Thumb-Sucking and Other Control Patterns

The following is a response to a question, on the RC e-mail discussion list for leaders of parents, about how to counsel a child on thumb-sucking.

I think it’s important to remember that thumb-sucking tends to be a control pattern more than a distress per se. [A control pattern is a pattern that prevents discharge.] I’ve found that, as with all control patterns (in adults as well as young people), focusing on “assisting” the young person to “give up” the control pattern isn’t the key thing. When the child (or adult) has discharged the distress that underlies the control pattern (in other words, the distress that the control pattern keeps them from feeling), the control pattern falls by the wayside [goes away] easily and without much fanfare [much outward display].

One example is my biting my fingernails. Having sessions on biting my nails and on “giving up” that control pattern never yielded much success. But over time I discharged heavy fear and worry, and one day I looked down and I had longer fingernails! Absent the distress that had driven the control pattern, I had stopped “indulging” in the control pattern—and I hadn’t even noticed!

I also think that it’s not for the counselor to dictate what the client works on, and it’s tricky [challenging] as counselor to aim sessions in specific ways toward particular distresses. It’s hard, too, to predict precisely the impact of discharging a particular distress. We might work on chronic loneliness, and suddenly we’re enjoying reading more! It wasn’t clear that our struggles with reading were connected with loneliness, but once the loneliness was discharged, everything attached to it shifted. That’s the nature of discharge and re-evaluation. So I think it’s a mistake to presume that we, as parents, can steer our children’s sessions and discharge toward alleviating a particular distress or a particular control pattern. Our job is to support our children as they discharge. The re-evaluations, following the discharge, will happen on their own [by themselves] and don’t require our guidance.

In my experience, the key is often for the parent to discharge their worry about their child’s distresses or control patterns or seeming unwillingness to discharge, or whatever. Once the parent isn’t driven (however unconsciously) by their own restimulations, the child will be able to use their attention ever more fully. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the behavior or distress that the parent is concerned about will shift—but that isn’t a realistic or necessary goal.

Randi Wolfe

Monrovia, California, USA

(Present Time 191, April 2018)

Last modified: 2022-12-25 10:17:04+00