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Divorce, Pacifiers, and Potty Accidents

QUESTION: My granddaughter, age four, has only just given up her pacifiers. At first she seemed fine about it, but now she has started having daily accidents. The first few times she wet her pants it didn't seem like a big problem. Now she has also had a bowel movement in her pants, and I'm worrying. There is additional turmoil in her life, as her mother (my daughter) is getting a divorce and has been instructed to limit her daughter's visitations with her spouse (who is not my granddaughter's father). They have been separated for more than a year, so the separation is nothing new. Do you think my granddaughter could be aware of the issues with her stepfather, or do you think it is more likely related to the loss of the pacifiers? What can we do to help her?

ANSWER: Your four-year-old granddaughter is no doubt experiencing renewed stress that has arisen between her stepfather and mother, even though they have been separated for a year. Regression during times of stress (in this case, changes in visitation) is predictable, and your granddaughter is likely having potty accidents now because she lost a major means of self-soothing when she gave up her pacifiers.

That doesn't mean that removing the pacifiers caused the potty accidents; rather, it's likely that sucking on a pacifier was the method this little girl developed to cope with feelings of insecurity when she felt emotionally threatened. Although returning the pacifier to her may help her cope at this time, it is also possible that more than this is needed to help her feel truly secure. The degree to which she regresses in her potty use may be an indication that her reliance on the pacifier covered up her emotional distress, rather than addressing it.

By all means reconsider whether it is necessary for her to give up her pacifiers, and whether she is doing it out of a sense of pressure to please others rather than a true readiness on her part. Perhaps she can keep just one favorite pacifier to use at home, when she needs it! This would allow her to gradually let go of the pacifiers, easing her way into relinquishing these self-soothing objects while finding other ways to cope. A new transitional object, such as a cuddly bear or doll, could also help.

When there is tension between adults during a divorce, children can experience feelings of disloyalty to one parent or the other, and so it is often important to designate a neutral adult to whom the child can talk and express feelings that might be frightening or seem "bad." If she is not talking about the changes in her life, she may appear to be more adjusted to the situation than is the reality. Giving up her pacifiers may have brought to the surface deeper needs that she has not been able to verbalize. Questions such as "Why can't I see my `daddy' more?" need to be asked, and answered. And she needs to be reassured that her relationships with adults are secure, despite changes and strife. Relying on adults for comfort and for safely expressing concerns and fears will eventually allow her to surrender the pacifiers as a major source of security.

Grandparents can play the part of a neutral party, if they are able to simply reflect the child's feelings, rather than communicate any pressure to "take sides." If a neutral adult is not available, a child therapist often fills this role, helping a young child play out her fears and concerns with toys or dolls who may act out the child's experiences. Playing and talking provide avenues of emotional release through this transition, which can help a child adjust to changes in visitation schedules, or gain reassurance that she does not have to choose between parent figures, but can love and receive love from them both.

Children of this age benefit from talking about divorce, rather than avoiding it. And be aware that although your granddaughter may understand the meaning of divorce now, she will later have new questions as she grows that will need to be answered in context of her new level of development. For example, understanding the differences between a stepfather and father may not be important to her at this time, but she may have greater understanding of these differences later, and new questions to ask about her situation.

Make it safe for your grandchild to bring up these topics now and in the years ahead. Be willing and ready to continue to process these family events throughout childhood at the level of your grandchild's understanding. Sometimes it is the child's changes that precipitate a new level of insecurity, even though other things seem to remain constant.

The book Dinosaurs Divorce: A Guide for Changing Families, by Marc Brown and Laurence Brown, is an excellent resource to help children of this age begin to verbalize their fears and hopefully let the adults in on what they need, in order to feel secure through this process. For more tips, read my earlier column "Helping Grandchildren Going Through Divorce."


Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter.

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