) and the latest incident involved a bigger amount. The teacher gave instructions to the parents to put the payment for their class pictures in an envelope with the child's name, indicating that this is in payment for the pictures. I sealed my son's envelope and I included a separate amount for his weekly donation, which I placed in his assignment notebook. Apparently, he pocketed the money for his weekly donation and proceeded to open the envelope to get money for the donation. Unfortunately, his classmates saw the money (which was in small bills) and they asked him for it and my son obligingly gave it to them, even the money he pocketed. I found out yesterday since he suddenly asked me for the payment for his class pictures again. I was angry because this has happened several times, although this last incident is the worst, and I want to ask you - how do I deal with this? How do I teach him the value of money, and how do I teach him to be truthful when it comes to money matters, and not get the money intended for other things? I am worried that he is becoming money-oriented. How do I discipline him? 

Then there's another issue I'm facing. My son and I live with my parents, and he is their only grandchild as yet and they spoil him, as is the case with my two sisters and only brother. It is difficult to scold him or to discipline him with all these people giving him sympathetic hugs and giving me long faces *grins* Anyway, my brother is 18, and is fond of renting out R-rated tapes. I found my son watching an R-rated tape one morning, when I thought he was watching a cartoon tape (he knows how to operate the VCR). I know it was my brother's fault and all of us adults - we should have made sure that such things were beyond the child's reach. My brother left in it in the VCR and my son found it. Anyway, my next question is, how do I discuss these things with him, like awareness about nudity, etc as he is growing up. How do I deal with increasing awareness about sex and the opposite sex? Thank you in advance for the advice you can give me. 

Dr. Goss responds: 

Let’s make this short and simple. Your seven-year-old son already knows the value of money, (it can buy neat stuff and impress his friends). He is indeed money-oriented, (kids normally get really into it at this age). All perfectly fine. 

Your problem is the stealing.  

Kid’s steal because it is inherently rewarding to do so if there are no consequences. Kid logic says: 

"If I steal, I’ve got money. If I don’t, I don’t have money."  

The solution is to change the equation. Give your son an allowance of several dollars each week for being honest and fair. Explain to him ahead of time that the consequence for being dishonest and for stealing (unfair) will be to lose twice the amount he steals in allowance and to have to give it back and to have to apologize to the intended recipient of the money, (as well as for you to be disappointed and for him to feel ashamed. This will force his kid logic to become: 

"If I’m honest, I’ve got money. If I steal, I don’t have money and I’ll be embarrassed and ashamed."  

This way, you change the contingencies to approximate the way the real world works. It will no longer be worth it to steal. Crime doesn’t pay. 

Regarding the R-rated tapes, just tell your son the truth: 

"I know that these tapes seem interesting but they are for adults, not children." If he has questions about sex, answer them honestly, with your own beliefs in mind. Trust yourself and your own feelings about appropriateness. You’ll never be sure of "what’s right" but you’ll always know what feels appropriate or not appropriate. The fact that you are concerned enough to write tells me that your instincts are on target. 

Keep me posted on both issues.


Kevin, a 33 year old single dad, writes:

Dear Dr. Goss,  

I am now living with my fiancée and raising an 11-month-old boy (Michael). For the past few months, after he stopped breast-feeding, my fiancée has been comforting him at night when he cries by bringing him in bed with us to sleep every night. Is this right? How will this affect his development? Could this make him too dependent on his mother? Her professor for a child development course told her he will sleep alone when he is ready and feels secure he needs to be comforted. What level of comfort is too much? 

Dr. Goss responds: 

Dear Kevin, 

You didn’t specify how often or frequently this occurs, or how long Michael stays with you, but generally speaking, at 11 months I see no problem with providing this kind of comforting. I would advise, however, that once he falls back asleep, you return him promptly to his crib. This will insure that he gets used to waking up in his own bed. 

Kids this age are dependent and will be for a while (a long while). During the next six months or so, I’d expect the frequency of this behavior to gradually decrease or taper off. If it doesn’t, or it seems to be getting more frequent, write back. In the meantime, rest up whenever you can!


Karen, a 48-year-old woman writes:

Dear Dr. Goss,  

Recently J, (my boyfriend) was invited to a special family reunion out of town and wanted to take his oldest child, (girl aged 12) with him to visit his cousins’ family who he had not seen for a good while. He is divorced, but has maintained an extremely close relationship with his children – and after having talked to his daughter who agreed, and he bought airline tickets, she waited a long while, then wrote him a letter saying that she was scared to go. She is not scared of flying as she has accompanied her mother many times to California, and though she had some fearful tendencies as a young child, does not seem scared of much of anything. She kept repeating that she doesn't know these people (and it is true that J's ex wife had discouraged contact with his family and encouraged contact with hers during their marriage), and that she would only go if he bought tickets for the other two children also. He was willing to do this even though his financial situation is appalling, but it didn't work out because the ex-wife felt like he didn't give her enough notice - even though she had known the girl was nervous about going and had not communicated this to him before he bought the tickets. 

Should a 12-year-old child (almost 13) be allowed to back out of a situation like this because she says she is scared? He is afraid that this is a really bad precedent and is seeing a counselor with the daughter because they had a fight over it - but it appears she has gotten her way and feels confident now that she doesn't have to do anything against her will. This is a very normal, bright child, who does not appear excessively fearful to me.

Dr. Goss responds: 

Dear Karen,  

You describe a difficult and common situation. It involves the dichotomy that arises between trying to understand a child’s feelings while worrying about their behavior. 

In this case, J’s daughter agreed to go on the trip, then wanted out of the deal because of her reluctance to be around strangers. If you make her go you risk making her uncomfortable and angry. If you don’t you risk rewarding a fear and teaching her that it is OK to renege on an agreement. 

Given the choice, I would recommend the following: 

  1. Discuss the fear and explore its roots. Talk about stranger anxiety as being normal and understandable. Talk about ways to beat the fear. (See my Psychiatric Q&A Page for a discussion of this).
  2. After discussion, insist that she go while understanding and apologizing for her discomfort ---"I know you feel weird and I’m sorry that you do but I want you to go anyway – I’ll help you deal with your feelings when we get there…"

Handling it this way encourages discussion, confronts her fear, teaches her a lesson about stranger anxiety, develops a social skill, and will probably result in a good experience and a better relationship with he relatives.  

I doubt any great harm has been done, but I’d rather see you guys work this out without a therapist. She did get her way, she avoided a problem and needs to understand that in the future you will help her deal with, rather than avoid, her feelings. 

Let me know how this works out. If J’s daughter is interested, have her write in on her own.


Sarah, a 38 year old divorced mother of two writes:

Dear Dr. Goss,

I'll try to make this as brief as possible, but it is a rather long story. My husband and I divorced in 1996. Due to certain circumstances, I had to move across the country. My ex-husband, (Gary) and I have joint custody with he being the parental caregiver. For the most part the kids are with him during the school year and with me the rest of the time. At the time of the divorce, (which by the way, was not a bitter divorce, he and I remain friends) we gave the boys, (Derrick 14, and Mitch 8) the choice of who they wanted to live with full time. Understandably they chose not to move away from their hometown, not to give up their friends, schools, etc. The boys come and see me often, I go see them, we write, and we communicated almost daily on the phone. It's not been easy by any stretch of the imagination, but it has been working. But now Derrick, my oldest, is having a very difficult time. He used to be a straight A student, athletic and popular. Since entering middle school things have changed drastically. He's gotten into the wrong crowd, become very disrespectful to his father, his teachers. He's quit sports, and his grades are barely passing. Derrick has also gotten into drugs, marijuana that we know of for sure, and although I pray nothing else, but I can't be certain. Derrick has been ticketed by the police, (they don't arrest teenagers for possession, unless they've been ticketed 4 times in a 12 month period) and has been ordered to pay fines and do community service which he's been able to do by working at his fathers business. Needless to say, his father was at the end of his rope, and has just recently begun going to Tough Love classes. Also, recently Gary called the police himself on Derrick when he found marijuana in his room. I don't disagree with these classes, I do believe that they are helping Derrick's father to cope, but I wonder how much they're helping Derrick? Dr. Goss, underneath it all, Derrick is a wonderful young man, he's so bright and full of great potential. He does know that he's caused this trouble himself, and I believe he's looking for a way out of it, but he simply doesn't know where to turn. His father has little tolerance for him now, in fact, his father hardly even speaks to him unless it's to make demands or dish out punishment. Don't get me wrong, he loves his children, and believes that he's doing the right thing. But upon talking to Derrick in a long tearful conversation last night, Derrick believes that his father hates him and that he only has time for the new woman who's entered his life. Derrick says that his dad only speaks to him with contempt, he doesn't understand how his father could have called the police on his own son, and in general is a very stressed child. He spoke last night of wanting to get into basketball at school, but was afraid to try it because he's only played football and baseball, doesn't know the rules, positions etc., and won't ask his dad for help. He complained last night of having no friends, that nobody likes him anymore, and that he's having trouble controlling his anger over the whole thing. Gary refuses to now let Derrick work for him to pay upcoming fines, instead he's telling Derrick that he has to sell his TV, Sega, bike, etc., to get the money. Derrick knows that he can come and live with me at any given moment, but he's not ready to do that, nor do I know that's the answer. My question is so simple, yet so complex, how can I help Derrick? He does see a counselor on a regular basis, but I need to be able to help my child in any way that I can, and right now, I'm simply at a loss. Derrick will be here a week from today, and I need to find ways to encourage him, to support him, to help him. Today is Derrick's 14th birthday, and I can't think of a better gift for him. Thank you in advance for any help or advice you can offer.

Dr. Goss responds:

Dear Sarah,

The way I see it, you have two issues to contend with in helping your son. First and foremost, you’ve got to work with your ex to put an immediate stop to Derrick’s irresponsible and self-destructive behaviors. Tough Love is an OK program for dealing with this, and from your description, it appears to be working.

The second issue has to do with rebuilding and then maintaining a positive relationship with him---a tough thing to do when you’re being tough. Parent, (dads especially), have trouble with this.

The work is complicated in your case by the physical distance from, but simplified by your friendship with Gary.  

First, make sure that you and your ex discuss every aspect of this plan, and have frequent---like daily conversations about your mutual progress.

Derrick has to know that he is being punished for his transgressions, but also that there is hope---that there are some rewards on the horizons for cleaning up his act. The conditions for the rewards, (such as a lessening of the punishment, help with the fines, getting back some stuff, etc.) should be contingent on the other mandatory improvements, like in grades, attitude, school activities and so forth. Think of it as a balance of positives and negatives rather than just punishment alone. You know when the balance is right because the behavior improves—but so does morale. The balance may require frequent adjustment, and you and Gary need to be in sync about it. He must implement it; you must support it.

Simultaneously, you need to both engage the second issue: rebuilding communication, trust and self-esteem. I have no idea what the counselor is doing. Find out. My guess would be that Derrick has a shaky identity, (like most teens), poor self-confidence and craves attention. He’s trying all sorts of stuff out and most of it has gotten him into trouble, undermining him even more. You and Gary need to be verbally supportive and accessible to Derrick. This will probably prove to be your forte’ but you have to be supportive of Derrick while at the same time being supportive of Gary’s disciplinary efforts. Try to understand Derrick’s feelings and validate them, while simultaneously supporting only the behaviors that you find acceptable. I'd suggest that you get Derrick’s feedback about his therapy. If he thinks it’s a waste, it probably is. I much prefer family therapy in families such as yours. Talk to Derrick (and Mitch, too) daily. See my Couples Page for tips on communicating without arguing. 

You sound like a great mom. As soon as you can move back east (or west). Your task will be made easier by doing so. Say happy birthday to Derrick for me and invite him to write in. 

Keep me posted.


Dolores M, a 39 year old mother of two teens, writes:

Dear Dr. Goss,

My 16 year old son has always been a good student and well-behaved, until about the beginning of this year. Now he wants to get his driver's permit and buy a car, and these interests seem to be taking all his time. He's reading car magazines and neglecting his schoolwork except for driver's ed. He's saved up enough money to buy an old, junked car, which he intends to fix up. I'm afraid that once he gets involved in this project his grades will deteriorate even more. I've threatened to take away the magazines but he says he's old enough to drive and intends to buy the car anyway. "It's my money!", he insists. ( He's right - he did earn it ). Any advice?

Dr. Goss responds:

Dear Dolores,

You want a responsible kid. He wants the magazines and the license to drive.

Tell your son that you don't want to take anything away. Tell him that you appreciate that he earned the money. But also tell him that the ONLY way he's going to earn the continued possession of the magazines and the right to own a car and drive it is by pleasing you with good grades and responsible behavior.

You are under no obligation to grant him such freedom and control over his life without getting his cooperation in return.

He believes that pleasing you has NOTHING to do with what he wants. He believes he is already endowed with the right to a car and to pursue his interests to the exclusion of his schoolwork. These beliefs are convincing, but false.

Your primary responsibility is to raise a responsible kid. You can motivate him to this end with the reward that he holds most dear. If you make it clear to him that there will be no "free lunch" and that pleasing you is the ESSENTIAL pre-requisite to the privilege of driving he will act in such a way to earn that reward.

A car is a big goodie. Use it!


Heather, a 34-year-old mom writes:

I have 2 children. A daughter(4) and a son (23 months). We are having a really hard time with my daughter right now in that her behavior is really getting out of hand. She has fits of anger where she will bite us or kick and hit us (us being my husband and I). She hits her little brother, but has not bitten him yet. The anger can be prompted by the simplest thing, such as us telling her it is time to turn the TV. off for dinner. We have tried time out, taking things away from her, denying privileges as well as a number of other ideas I have read about or heard from friends. We are at wits end and are looking for any new suggestions. She is a very intelligent little girl and can be really sweet. I love her to bits, but I have to admit that there have been many times lately when I don't like her very much. I know that sounds terrible, but she is not easy to live with these days.

Dr. Goss responds:

Your daughter needs to know two things:

  1. That there are good ways to express her anger and frustration and that these ways will be rewarded.
  2. That there are bad ways and engaging in these will cost her dearly.

You husband and you might sit her down and tell her what you do want her to do. At age four she can talk about her anger, draw an angry picture or take her frustration out on a pillow or a punching bag. But-she may not hurt anyone.

You know what she likes – tell her ahead of time that doing the good things will result in some great stuff, ( staying up later for a night, a longer story, whatever).

But also let her know that hurting others will result in her getting hurt – by having privileges taken away or by your rewarding the one(s) she hurts instead. If she knows that you will respond to an attack on your son by taking attention away from her and lavishing it on him, instead, then you’ll have set up contingencies with clout.

Let her know ahead of time what the plan is. This is key. Then follow though if you have to ( and you will – at least once.) Prove you mean business with absolute consistency. If the aggression continues increase the magnitude of both the rewards and negative consequences.

Nipping this in the bud now is a lot easier than doing it later, when she has bigger teeth. If you follow through you will solve this problem quickly and permanently. Write back if you have any trouble.


L. a 51 year old mom, writes:

Dear Dr, Goss:

I have a 16-year-old daughter who is a basically good kid. She makes good grades in school and has lots of friends. She is a warm, friendly member of our family. I am not worried that she has any deep problem other than the usual teenage challenges. This child really wants her tongue pierced. She has researched it thoroughly. She has tons of info that says it is safe. 

I went with her a few days ago when a friend had her tongue done. I admit that things looked well done. The piercer had his own autoclave and handled the instruments like a surgeon. He said he has been doing this procedure for 10 years with no complications.

Now my questions. First, IS it as safe as this gentleman says? Any infection or nerve damage problems? I also thought that if the person choose to let it 'grow over' would that actually happen or is the 14G needle too large and the hole would remain forever? Seems like a place food would pocket. 

The second question, separate from the safety issue, is this: is this a form of self-mutilation that I should worry about and just not permit in this underage child? She does seem well adjusted.

I don't want to say NO just cause I have the power to do so. I do not like the look of this piercing and think it has a nasty connotation. But I want her to develop into who she really is, not a younger version of who I am. But I do want to stop her from doing something just inherently wrong. 

I will anxiously await your answer.

Really confused, concerned mom

Dr. Goss Responds:

Dear L.,

I am not a surgeon, but based on my medical school experiences and what I have read about tongue piercing, it probably won't do any lasting physical damage, although the risks of infection, scarring and impairment of speech and gustation are possible. Is it "wrong"? Probably not.

If I was going to get my tongue pierced myself, I'd go to a board certified oro-facial surgeon, get his opinion and then, if he or she thought it safe, have it done as a real medical procedure. We're talking about surgery on a rather important, functional, muscular organ here, not an ear lobe!

As a psychiatrist, I'd rather approach your question from a different angle. You are a mom. Your daughter is a minor. You are responsible for her. You are uncomfortable with this idea. You've been around a bit longer.

Frankly, I trust your judgement, motivation and insight on this issue more than hers. Do you?

Praise your daughter for her accomplishments, maturity and honesty. Express your admiration for her grades, choice of friends and overall goodness. Validate her feelings. Tell her you really understand her desire for this procedure and appreciate that her feelings are real and true and valuable. Explore her motivations. Share your insights.

But also tell her that you disagree with her on this one decision, and that because you are her parent and still responsible for supervising her choices, you have chosen to postpone the piercing until she is an adult and can bear the full responsibility for it. Tell her you're sorry to disappoint her. Tell her you understand her frustration.

Parenting is tough. Sometimes choices aren't clear. As a general rule, however, I'd recommend you trust your instincts and act on them. Invite your daughter to write if she would like.

Follow up:

Dear Dr G.:
Thank you SO much for your almost immediate reply to my letter.
You addressed every aspect of my question and I appreciate that very much.I have a friend who is an oral surgeon and I will speak to him for more hard evidence to justify my disapproval of this procedure. I will ,
also, have (my daughter) read your letter. You have been a very big help to me in this matter. I very much
respect your opinion and thank you again for addressing all my seperate issues.



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Copyright 1997 Graydon G. Goss, MD
Last revised: March 28, 2015.