Over the past couple of weeks, the terrible twos have grown to such a crescendo that we just couldn’t pretend any longer that we were doing everything right. Obviously we’ve been trying to get it right, but being a parent is all about learning the hard way that you don’t know as much as you think you do.
M has always been an independent little girl and very strong willed, but never really badly behaved. What started off as a bit of whining suddenly escalated into full blown aggression and completely irrational and unpredictable behaviour for an alarming proportion of the time. I should clarify that she still behaves nicely with everyone else – like most daughters she saves all her tantrums for mummy!
In any case, when it got to the point where I considered shaving her head to check for the number of the beast, I thought perhaps it was time to hit the books.
I’m still a scientist at heart, so rather than just diving straight in and following one style or solution, I thought I’d compare and contrast a few well known books (Supernanny, Toddler Taming, and the Secrets of the Baby Whisperer for Toddlers) offering guidance on dealing with unruly toddlers.
First up is Supernanny: How to get the best from your children, by Jo Frost
Supernanny Jo Frost comes across as a very sensible, experienced and caring person. She has had many years of experience caring for children of all ages and temperaments, and this comes across in her book. What worked for your mother-in-law or your best friend might not necessarily work for you, but Supernanny’s methods are tried and tested on plenty of unruly little things and stand a very good chance of working.
Watching the show, I thought her book would be based more around disciplinary strategies, but I was pleasantly surprised to see that the focus was more around encouraging good behaviour and nipping potential tantrums in the bud rather than discipline. In a sense, it’s much more about the parents’ behaviour than the children’s.
What really stood out for me were
1) Rewarding good behaviour isn’t about stickers and sweets, it’s about the one thing your child needs and wants the most – you. The best reward is one-to-one time with you, an extra story, your undivided attention and involvement in their mad little make believe schemes, or being able to help you peel the carrots.
2) Preventing the tantrums from happening in the first place means taking the time and effort to understand your child and how he or she is feeling. We’re pretty careful about offering healthy snacks regularly so she doesn’t suffer from those horrible sugar crashes, but what about all the other things that can affect her mood and behaviour? Having too many options laid in front of her, or being surrounded by an overwhelming number of toys or books can be stressful for a toddler and can therefore affect their behaviour. Supernanny suggests rotating the toys and only having a select number out at a time. Getting dressed, she suggests having 2 or possibly 3 suitable options to choose from rather than an overwhelming question like “What shall we wear today?”. Similarly, if she feels she is being ignored or if you are giving all your attention to someone else, you’re pretty likely to see a change in her behaviour. Much of the book is devoted to methods of keeping your toddler engaged and happy, and feeling secure.
3) Playing with the children and giving them your love and attention is the most important thing you can do, but that doesn’t necessarily mean ignoring the running of the house and just playing with a pink fairy castle all day. Her Involvement technique is all about getting on with running the house while your kids feel like they’re having fun and playing with you. Grocery shopping, you give them a mini shopping list and put them in charge of finding the things on their list. While you’re preparing dinner, you can set up a little potato-washing station and get them to wash a few spuds. When you’re feeding the new baby, you can put them in charge of stroking the baby’s tummy, or folding up some muslins. The idea is to look for ways to involve them in everything you’re doing. It may seem like everything is going to take about 5 times as long, but just consider how long it would take if you were constantly being interrupted by tantrums and fighting children. Also, Involvement can transform an otherwise stressful part of the day into something really nice for both/all of you.
Jo Frost does come across as very level-headed, and the book made for an interesting read. More importantly, it made me re-evaluate my own behaviour towards the children. However it does have its shortcomings. I had hoped for some clear guidelines, solutions and case studies, but instead found myself reading about general concepts without the level of detail I needed in order to put her methods into practice.
There are some methods, such as her famous Naughty Step Technique, which she outlines more clearly. Even with that, however, I felt I really needed some case studies or some clearer instructions. Many toddlers have a younger sibling or even a twin, but there is nothing in the book to tell us what to do when the other one interferes with our careful execution of the Naughty Step Technique. When E wanders over to the step and sits down beside M with some books, what do I do? When I pull him away, he cries and keeps running back to sit with his big sister, so by keeping him away I am in effect punishing them both. How do you discipline one while praising the other for their good behaviour?
She also glosses over the “regression” stage that most of us face when we have a second child, even though this has perhaps been the most difficult issue for many of us. If M was previously able to eat perfectly well by herself (and still does at nursery and at Nana’s), but with Mummy she wants to be fed, I can understand the emotional importance of letting M feel like she is my baby again, but I want some clear guidance on what to do at mealtimes. Does refusing to feed herself count as unacceptable behaviour, or do I just roll with it and hope that one day she’s want to be independent again? At what point does it stop being an emotional need and start being her way of manipulating me at mealtimes?
Looking at how I interact with M and E in light of Supernanny’s book, there was one thing that really struck me. When their behaviour isn’t quite what I’d like it to be (that’s a pretty mild way of putting it!), I’m 100% involved with the children, trying to break up fights, make M stay in her Time Out, or bargain with her about eating her dinner. As soon as they are playing nicely, I think “Oh great, they’re playing nicely – I’ll just do a few things while I can…”, and off I go to get the dinner ready, or make a phone call, or check my email. I’ve inadvertently rewarded their bad behaviour with lots of attention, and rewarded their good behaviour with… well, a complete and utter lack of attention. Oops!
Today I started my day with a very different perspective, and tried to look at everything through a Supernanny Top 10 filter, and I think it actually worked. I put my phone away for the whole morning and we just played and sang songs, and I acted out some completely far fetched and silly stories. The children were completely hooked and had a great time. I gave them so many “heads-up” warnings about everything that I felt slightly ridiculous, but for the first time in a very long time, M didn’t whine at all when I said it was time to leave the playground, or time for her nap. We didn’t have a single outburst – not one. The surprising thing was that I didn’t feel like I was exerting loads of effort trying to follow all these rules or constraints – I was actually having a really nice time and so did the children. In fact, Madeleine said to me before going down for her nap, “Mummy, we’ve had a really nice morning, haven’t we?”.
Have you followed Supernanny’s techniques? What did you make of them? What really stood out for you?
Where can I find some guidance about Regression and the issues that come with having more than one child?
I'd love to hear your thoughts, tried and tested techniques, and whatever other advice you'd offer a mum of a 2.5 year old and 15 month old! (If your advice is "Don't have them so close together", it's too late for that!!)