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Sister in law puts her children in cold shower to stop their crying.. thoughts?
November 12, 2008 2:30 PM   Subscribe

My sister in law (from Latin America) is putting her sons (2.5 y and 6 months) in a cold shower if they cry uncontrollably. She says her family did this to her when she was a child to stop tantrums. What are your thoughts? Anyone??
posted by bleuberry to Human Relations (44 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
 
Ummm,
just a thought here, but - was it significantly warmer where she grew up?

Ie, was going in a cold shower not actually that cold, or horrible, but just a little bit of a freshening-shock? And how old was she when this happened?

I mean, I know family members who'd go wet a damp face-cloth and start washing the face of a hysterical child, while they were having a fit.
Something about the slight cold, and being clean, does seem to snap many kids*, out of otherwise uncontrollable crying - which is not fun for the person crying either.

For your nephews - I'd be very worried that the water would be significantly too cold for a 2.5yr old and a 6 month old, I wouldn't be wanting to put them in water much colder than tepid, full stop. They can lose heat too quickly - and for the effect, that sounds very much like overkill especially for a 6month old baby. o_O
At that age, a damp face cloth should more than adequately do the trick, if that is the goal?


* *cough* and adults - no really. Hysterical adult?
Try and convince them into a bathroom, and wash their face and hands.
And get some food into them, and preferably a hot drink in their hands. And do this all especially before trying to 'talk them out of it'. People don't get hysterical when things are otherwise ok.
posted by Elysum at 2:44 PM on November 12, 2008 [1 favorite]


My thinking is that this is abusive and falls into that idiotic realm of "I'll give you something to cry about!". A six month old baby needs caring from their parents, they need to know that their parents are trustworthy people who they can count on to protect them. If a six month old is crying, it probably because s/he is hungry, wet, uncomfortable—dousing them in freezing water is not going to help any of these. Same goes for a two and a half year old.

That her family did this to children is no matter—History is not an excuse for further abuse.

Please encourage her to stop this with whatever means you can.
posted by blueberry at 2:45 PM on November 12, 2008 [3 favorites]


No sane person would punish a 6 month old for anything much less crying (and punishing a 2 year old for crying is just as crazy). Sounds like a children and family services issue to me. Scary!

I don't see this as okay in any way shape or form. Who puts a tiny baby in the shower, sheesh.

I have a 1 year old son, and when he is crying it is generally for a reason, that is how he communicates.

Sounds horribly wrong to me.
posted by Ponderance at 2:46 PM on November 12, 2008 [4 favorites]


If I have a sobbing, splashing my face with cold water feels a lot better. However, it's my decision to do that. Tossing kids in a shower seems a bit forceful

On a side note, you phrased this in a really chat filter-y way. You might want to watch that in the future.
posted by piratebowling at 2:46 PM on November 12, 2008


Particularly for a 6 month old baby, this is abuse. Babies that young don't have tantrums and they don't cry to manipulate their parents. Punishing a baby for crying is insane and wrong. At the very least, your sister in law needs to learn a whole lot more about developmental stages and age appropriate behavior.

I don't like it much more for the two year old. Terrible twos will have tantrums and the best solution is a time out in a quiet room. Punishment is likely to bring on even more hysteria and also, this is pretty severe punishment. I don't like the sound of any of this at all.
posted by mygothlaundry at 2:48 PM on November 12, 2008 [5 favorites]


A 6 month old baby does not have tantrums. Too young to developmentally be at that stage. That is absolutely abusive behaviour. Makes me sad.

I know less about 2.5 year olds, I'm sure they do have tantrums at that age, but I don't think forced cold showers are an appropriate way to deal with it. Does your sister in law have any family members nearby that you think might agree with you? I'm sure its hard to persuade someone over the phone.
posted by Joh at 2:52 PM on November 12, 2008


People from different cultures have very different ideas about child rearing than people from North America or Western Europe. I wouldn't do it, but I doubt it's going to kill the children.
posted by GuyZero at 2:54 PM on November 12, 2008


[The boy's legal guardians] exchanged smirks throughout an evidence hearing on child-abuse charges..., but their apparent levity faded when a judge authorized charges of torture, which carries a possible life sentence, against each of them.

An aunt of the 7-year-old boy who allegedly suffered burns, hunger, chokings, punches, kicks, cold showers and nights in a dirt cellar at the hands of [his parents] pumped her fist in the air when [the judge] ordered them to trial on charges of torture, first-degree and second-degree child abuse.

"I want to see them locked up forever," she said, "so that they can never be around children again."

The torture charge requires intentional cruel acts that caused serious mental or physical damage and were perpetrated by a person against someone held against his will....

[The boy's biological father] said he witnessed several forced cold showers and knew [his girlfriend, one of the guardians] ordered his son into a bathtub full of ice water. -- Torture charges added in child abuse case


The showers are obviously at the lower end of the scale, but the fact that they could be considered grounds for child abuse charges should give your relative cause for reconsideration of her options.
posted by dhartung at 3:04 PM on November 12, 2008 [4 favorites]


Abuse.

As a parent of 3 children, I would never ever subject my children to this type of behaviour. Given the ages of the children, I would say that the parent has no grasp of what to expect, nor how to deal with children when it comes to managing this situation.
posted by burhan at 3:05 PM on November 12, 2008 [1 favorite]


Little babies are little, which means that their surface area to volume ratio is high. Their heads are big compared to their body size, and they have little subcutaneous fat.

That means that their core temperature can be easily affected by small changes in external temperature. Apparently small dcreases in core temperature can cause hypothermia, brain damage, and at 30 °C or 86 °F, death.

This is abuse that puts the children at risk of death.
posted by orthogonality at 3:09 PM on November 12, 2008 [3 favorites]


Yeah, six months, absolutely not. 2.5 years...well, my three year olds, sometimes they work themselves into a tantrum that even they want to get out of but can't stop (to understand what I mean, think of the dinner scene with people dancing against their will in beetlejuice) and distraction often works there.

Of course, when I think distraction, I think things like the dog running up and licking them in the face, not throwing them into the shower. But that's just my opinion, and I can see why someone would be tempted to throw them in the shower, certainly.
posted by davejay at 3:10 PM on November 12, 2008 [1 favorite]


and by "would be tempted" I mean that a child throwing a willful tantrum can be very stressful and frustrating
posted by davejay at 3:11 PM on November 12, 2008


Abuse, and your sister-in-law is a fucking idiot if she thinks it will have any positive effect on the children, who couldn't connect cause and effect even if here response weren't such a shitty, shitty thing to do to a baby six months out of the womb.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 3:22 PM on November 12, 2008 [5 favorites]


People from different cultures have very different ideas about child rearing than people from North America or Western Europe. I wouldn't do it, but I doubt it's going to kill the children.

Cultural relativism is stupid. Just because some people live in a society so ignorant that this is acceptable doesn't mean we're obligated to recognize this harmful, stupid practice. NOT doing this and opposing it in strong terms is objectively better than the alternatives from the perspective of the children's future happiness and at least arguably health.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 3:25 PM on November 12, 2008 [7 favorites]


An aside:
I was trying to figure out the logical root of such apparently illogical behaviour, and suggest re-routes back to safer child rearing practices. *wince*

I don't think I adequately conveyed my, WTF?, o_O!, OVERKILL!

Especially for the baby.
6 months old.
They're easy, as long as you dedicate your existence to making sure they are warm, clean, changed, fed, slept, burped, unsick and loved - they are very happy little grub-critters. They don't tend to 'deliberately' throw tantrums at that age.

It is not normal for a small baby to be upset much, or even most of the time. It means one of their needs is not being met. Sadly, you might not be able to do much about that need, if they've got some kind of untreatable colick-y thing, but you should know why. Their needs are simpler, and if they are met, their default setting should be 'happy'.
posted by Elysum at 3:31 PM on November 12, 2008 [2 favorites]


I think you should tell her to speak with her childrens' doctor about it. They will have a much better time talking her out of it than you will. It's hard to go against culture, but having an expert tell her not to do it should help make a difference.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 3:31 PM on November 12, 2008 [4 favorites]


Cultural/familial ignorance of modern understanding about child development & needs.

Figure out a way to explain this to her without calling her a monster and you'll have much more luck in changing the behaviour. Get a professional involved if this isn't changing - they can require parenting classes (among other things) that may help her understand.

Resist the urge to get upset with her or anything that could cause agitation, as she may continue doing this and other things but start hiding them from the family members who've shown concern, making solving it quite a bit more difficult and eventually creating a barricade of secrets behind which the children will learn how to hide their treatment as well.
posted by batmonkey at 3:32 PM on November 12, 2008 [1 favorite]


Abuse. This was done to me as a child. Abuse.
posted by desjardins at 3:43 PM on November 12, 2008 [4 favorites]


I heard that parents do the same thing in certain religious cults to teach children not to cry or show emotion under any circumstances. It's an abusive practice. I'm seconding the idea of having her talk to her kids' doctor.
posted by christinetheslp at 3:57 PM on November 12, 2008


And why's the six-month old crying all the time? Broken rib or bruised kidney from another of Mom's attempts at "discipline"? Or an undiagnosed ailment that Mom puts down to "temper tantrums"?

Somebody (you or Child Protective services) needs to intervene NOW before this ends with a dead (or permanently traumatized or brain-damaged) kid and Mom in prison.
posted by orthogonality at 4:28 PM on November 12, 2008 [2 favorites]


Definitely abuse.
posted by dontoine at 4:29 PM on November 12, 2008 [1 favorite]


Speaking as a parent, this is abuse, no question about it.
posted by crapmatic at 4:52 PM on November 12, 2008 [1 favorite]


Little babies are little, which means that their surface area to volume ratio is high. Their heads are big compared to their body size, and they have little subcutaneous fat.

This here is your answer. Cultural relativism doesn't even enter the picture.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 4:56 PM on November 12, 2008 [1 favorite]


The mother sounds as though she is completely overwhelmed if she's punishing a newborn. Look, kids are stressful. They are. And a 2.5 year old is learning to test boundaries, which is even more stressful.

But the reaction of the mother, especially where it concerns an infant, is completely out of bounds, and insanely unsafe. These are not the reactions of a mother who is adequately coping with the crazy pressure of having two babies in the house. She needs help. Those babies need help. Where is your brother during all of this? Does he implicitly agree with the behavior? Does he do anything to ease her childcare burdens?

These are the reactions of a woman who has neared a breaking point. Maybe the baby has colic, maybe it has an injury, maybe it has allergies...but 6 month old babies don't generally cry all the time unless something is wrong. 2 year olds have tantrums, that's to be expected. It isn't easy to deal with, I tell you what. The trick is: Don't do anything drastic. Putting a kid the age of those two into a swedish bath isn't going to do anything but make them sick, teach them that adults can't be trusted, and possibly injure them for life.

Also consider that anyone willing to do that to an infant is going to be VERY physical with corporal punishment as the kids get older. If you don't want to see your nephews carry around the welts of being beaten with belts or cords or anything else handy, then for the love of god, please find a way to get her and your brother into some parenting classes.

Here in Texas, we've sort of been the ground-zero of parents killing small children, which makes me perhaps a little hyper vigilant, but I beg you, please do something to stop this behavior, and see if you can find her the resources to get to the root of the problem.

Please, do something to make this behavior stop and get her some help before her reactions escalate and someone gets really hurt, and please find a way to have the infant checked to make sure he hasn't already been compromised physically.

My heart goes out to all of you, and I wish there were something I could do to help.
posted by dejah420 at 5:04 PM on November 12, 2008 [2 favorites]


The mother of the children is from Central America, right?

Just so everyone knows, the "cold water" that comes out of the shower in the tropics is not (in my experience) anything close to the cold water that comes out of your showers in the States or in Europe. The water up in the temperate zone is cold coming out of the tap. In the tropics it is much, much warmer. Still cool, and many people find it uncomfortable without a water heater, but it is nowhere near as cold as what most of us are used to.

Assuming she is doing this in the States, or someplace where the tap water is actually cold, though, that is pretty terrible.
posted by paisley henosis at 5:28 PM on November 12, 2008 [1 favorite]


I agree with everyone that this is very very bad idea, both on a physical and an emotional level for the kids.

But I think some of the answers could ease up on the OMG-ness, and the suggestions that this woman is clearly neglecting her children or bound to beat them. There is nothing to suggest that in bleuberry's question. It's not even clear that this is meant as a form of punishment, as some have assumed--I read it more like Elysum's first answer, that this is meant as a way to startle the kid out of hysterical crying. Now obviously that is not going to work on a 6-month-old, nor is it healthy if the water's really cold, but there's a lot here I'm inclined to chalk up to ignorance, not malice.

It sounds to me like a parent who is overwhelmed with two little kids, as a lot parents are, and relying on her own experience for her parenting skills, as most parents do. Those skills need to be corrected, yes. But it seems to me that we should give the OP's sister-in-law the benefit of the doubt that she's being the best mother she knows how, and work from there.

On preview, what dejah said about making sure she has some help. And better parenting models.
posted by hippugeek at 5:38 PM on November 12, 2008 [9 favorites]


Cultural relativism is stupid.

Maybe, maybe not. But stupidity is apparently not bound by solely one culture. This is abuse.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 5:49 PM on November 12, 2008


[a few comments removed - what exactly is funny about this?]
posted by jessamyn at 5:50 PM on November 12, 2008


A discipline practice which can cause death is abuse.

You could -easily- kill an infant by shocking them with cold water.

I'm going to second the motion that cultural relativism is stupid. Accepting that other people in the world eat different food on different holidays is all well and good. We don't need to accept the dumb shit things that ignorant people do. I don't care, and you shouldn't either, that this cold shower for babies nonsense flies in her country as normal. Beating the shit out of your wife flies as normal in most of the world too, but I wouldn't tolerate that either.
posted by JFitzpatrick at 6:45 PM on November 12, 2008


some folks i know say that one way to calm an unconsolable infant (usually during colic) was to dip their hands or feet into cold water. a baby doesn't have any senses to come to when they're in a state, so they just keep going. there's no flash of insight that's going to soothe them--it has to come either through exhaustion or some external comfort or, if that doesn't work, an external distraction.

i am sure that my grandparents did this to me at some point when i was a child. i did not feel abused. we didn't ahve to stay under very long, the point was just to distract us from our emotions, which we were not old enough to process and express succinctly, with a physical sensation. tantrums are often loops--the key is breaking the loop.

whether your sister in law is just dunking them in versus forcing them to stay under until the experience is painful is probably the line of whether or not this is a quirky punishment vs. abuse.
posted by thinkingwoman at 6:45 PM on November 12, 2008 [2 favorites]


I know family members who'd go wet a damp face-cloth and start washing the face of a hysterical child, while they were having a fit.

As an aside, each night when we get my 4-month old son ready for bed, we wash his hands and face with a warm washcloth after putting a clean diaper on him and dressing him in his pajamas. Sometimes, if he's hungry or tired, he'll start to fuss while we're dressing him. As soon as we start to wash his hands and face with the warm washcloth, he stops fussing.
posted by skwm at 7:26 PM on November 12, 2008


First of all, thank you all so so much for sharing your thoughts. I felt so disconnected and didn't know where to turn about this. It just helps to have a sounding board.

Per the way I phrased this issue... I wanted to be as simple and unbiased in my presentation because I didn't want to bias the answers. I tried my best.

Also, I wish I had more information than what was given to me second hand. Honestly what I heard made me so incredibly sad and I am desperate to do something, but I agree that I cannot OVERreact. That would have a negative effect.

The problem is, how do I even broach the subject with my sister in law? I've had trouble getting close to her, period. She normally doesn't answer emails nor my phone calls. It's just so weird. I feel somewhat helpless. Her uncle is a pediatrician. Maybe I can talk to him? But I'm not even close to him. Would it be appropriate to consult with him about this? He's also from Latin America.

Per where she grew up.. she grew up NOT in the tropics, but in a temperate zone. And that's a really good point. Who knows how cold the water was there, and how cold the water was that she used on her kids, my nephews.

hippugeek, Elysum, and The Light Fantastic, thank you.
posted by bleuberry at 7:31 PM on November 12, 2008


The OP has a three sentence description. Where in there does it say this is done as punishment? Where does it say they are kept in the cold shower for any length of time? Where does it say this a routine event? You all need to chill out.

Just so everyone knows, the "cold water" that comes out of the shower in the tropics is not (in my experience) anything close to the cold water that comes out of your showers in the States or in Europe.

This is exactly right. My wife has done this on rare occasion to a child who is having an uncontrollable crying jag - strip him and douse with water. It is momentarily startling, and often the child will instantly forget what he was crying about. More often, we just wipe the child's face with cold water. Same effect. The mother is most likely just carrying over something that worked back home to her new situation. If this is being done routinely, if it is being done with freezing water or in a cold climate, if it is being done as a punishment until they stop crying, then you should speak to your sister-in-law. If not, take a deep breath and move on. Honestly, parenting threads go from zero to hysterical in no time flat around here.

On Preview: Second hand? Definitely relax. Why can't you speak to your brother about it?
posted by BinGregory at 7:45 PM on November 12, 2008 [2 favorites]


Is this your brother's wife? Why can't you talk with him about this?
posted by chiababe at 9:17 PM on November 12, 2008 [1 favorite]


~ Who knows how cold the water was there, and how cold the water was that she used on her kids, my nephews.

Even in the States, it is an important distinction to make. Some people, when they says 'cold shower' mean 'put the knob all the way to C and let it run a while,' but other people just mean 'not warm,' or even 'not hot.'

Of course, I have no idea what she is doing, but apparently no one is totally clear on that, so no one should be condemning her until they do. Bleuberry, you need more information about what is going on, and if you want help from us, we also need it, but either way you should talk to your brother and get the facts.
posted by paisley henosis at 9:46 PM on November 12, 2008 [1 favorite]


Her uncle is a pediatrician. Maybe I can talk to him? But I'm not even close to him. Would it be appropriate to consult with him about this?

If you can come to us, you can go to him. Just tell him what she is doing and ask him if he would talk to her. I personally don't think that she is doing this out of spite, but it sounds unsafe to me. Give it a try and know that you did your best.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 10:09 PM on November 12, 2008


My understanding is that babies cry when they need something. If throwing the 6 mo in the shower stops it from crying, assuming it doesn't need a cold shower, and it stops crying, there is something seriously wrong. If anything perhaps it'll make the association of whatever it needs (hence the crying) with punishment and may withdraw, which could be bad if it's crying because its hungry, or needs attention, or is sick, etc etc.
posted by syntheticfaith at 4:28 AM on November 13, 2008


The problem is, how do I even broach the subject with my sister in law? I've had trouble getting close to her, period. She normally doesn't answer emails nor my phone calls. It's just so weird. I feel somewhat helpless. Her uncle is a pediatrician. Maybe I can talk to him? But I'm not even close to him. Would it be appropriate to consult with him about this? He's also from Latin America.

Yes, definitely talk to him. But try and talk to her first. You might not be close, but you're still family. Even though I doubt she'll be open to suggestion - she may get defensive and think you're trying to tell her how to raise her kids - I still think it's important you speak with her face to face first. Barring that, yes, talk to her uncle, or any other older relative of hers. You were compassionate enough to think of the safety and well-being of her children. I think that if you come from a place of concern you're much more likely to have success in this.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 6:06 AM on November 13, 2008


Suggestions on how to talk to her about it:
-suggest using a damp face cloth, as others have mentioned above, to see if it has the same affect.
-provide opinion or expert advice on how it is alright and common to let a todler "cry it out" Not to punish, or encourage tantrums or crying in toddlers (use time outs) and that colicky babies just cry sometimes and it sucks.
-offer help if she needs to take a break from the children.

I don't envy you in this tough situation.
posted by Gor-ella at 6:59 AM on November 13, 2008


Something about the fact that she won't answer your phone calls or emails really rubs me the wrong way. It just gives me a chilled feeling. You might still consider my suggestions below if they seem appropriate, but if you continually can't contact her I would ask your second-hand source to call CPS. Or do it yourself.

--If this is during a custody battle, take anything you hear with a grain of salt.

--Give her information about a parenting group. A lot of parenting groups have people share advice and they might set her straight.

--Babysitting. If she's by herself with these two children, I don't blame her for being half off of her rocker. This behavior is dangerous, but she might not know that and think, oh, hey, it works and I need a break because I have no one else to turn to, and my parents did it and I'm okay, so... Help her take the stress out of the decision making process and there's a good chance she'll make better decisions.

--Visit a lot. Ask the children how they are. DON'T ask the toddler if mom hits him, kids that age often say "yes" or "no" depending on their mood. Do look for bruises, scratches, welts. Toddlers get banged up a little bit, of course, so you'll have to use your judgment. Babies sometimes scratch themselves, but any other injuries are NOT normal.

Best of luck.
posted by sondrialiac at 9:45 AM on November 13, 2008


My thoughts are that if children are crying, the solution should address what is CAUSING the crying.

The actual cold shower method seems to be a bit cruel. There's no way that the kids know WHY they're being in the shower other than "oh, this grownup is pissed." The actual cause of the problem is never addressed, and that has got to be SEVERELY uncomfortable.

Decent disciplinary methods with young children involve addressing the root CAUSE of the behavior in order to modify the behavior itself. You can punish a kid for crying, but until you find out WHY it's happening, it's just going to be an endless cycle of crying/punishment/crying/punishment/ad nauseum.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 11:14 AM on November 13, 2008


Thank you so much again for all of your suggestions. I truly appreciate the feedback, encouragement, and compassion. Wow.

Gor-ella, I like your suggestions, and my mom and i have talked about it and she actually made similar very gentle, lighthearted suggestions to my sister in law. My mom takes care of my older nephew as much as she can. sondrialiac and grapefruitmoon I really appreciate your suggestions as well. The Light Fantastic, I agree, I don't think she is doing this out of spite. I also think she might be experiencing postpartum depression.

I would LOVE to babysit and help in any way I can. The only problem is that I just moved very far away, hence the amplified frustration. But I feel less helpless now. Reaching out has helped in ways I never though it could.

Again, am certainly not downplaying the situation, but I still don't know how cold the water was, etc. And yes, my brother is extraordinarily busy working and going to school, both full time. Everyone has a lot on their proverbial plates.
posted by bleuberry at 7:26 PM on November 13, 2008


I didn't read through all the comments, but just wanted to say that I supervise child abuse investigators, and I'm often considered to be too slow to send workers out to investigate cases-I am cautious, and try to be careful about when we interfere in a family's life. And yet, I sent a worker out just this week to see a mom who was giving her 2 1/2 year old cold showers to "punish her" for wetting her pants.

And re cultural relativism: we deal with this issue all of the time. For instance, a couple years back we had a case where grandpa left the 2 year old alone in a stroller on a sidewalk on a busy street while he went to get the older child out from school. He had just moved to the US from a small village in China. We still go out and talk to him, but we really use those contacts as an educational opportunities-"This might have been safe where you used to live, but it's not safe here". Most of the time, this addresses it. But sometimes things that your parents did to you when you were child weren't done to you because they were cultural issues, they were child abuse then, and still child abuse now.

Bottom line-I always think that nurturing and educational approaches should be the way we start. If that doesn't work, hey, these are your brothers children and he is responsible for keeping them safe, regardless of how busy he is. I don't mean to sound harsh, but that's the bottom line.
posted by purenitrous at 8:42 PM on November 13, 2008 [1 favorite]


purenitrous, thank you for your comments. I completely agree that a nurturing and educational approaches should be the way we start. This is good!

I am certainly NOT condoning the practice, but I do not think that the shower was meant for punishment for anything, but to redirect the children's attention. At least, I am giving my sister in law the benefit of the doubt. Again, I rarely talk to her. There is a massive communication gap here.

It is also my understanding that this happened one time, and although I listed in my original question that it was a cold shower, I do not know how 'cold' the shower was (was my mother exaggerating when she told me it was a 'cold' shower? I don't know... Again I heard this from my mother, who heard it from my brother, who heard it from my sister in law) or for how long the shower was. In retrospect, I really really should have gotten more information first before posting, and I apologize for this.

My brother is also under financial stress and coping with depression... and my sister in law is not working and is also coping with depression. I know none of this is an excuse, but I think he is probably doing the best he can with what he has.
posted by bleuberry at 9:24 AM on November 14, 2008


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