Discipline 4 year old - father dying - she's acting out - what do I do? - Mothering Forums

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Old 09-10-2008, 03:23 AM - Thread Starter
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My husband has had cancer since my daughter was an infant. The last year has been very hard on us. First, they put him on steroids which had changed his personality and he had anger issues. Then, he's been in hospitals, with a very brief time home, for the last 4 months. We go to visit him often at the hospital.

It has been almost impossible to keep any routine with her. We eat on the run. Today was the first night I actually was able to cook and eat dinner with her in months. I have so much to do that I put her in preschool so I'd have time to do this and see him.

She does not like to visit her father for very long. He is confined to bed and out of it. He cannot really respond to her. He has terminal cancer.

I am stressed out often and this is hard to deal with alone. Lately, she seems to be all over the place -- not concentrating. It takes hours for her to eat. She defies me. She does not want to eat faster. She refuses to get dressed in the morning. She refuses to brush her hair or to wash her hands after going to the bathroom. I find myself yelling at time and I don't want to do this. It does not work either. She just wants to play.

The most disturbing thing is when she gets out of her seat belt. She refuses to keep it buckled or to even buckle it in the first place. I asked her why -- she does not know why she is acting this way. I pull over and wait for her -- it seems to be a power struggle thing.

I know she is upset about her father. We did not even get to go to the beach once this summer due to me needing to be there for my husband.

She is angry, her schedule is off track, her foods are not great...

How can I speed her up and keep her in her seat? It is so dangerous when she stands up in the car -- until I can pull over.

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Old 09-10-2008, 03:50 AM
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I wish I had answers, what a difficult situation this has to be for all three of you. My heart and best wishes go to you guys, I hope someone can help you here with some understanding and practical ideas.
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Old 09-10-2008, 04:37 AM
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It sounds like shes trying to process whats happening to her father. Testing boundries "defying" danger all of it sounds very typical for a person starting a grief process. Try to be patient with her and with your self do you have any support system? extended family? DO you cosleep with her?


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Old 09-10-2008, 05:49 AM
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didn't want to read and not post.

much strength to you and your family during this very difficult time.
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Old 09-10-2008, 10:56 AM
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I am so sorry you and your family is going through this. Hugs to you.

I really don't think I'm in a great position to advise. I think this must be one of those times of life where it really is just about making it through. But reading your post this is what came to mind:

- can you create routine in some of the chaos? For example, when you take your daughter to the hospital can you have a little 'entry routine' where you spread out a blanket, or sing a song/say a prayer, or have a particular, special snack? A "food on the run" routine? Special music in the car? I don't think kids always need every day the same, but it may help to have each element of a day have some sameness. If that makes sense.

- In the morning, can you create ten minutes of play with you early (with timer) so that her need to connect through play is met? You probably have no time to read but from my reading of Playful Parenting I am guessing that her need to play is coming from a deep-seated need to process her experience and establish some control. Giving her that space up front in a structured way might help.

- I think you are handling the carseat perfectly. I'm guessing that in your daughter's mind the car is the enemy right now, and I don't know how I would handle it other than how you are, except I might say "too bad for my ideals" on this one and resort to a bribe in this case, like if she stays in her buckled seat all week she gets a toy at the end. Or special time together.

- I was so sad to read about the trips to the beach. I have not been in your shoes and can't imagine how you make these kinds of decisions. I did wonder regardless whether it would be possible to take a day away from the hospital, perhaps with another family member going in your place, now and then - not just for your daughter but for you too.

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Old 09-10-2008, 04:19 PM
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You are dealing with a lot and so is she.
My oldest DD had cancer a year ago and it was so hard. DD#2,who was 4 at the time, in many ways had it the hardest, not eating properly no schedule, different caretakers. Grandma came to help but I was spending most of my time in the hosp with DD#1, so DD#2 and DS did not get the care they were use to.
Perhaps you can try to give your DD as much choice as possible. She can choose what or where to eat, clothes to wear etc. It really helped my kids to make something special for DD it made them feel included and that they were doing something. Hospitals are stressful places and your DD is probably associating the hospital with "making" people sick rather than some where sick people go. It is a very difficult concept for small kids.
Generally there are social workers at the hospitals that may have some better more direct advice to give.

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Old 09-10-2008, 04:19 PM
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I'm so sorry for what you are going through.

Is the hospital able to offer any support for you? Is there a group you can join and/or a group she can join? You are doing so much and giving so much to everyone, are you able to do anything for you?

Since you are at the hospital so much, I would see if they have a social worker or counselor or some kind of group or program for your DD. Perhaps you could schedule visits so she goes to the group and you are with DH?

I will also tell you that we went through very similar rage and defiance incidents from age 3.5 to 5 with nothing unusual going on in our lives. The same thing with the car, although she was on steroids at that point and refusing to get dressed. It was only a few incidents with the car and I attribute it to the steroids - but I KNOW - it's horrible. Some part of what you are going through is just the tough age or 3.5-4.5. When we got close to 5 and were still having tantrums and rage incidents I got some sensory therapy. Whether it worked or she grew out of it, I don't know but it's much better now.

Please do 1 thing just for you today, even if it's a drive-through latte or a hot bath while DD watches a cartoon!

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Old 09-10-2008, 04:43 PM
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I'm so sorry you and DD are going through this.

See what kind of resources are available for your DD in terms of counseling. Remember that this is hard for YOU, an adult, can you imagine what all this must be like to a little kid?

I'd try to ride out the tantrums, let her go out with unbrushed hair, dress her yourself if she refuses to dress herself (or even let her go out in pajamas, or the clothes she wore yesterday and slept in...) basically, choose your battles. The seatbelt is a safety issue; everything else is not. Even washing her hands after using the bathroom is more about "establishing healthy habits" than any real threat to her health from germs that came from her own body.

She may be more receptive to following seatbelt rules if she's not constantly fighting with you over washing and brushing and dressing. At the very least, you'll feel less burnt out by fighting with her about less stuff!

I'm glad to hear that she's in preschool. It's one of the things I was going to suggest- it might mean a little more confusion as she adapts to the school routine, but in the long run it will provide more stability. School will stay the same no matter how long Daddy's in the hospital. School will be the same if Daddy dies. School will be the same if he makes a miraculous recovery and is able to come home.

School is the most stable thing in her life right now, even if she's only gone for 2 weeks so far and it still feels new to her (which can temporarily cause more problems as she adjusts to this new part of her daily routine.)

Ruth, single mommy to Leah, 19, Hannah, 18 (commuting to college), and Jack, 13(homeschooled)
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Old 09-10-2008, 05:18 PM
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I just couldn't read and not post. I'm so sorry that you all are going through this.

I think that you need to be kind and patient with yourself as well as your DD. You are under so much pressure. I was my Grandmother's primary caregiver when she had terminal cancer. I can't imagine doing it with a young child.

I agree with letting her have a little more control. Pick out 2 outfits in the morning and let her pick which one she wants to wear. Give her choices about where you eat. It may not fix the problem, but it might make her feel a little more secure.
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Old 09-10-2008, 05:32 PM
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Hospitals have social workers who are great at finding resources/helping you navigate things.

Is she in any sort of counseling? Are you? I would definitely start that NOW. I know there are a couple of organizations in our area that have grief groups for children - children who've lost parents, children who've lost siblings, etc. I would ask the hospital social worker for some referrals and whether there are any groups like this around. You, too, need a place where you can grieve, talk about how you're feeling, your issues with dd, etc.

In addition to trying to create some routines, it might help her to have a daily schedule so she knows what's coming. With everything in turmoil right now, knowing what's coming up would be really helpful. You can do a picture schedule for her - a picture of preschool, a picture of the grocery store or whatever for errands to run, a picture of the hospital. Even if the exact times are not on there, the ORDER is, which might help her feel more in control.

Don't feel guilty about preschool - this may well be a haven of predictability for her at a time when she really needs it.

Finally, is there any way you can carve out 30 minutes every day where she directs the play/interaction? I find that those 30 minutes really help my kids stay connected, and we don't have anything major going on in our lives right now.

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Old 09-10-2008, 06:25 PM
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I'm so sorry that your family is going through this. I just can't imagine what it must be like.

I also agree with Ellien C. A lot of what you're dealing with is typical of 4 year olds who aren't struggling with lack of routine and a terminally ill parent. In an odd sort of way, I think you can feel good about having what sounds like a pretty normal kid despite somewhat abnormal circumstances. Don't be too hard on yourself.

There's been lots of great advice posted. I don't know that I have anything to add. But like others, I couldn't read and not respond.

Julie - Mom to Elizabeth (Libby) age 6, Penelope (Penny) age 5, Elliott age 29 months, and Oscar who is 1 year old!
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Old 09-10-2008, 06:33 PM
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I'm usually a lurker, but your post just broke my heart. My son has a bone marrow disorder, and we're in an out of the hospital all of the time. I don't have other children, so I can't say I completely understand what you're going through. I do know that its exhausting, and its hard to schedule time for self care when you have some one to care for. I just wanted to mention that there is a family I see a lot with older kids, and I've noticed that they create routine where there is none and the say the routine out loud every time they do it. They walk into the room and say to their other kids, "now we wash our hands." "Its 6:30, now we eat dinner." It seems to help.

I'll keep you in my thoughts!
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Old 09-11-2008, 11:14 AM
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I am so sorry for what you are going through. . I also agree with what others had to say about creating some small amount of sameness for your little one. I wish you much peace in the midst of this trying time.

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Old 09-11-2008, 12:22 PM
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I am so sorry that your family has to go through this.

Does a social worker at the hospital or a teacher at the preschool have a lit of counselors who work with young children? Play therapy might be just the place for your little one to express what she is feeling and have some extra support living through this time.
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Old 09-11-2008, 12:37 PM
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I can't even imagine what this must be like for you and your family. My heart goes out to you.

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Old 09-11-2008, 02:54 PM
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I think you've received a lot of great advice. You and your family are in my prayers.

My RA when I was a Freshman in college was studying Art Therapy. No idea if that interests you, but you might want to ask the school or hospital if they work with any.

Mom to DS(8), DS(6), DD(4), and DS(1).  "Kids do as well as they can."

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Old 09-11-2008, 03:37 PM
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I am so sorry that you are going through such a terrible time, and so sorry for your daughter, and just so broken up after reading about this. Honestly, it sounds to me like your daughter feels like there are too many things in her life that are out of control. She's probably scared. So she's looking to exert control in whatever small ways she can, to feel like she "owns" something in her life. So I agree with the PP-- choose your battles. Let her control anything and everything that you reasonably can, and give her plenty of choices when it's possible. Be gentle but firm about the things that are true safety issues. Try talking to her about her feelings a bit-- she probably has a lot pent up that needs expressing. If you're not in a place emotionally where you can do this, the hospital probably has excellent resources for somebody who can spend some time with her helping her process her feelings. Do you have any extended family you can look to for help? Having somebody else along when you visit your DH might help her, and having somebody else around the house or along on errands with you might give her some chance to relax and play a bit, and feel more like herself. I think preschool is a terrific idea, for exactly this reason. She can relax and just play and be a kid with other kids, and it also gives you a chance to be alone or with your DH, to experience your own powerful emotions without having to hold back for her sake.

And in the meantime, keep her as close to you as you can, love her with all your heart, and just get through it, in whatever way you can. My heart is breaking for you, and I will be praying for you and her.

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Old 09-11-2008, 04:02 PM
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I couldn't read without posting - I can't try to understand what you and your dh and wee one are going through together. I agree that you may be able to find some sort of order in amongst all the chaos that's surrounding you, pre-school sounds like a great idea for your wee one, when I was a tiny babe and very ill my Mum sent my sis off to school (abit too young) but she was going bananas and so was my dear sis it was just a couple of mornings a week but seemed to give some sort of stability that they both needed. And yeah - choose your battles, hair, clothes and other things really don't matter in the grand scheme of things, safety in the car is non-negotiable however, you can explain that to her, that you can negotiate almost everything but the car seat is never going to change, we all do it - it takes time but she'll understand. Hugs to you and yours during this difficult time.

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Old 09-11-2008, 04:12 PM
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The other mamas here have had some great advice, so I am only going to address your concerns about her unbuckling herself in the vehicle.

It sounds like you have her using the seat belt? Either on its own or in a booster seat? I would recommend a 5-point harness seat which is not as easy to get out of as a seatbelt (where they can easily lean forward to get to the buckle). At 4 years old, she would be FAR safer in a 5 point harness. If she is unbuckling her seat belt, she is likely not sitting in the proper position most of the time, which means that even when she IS buckled, she likely isn't safe. Being out of position greatly increases her chance for ejection from the vehicle in an accident and seatbelt syndrome. 2 seats that are 5 point harnesses now, and convert to a booster later are the Graco Nautilus and the Britax Frontier. The Nautilus is less expensive if budget is a concern for you. I think switching her to a harnessed seat will make your car rides less stressful AND keep her safer in the car.

mama. I realize this is a difficult time for you and applaud you for your efforts in dealing with the situation.

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Old 09-11-2008, 05:50 PM
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Oh my gracious. I have no advice, but I wanted to send cyber-hugs to you and your family.
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Old 09-11-2008, 09:07 PM
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Originally Posted by Ruthla View Post

...let her go out with unbrushed hair, ...let her go out in pajamas, or the clothes she wore yesterday and slept in... basically, choose your battles.

The seatbelt is a safety issue; everything else is not.

Even washing her hands after using the bathroom is more about "establishing healthy habits" than any real threat to her health from germs that came from her own body.
I agree with all this, nothing matters unless it's safety. She can wear... whatever, but she has to have at least pantys on if she's going to be outside sitting on the ground (bugs and dirt in those areas just aren't my cup of tea.) She can go with or without shoes. She doesn't have to take a bath. If she choses to wear clothes, they cannot have any body fluids on them (vomit, urine, feces, etc).

I LOVE the idea of a "schedule" for her... a board (maybe a small magnetic dry-erase board) with pictures (you could get sheet of magnetic paper, and print pictures, like described, them put them on the board in the order of what's going to happen today).

As far as the food issues, maybe you could just put a cooler or ice chest in the car, even near her carseat, that has fresh fruits and veggies, string cheese, lunch meat, bread, kid-sized bottles of water (which you can re-fill with juice too!), go-gurt(yogurt in a tube), etc. This way, you don't have to worry about how long it takes her to eat, she can just grab what she wants to eat from the cooler, giving her a wide array of choices, all of which are fairly healthy and easy to eat.

Putting her in preschool is an excellent idea. Well done.

I think she needs some special toys, ones that daddy can give to her, that live at the hospital with daddy, and she can play with only when she goes to visit him. Gift wrapped.
And a doll house, complete with a little girl, a mommy, a daddy, a car, (any pets?)... which you can play with together (at home)! This is an opportunity for her to show you what she is feeling and thinking and how she perceives things.

In addition to the toys for the hospital visits, can you get some cards for her daddy to give to her? Can/Will he draw her pictures? Little trinkets, a cheap necklace, a ring (maybe one that's too big but will fit her when she's in highschool or grown up), a penant on a thin chain (again, maybe one that she could put in a jewelery box, so when she's older she will have it), a scarf, a bracelet... Is it possible for him to write her letters for her (even letters that you can mail/deliver to arrive for special events, birthdays, highschool, wedding, first baby, etc)? Do you have a camera so that you can take pictures of them together, or even home movies? Maybe he could "buy her flowers" (pretty ones, with a love note)? Try to spread things out so that every few trips she gets something special from her daddy, something to look forward to, that makes the trips a little more exciting. And save everything he gives her. In ten years, you will probably go through this stuff together and talk about how hard it was and you all had to work so hard to make it through and you can do anything if you can make it through that. Plus, it will be something for her to use to talk to her kids/grandkids about her daddy.

How are you dealing with all this? Do you sometimes have trouble putting two sentences together in a row? Does your stomach hurt? Do you feel naseous? Do you just want to cry some days? Is it hard to eat? Do little random things remind you of your DH? Are you looking for opportunities to keep your life under control? Are there times when you feel like you just have to keep moving? Are there days when you just wish that someone would look at you and let everyone else fall away for just a few minutes? Are there days when you wake up and just want to pull the covers back over your head... or at the very least, do you wish you could just put on your robe and vegetate?

It's not uncommon for children faced with death to act out dangerously, they may push the physical limits of safety. It sounds like she's pushing it with the car, and it is your job to help her stop, because she doesn't understand why she's doing it. You are handling it right by pulling over every time. A trick I used to keep my nephews in the car was to twist the receiving end of the belt around so that when it's buckled, it turns the release upside down. I do agree with the idea of putting her back in the 5-point harness, it's just... safer. Plus, you could buckle the cooler in next to her carseat (thread the seatbelt through the straps and pull it as tight as possible), the seat would raise her up so that it's easier to reach inside to grab your yummy snacks!:

I know that you are hurting and that you want to spend all the time you can with your DH, but it's important to take a break to. Take your daughter out on a date once a month. Make it your special Xday (saturday? Tuesday?)... On that day, DO NOT go to the hospital. In fact, don't even talk about daddy. You can call in the morning while she's going potty or taking her bath just to ask how he is and let him know that while you'll be thinking about him, and you love him, you won't be coming in today because you are spending a day with DD - you could even stop and grab a 99cent card to have the nurses deliver with his breakfast that day. I know it's hard (I've had a spouse in the hospital and had a kiddo at the time). But if it were you in the same position, would you want for him to take a day to help your DD realize that she is important and she matters, even when things aren't good? Would it make you feel better to know that your family will be ok without you there to? Maybe it might put your mind at ease to know that you know when to take a day for yourselves to heal and recover from the stress? So take a day (this week???) and take her to the beach if you can, at least to the zoo, park, movies... better yet, let her pick what she wants to do, all day.

Finally, take a day for YOU. One day a week, while she is in preschool. DO NOT DO WHAT YOU "SHOULD" DO. Take her to school, then YOU go to the library, the bookstore, your best friend's house, your mom's, the park, the zoo, the icecream shop, the bakery... whatever you want to do (even if you just want to go home to change back into your pj's, curl up in "his chair", put on the SADDEST movie you know of, grab a giant box of kleenex, and spend your free time soaking every last tissue with snot and tears). As long as is isn't what you are "supposed to do/should be doing"... Just be sure to go pick your DD up on time.

some sites:
cancer care this site has free counseling and other services, please take the time to look at the information and services.
children and grief
Children and PTSD
Current Approaches to Helping Children Cope with a Parent’s Terminal Illness it's really wordy and I had to scroll a bit before I found some things that may be helpful to you. About 1/5 down there's an area titled "THREE- TO FIVE-YEAR-OLD CHILDREN: "WHERE DID HE GO?"".

So many supportive ss to you and your family.
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Old 09-11-2008, 09:30 PM
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Second, talk to the social worker at your husbands hospital. They more than likely have programs for children who have a loved one with cancer. My niece was born at 28wks and is very touch and go health wise even still at 2 years old and my SIL put her step-sons (now 16 and 14) in to a support group with other teens at the hospital. It helped them a lot.

Third, can you get her in to a 5pt harnessed car seat? That helps that part.

Good luck Mama.

Mama of three.
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Old 09-11-2008, 10:44 PM
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I'm so sorry to hear about your situation and wish you all the best as you are trying to cope through this difficult time.

Illness and death are real concerns to children, as you know, but also very abstract. Kids live in the now and seek more concrete experiences. While I agree with this post:

"I agree with letting her have a little more control. Pick out 2 outfits in the morning and let her pick which one she wants to wear. Give her choices about where you eat. It may not fix the problem, but it might make her feel a little more secure."

I also know that children crave limits. Without clear limits, kids push and push to find them. So, give her choices, create routines, and create clear limits so that your DD has security in her home life. I imagine the impulse is to loosen up, but think there really needs to be a delicate balance. Too much freedom is uncomfortable and unstable to children. Too many limits is stifling and oppressive, but don't be afraid to create some boundaries and limits.

Best wishes to you.
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Old 09-12-2008, 03:32 PM
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Mama I have no advice that hasn't already been given but I wanted to send many hugs to your family during this time.

Mama to Toad (08/06), Frog (01/09)... and new baby Newt born on his due date, Sep. 8, 2010
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Old 09-12-2008, 04:01 PM
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Tears just thinking about this situation and how very hard it must be on all of you.

I'm sure the seat belt thing and the taking hours to eat are her ways of controlling what little she can these days.

I'm sure you've tried to get into a routine with her, and I'd think preschool would actually help in some respects because her days look somewhat the same when she has preschool. Maybe try to get up and ready to go at the same time each day, preschool or not?

It much be very stressful and chaotic to her, and to you. Hugs
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Old 09-12-2008, 07:20 PM
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After reading the replies...nothing I was going to say has not been said. But I wanted to send you a hug and let you know I will be thinking about your family. I am so sorry that you, your DH and your DD are going through this. I cannot imagine how difficult it must be.
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Old 09-16-2008, 02:21 AM
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please let us know how things are going mama.
You are in our thoughts.
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Old 09-16-2008, 03:20 AM
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My heart goes out to you. What a wonderful, loving mother to be thinking about gentle discipline in the midst of all this.

The main thing I think is just the more time you have for her and the less tasks on your plate the better. I realize this is off the GD topic you are asking about and maybe you are doing lots of this, but I am imagining people cooking healthy food for you and delivering it--like they've done for new mothers in my community. I wonder if someone from the preschool or a friend could organize that for you. (I can imagine it could be tough to ask, but my guess is people would be happy to be able to do something tangible to help.)

I like this product for cleaning hands when we can't wash them. Maybe it would help: http://cleanwelltoday.com/#/handsanitizer/.

It doesn't seem all that surprising not to feel like eating when you're feeling stressed. I can imagine just not having her Dad at the table might be part of it. Maybe for now letting her play and distract herself while you pop food into her mouth is the best solution. Or involving her in making some kind of change to your eating arrangement--maybe putting a vase with flowers you pick together on the table.

Sending so many good wishes.

treehugger.gifMama to DS (3/05 )carrot.gifh20homebirth.gif, wife to DH bikenew.gif, remembering rainbow1284.gifdog2.gifdog2.gif and angel1.gif Spirit 1/07, angel1.gif Hope 5/09, angel1.gif Harmony 6/10, angel1.gif Love 5/11, angel1.gif Joy 6/11

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Old 10-25-2008, 07:49 PM
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Just a bump to offer you more s and ask how are things doing?
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Old 10-26-2008, 03:22 AM
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Another lurker, who couldn't not post. You've had some great advice, especially all the support websites. She is so lucky to have a strong loving mama to help her through this hard time. I will be thinking peaceful thoughts for all three of you.
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