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Q: My four-year-old occasionally makes loud train and fire-truck noises at home and at school. When he makes these noises at home, I tell him he must use his "inside" voice. If this doesn't work, he is sent to his time-out chair. Is this the right approach?
A: Punishing your four-year-old for making loud train and fire-truck noises is an inappropriate response. I understand that part of teaching a child the "social graces" is to teach him not to use his voice in a loud manner to disrupt a social situation. In your son's case, however, making the sounds of vehicles has an appeal to him. First, let's ask why he might be moved to make these particular loud sounds. If you and his teachers track when he makes these sounds, you may find a pattern. Maybe he makes these noises when he's nervous, excited, confused, or bored. Once you come to understand what triggers him to make these loud noises, you can offer him some alternatives or intervene calmly to change the situation that causes him to feel that way.
Try reframing these noises in a positive light. You might say something like: "I've noticed that you are very good at making loud train and fire-truck noises. Can you make other noises, too? Can you make the noises soft or can you only make them loud?" This is the kind of subtle challenge that kids really like. Then say, "I wonder if you could save those wonderful sounds and use them when I read to you. When I'm reading a story about a train (maybe The Little Engine That Could or the Thomas the Train series), I'll give you a special look and then you can make the sound." By treating his desire to make these sounds as something positive and thinking of creative ways to allow him to use this "talent," you change the "dance and rhythm" of how and why he makes these sounds.
You might also ask him to save his train sounds for when he's playing trains and for when you want everyone to come to the supper table...he could "call" the family with that sound. I also suggest that you engage him in discussions and creative play that involve trains and fire trucks and any other things that he might attach sounds to.
Try to discover why he uses these sounds when he does, but don't be worried if there is no particular pattern. And celebrate his talent for making these sounds as you explore ways that he can use them in a positive, valued manner.
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Carleton Kendrick has been in private practice as a family therapist and has worked as a consultant for more than 20 years. He has conducted parenting seminars on topics ranging from how to discipline toddlers to how to stay connected with teenagers. Kendrick has appeared as an expert on national broadcast media such as CBS, Fox Television Network, Cable News Network, CNBC, PBS, and National Public Radio. In addition, he's been quoted in the New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Boston Globe, USA Today, Reader's Digest, BusinessWeek, Good Housekeeping, Woman's Day, and many other publications.