- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 25, 2006

Our 5-year-old son has been increasingly picky about his clothing over the past year. He complains often about his clothes itching and not fitting properly. As a result, he usually goes through three or four outfits in the morning before he finds one that feels comfortable.

Meanwhile, we become exasperated while trying to help him and get him to hurry. Friends say he’s just manipulating us, but the problem seems to bother him, too. He has started asking questions like, “Why do I worry about my clothes?” We don’t know what to say or do, and we’re worried about the effect this is having on his self-esteem. Any suggestions?

A: I agree that he isn’t manipulating you. He’s confused and feels as helpless as you do. In fact, your confusion is part of the problem. By worrying about what his itchiness means and engaging in exasperated efforts to get him going in the morning, you have paralyzed your ability to act. In all likelihood, there’s a part of you that says, “This is happening because of some shortcoming on my part.” Your feelings of inadequacy are driving anxious, unproductive responses. In addition, your insecurities are causing him to feel increasingly isolated and helpless.

You first must accept that only he can solve the problem. You can’t solve it for him, but you can manage him toward solving it for himself.

To accomplish that, stop dwelling on abstractions such as “Why is this happening?” and “What does it mean?” and begin dealing with concrete, present-tense realities. You also must disengage from the problem — step outside of it. Stop trying to talk and struggle him out of his itchiness and give the problem back to him.

To be an effective manager, redefine the problem in more positive, encouraging terms. Say, “When I was your age, I worried about things like this. At one time or another, almost all children worry a lot about something. All it takes is time. My worrying went away, and so will yours.”

As you begin to remove yourself from the issue, hand over the problem to him in a relaxed, non-punitive way that says, in effect, “You’re OK. I love you, and I know you can come to grips with this on your own.”

Then, manage. Make a rule that he can’t come out of his room in the morning until he has selected and put on an outfit. Tell him he is old enough to make this decision on his own and you aren’t going to help.

When he gets up, set a timer to go off in 15 minutes. Call this the “time-to-get-a-move-on bell.” When it rings, set it to go off again in another 10 minutes. The rule is he must have made his final selection and be completely dressed by the second bell. If he isn’t, he has to go to bed one hour early that evening because, “You’re too tired to make a quick decision, so you need more sleep.”

This amounts to a non-punitive, managerial manner of resolving the problem. It deals with the concrete rather than the abstract and is a means of empowering your son to take creative control of his problem and solve it.

Family psychologist John Rosemond answers parents’ questions on his Web site (www.rosemond.com).

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