Q: I am extremely worried about my 4-year-old daughter. There are so many behavioral problems with her and I am so scared that she is not normal.
She is like two different people--sweet, loving and good and then, within a minute, angry, even evil. These outbursts usually occur after something happens that she doesn't like.
She always pouts or cries when I drop her off at preschool but the teachers say she comes around quickly and is good for the rest of the day. Something seems to upset her almost as soon as we get home, however, and then she has a nasty attitude.
Maybe I'm so worried because I work with at-risk teenagers as a psychiatric nurse and I see what might happen. I could have her evaluated by a psychiatrist, but I dread the psychotropic medications, special services and weekly doctor visits.
I feel like an awful mother becaue I can't stand my little girl's behavior and I can't find a way to help her.
A: You may need to take your daughter to a psychiatrist one day, but there are many other things to try first.
When a child acts up and acts out--seriously and regularly--ask yourself, "Does this make sense?"
A child--especially a sensitive child--is like a lightning rod. If something bad is going on in the family, your daughter's behavior may simply be reflecting it. Is your marriage in trouble? Are you very worried about money? Could there be a crisis or chronic stress at home? If so, you and your husband may need some counseling.
Your daughter may also be reacting to some simpler signals you or your husband are sending. Do you look happy to see her? Do you each give her some undivided attention every day, talking about the things she wants to talk about and playing the games she wants to play? If not, you may need a good parenting course.
And finally ask yourself, "Does my child feel well?" When one inspired doctor asked his difficult young patient if her head hurt she said, "Aren't heads supposed to hurt?" Children think that their aches and their feelings are normal, so it will take some thoughtful questions to find out if she has a minor, chronic problem that could cause these wild mood swings.
She may have enough willpower to hold herself together until she's at home or she may be misbehaving at home because she's reacting to something, maybe an inhalant. To test this possibility, quit using cologne for awhile; remove any air fresheners and potpourri in the car and throw away the perfumed disinfectants, dryer sheets and laundry soap at home. Synthetic smells can have a disastrous effect on the central nervous system of some children.
Chemical sensitivities was one possibility doctors and scientists discussed last week when Georgetown University Hospital and the International Health Foundation sponsored a conference in Washington, D.C., on the possible causes of Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and other behavioral problems--from diet to chemicals to pesticides to nutritional deficiencies.
The connection between diet and behavior came up repeatedly and it's the first one you should check. The Center for Science in the Public Interest reviewed 23 major studies on the effects of foods, dyes and preservatives on a child's behavior and found that 17 of the studies proved that they really did have a bad effect on many youngsters. For a copy of the report, send $8 to CSPI, 1875 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington D.C. 20009, or $1.50 for their brochure "A Parent's Guide to Diet, ADHD & Behavior."
To learn more about food reactions, contact the Food Allergy Network, 800-929-4040, and the Feingold Assn., 800-321-3287; for information on diet/environmental management, call Hyperactivity Helpline Inc., 410-757-5215, and for an overview on all sensitivities, read "Is This Your Child?" (Morrow, $13), by Doris Rapp, and "Why Can't My Child Behave?" (Pear Tree, $24), by Jane Hersey.
Questions may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org or to Box 15310, Washington, D.C. 20003.