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Reviewed by the Faculty of Harvard Medical School

Frequently Asked Question About Children

When can I begin toilet training?

As every toddler is unique, so is her readiness for toilet training. You may be anxious for your toddler to use the toilet, perhaps so he can enter into day care or preschool. This usually does not work. Let your child choose his own timetable for potty training, so as not to rush things. Be encouraging, but realize that although many children start showing signs of readiness between 18 months and 24 months, it can be perfectly normal not to be ready until 3 years old or older.

Look for the following signs that your toddler is ready to toilet train. He should be dry for two to three hours at a time during the day and have a relatively predictable pattern of bowel movements (for example, shortly after meals). Also, he should be able to recognize when he has to go and be able to let you know in some way that he needs to. Having a dirty diaper may make him uncomfortable. He may be interested in using a potty seat or the toilet, or ask to use training pants or "big-boy" underwear. He should be willing and able to follow directions, and be able to undress himself.

When you begin to see these signs, start potty training, but be patient. It typically can take several weeks or months for a child to learn to use the toilet correctly and regularly. Be prepared for a few setbacks. Some toddlers use the potty for a while and can then seem to lose all interest. Do not worry. She will regain interest when she is ready.

How do I teach my child about strangers?

Unfortunately, the old saying "Never talk to strangers" isn't enough to keep children safe. Children may be confused by our use of the word "stranger." Children see their parents talk to strangers everyday, at the grocery store, at a ticket counter, even at their own front door. Children also may think that strangers are big, scary men who dress in dark clothing and lurk in the shadows.

It's important to give kids specific instructions about what they should do if a person they don't know approaches them. Here are some suggestions of clear messages to give your child:

  • Never go with anyone anywhere, even if you know the person, unless mommy or daddy says it's OK.
  • Never accept gifts from someone you don't know.
  • Never get in a car with anyone, even if you know the person, unless mommy or daddy says it's OK.
  • If someone you don't know offers you candy or a ride, run away and yell loudly, "I don't know you" or "This is not my dad" or "This is not my mom."
  • Tell mommy or daddy if someone you don't know offers you a ride or a gift, touches you, or tries to be friendly with you.

Regularly remind your child that he should never be shy about running away from someone he doesn't know. Let him know that it's OK not to be polite to an adult he doesn't know.

Start giving your child these messages early and often, and they will become second nature.

My son likes to listen to loud music, often with a headset because the rest of the family complains about the noise. Will this hurt his hearing?

Yes, your son could damage his hearing by listening to loud music. For us to hear sounds, they first must be changed into nerve signals that the brain can understand. This is a complicated process, involving delicate structures and nerves inside the ear. Hearing loss can develop when any of these structures or nerves is damaged.

In particular, one type of hearing loss, sensorineural hearing loss, results from problems with how nerve signals from the inner ear, specifically from hair cells deep within the ear, move through the nerve to supply that information to the brain. It is a permanent condition that usually affects both ears. Sensorineural hearing loss can be present at birth or can develop later in life. Prolonged exposure to loud noise is a common cause of sensorineural hearing loss. Other causes include infection (for example, an infection of the coverings of the brain and spinal column such as bacterial meningitis), severe head injury, toxic medications and some rare inherited diseases.

To prevent this type of hearing loss, encourage your son to avoid or at least minimize how often he listens to loud music. Permanent damage can result from prolonged exposure to sounds not much louder than normal speech. In addition to loud music (especially pop music), such sounds can come from hair dryers, firecrackers, toy cap guns, firearms, squeaking toys (some are loud enough to cause damage with only a few minutes of exposure per day), lawn mowers and leaf blowers, snowmobiles and other recreational vehicles, and farm equipment.

Teach your son to wear protective devices such as earmuffs, form-fitting foam earplugs or pre-molded earplugs when he is unable to avoid exposure to loud noises.

When should I start talking to my child about puberty?

Puberty is that time in a child’s life when the body goes through changes to become an adult. It is important (and in the long run comforting for a child) if parents talk with their child about puberty before these changes begin. If a child is not prepared for these physical changes, he may be frightened by them and may wonder if something is wrong with his body. Children need to know what to expect and also that these changes are perfectly normal.

Parents should talk with their child about puberty (or at least mention it) before the age of 8 or 9. Puberty usually starts earlier in girls than in boys — between the ages of 8 and 13 for girls and between the ages of 9 and 14 for boys. Each child develops at his own rate, and the actual age for an individual child varies depending on many factors, including sex, family history and ethnic background. Even if your child is not beginning to show the early signs of puberty, some of his friends may be starting it already and he probably will have questions about the changes he sees.

For more information on discussing this subject, see Puberty.

My son recently graduated from high school and has made no plans for his future. What can we do to motivate him?

Helping a child to prepare for life after high school is one of the most important tasks any parent can do for a child. This does not mean choosing a career path for your child, but it does mean being supportive, listening to him, and trying to steer him in the right direction.

Teens today have many choices when they graduate from high school. These include going to college or a technical school, getting a job, joining the armed forces, or taking time off, perhaps to travel or participate in community-service work. Although you may want your child to do one thing, realize that he may have other plans for himself. Don't place your goals and expectations on him, but rather listen to his thoughts about his future. Give him support and respect his decisions, even if they are not what you would have chosen for him.

If your child seems to have no idea what he wants to do, there are some ways you can help him to choose the best path. Have him write down his interests, his personal strengths and his academic strengths. Once he has come up with this list, brainstorm together possible jobs and career choices that match his interests and use his strengths. Then help him meet people in these fields. Teens can talk with these individuals and, if possible, even shadow them while they work. You also may want to check with his guidance counselor at school for ideas.

Although your teen may think everyone else in his class has made definite plans for the future, in fact, many high-school seniors are not even sure what they want to do for the next few months, let alone the rest of their lives. The future may seem scary to him, but it is important that your teen begin thinking about it sooner rather than later. Keeping the lines of communication open and really listening to his ideas will help him to get started.

Last updated February 17, 2011




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