How to tame a two-year-old dictator
A grandmother asks for help with a two-and-a-half year-old boy who can turn into a dictator.
Q. I am a grandmother at a loss to help my daughter. Knowing the pitfalls of “in my day” advice, I do not offer it unless requested, but the behaviour of her two-and-a-half year-old is causing my daughter to seek help from anyone and everyone.
The little boy is gorgeous, lively and bright. He is also big and strong-willed, and can, in his mother’s words, instantly become a “devil child”.
I read an article about a book called Divas & Dictators. I bought it as a joke but it is now well read. This little dictator has the usual Terrible Twos tantrums. More upsetting is that he deliberately hits when asked to do something he doesn’t want, like getting into his own seat in the car. My daughter likes the negotiation technique but being repeatedly hit and told to “shut up” is upsetting. I prefer to ignore and physically manhandle him. This is difficult when being hit in the face.
He has a lovely home life, involved parents, a caring childminder (she believes in telling the child that some behaviours are unacceptable). He has plenty of socialisation both at play groups and family and friends. However, he knows that this behaviour is not acceptable but appears to enjoy pushing everyone to the limits. He is becoming the little boy that mums do not want their children to play with now.
I feel all the techniques have been tried and most of the time he is a pleasure but these extreme episodes are causing so much heartache to his parents. They need some reassurance.
NM, via email
A. Your daughter is buried in the nightmare of the adorable fiend to which she has given birth, so it is wonderful that there’s a cool-headed granny around. I’m hoping he’s not often as bad as you say because the childminder, with her rules on unacceptable behaviour, seems to be staying on. Nor, it would appear, has the nursery school said anything about the child being a menace. But it is possible your daughter is not passing on all the bad news, because she feels it makes her look like a bad mother.
Next week when the film of We Need to Talk about Kevin comes out, anxious parents will be talking (again) about nature v nurture. The debate may worry your daughter, who, from what you say, feels she has failed already, but it could also provide you with a good moment to unburden her sense of guilt by checking out whether there is not some medical issue involved. First, she and her husband need to admit to each other that there is a problem and, if they agree there is, take action.
Bad behaviour may seem like a vague problem to go to a GP about, but it would be the first step towards a referral to a psychologist or psychiatrist if necessary. It could be anything from frustration due to a speech impediment (we know he says “shut up”, but does he manage longer sentences?) to mild autism (again, we know he goes to nursery but not whether he mixes and plays normally).
She should talk to the nursery staff about his behaviour. If they are worried, ask them to list worrying behaviours to discuss with the GP. She (and you) should also log the troubling incidents at home. It might seem a scarily serious way to proceed, but I have friends with children with problems, including autism and attention deficit disorder, and they all wish they had got help sooner.
But the problem is most likely to be that he is an adored and indulged two year old. Probably the flash points are predictable. With, say, the car seat, is it uncomfortable? Could there be a reward for good behaviour of a book/toy, which would be withdrawn if he makes a fuss getting in? The rule in Divas & Dictators is a praise-to-criticism ratio of 6:1. Embarrassing quantities of praise when a child behaves well normally work in toddler taming. As he appears to be an only child, the root of this may be that neither parent has so far been distracted enough, or iron-willed enough, to simply ignore him when he’s behaving badly. Another child could be the solution to family life. The dictator would have to become more of a democrat.
Q. I am not sure whether parenting problems involve adult sons in their twenties? If so I would be grateful for your advice on handling one of three sons who got married and divorced a few years ago and has estranged himself from his family since.
While we knew the marriage was a mistake, nobody did anything but support him. Now we all feel rejected and helpless.
Jane, via email
A. How miserable for you all. I would like to know more, of course. Does the divorced son not speak to his father or his brothers either? His unfortunate marriage was probably far more embarrassingly grim than he feels he could ever let on.
Rather than making him feel like the trouble in the family who needs support, you could lure him back by asking him to help you with something – thereby turning yourself from his moral superior into the weaker party. If he obliges, I would say thank you in the simplest possible way, resisting the cross-questioning that he dreads. Praise him, of course: no one is ever too old for that.
Next, you could invite him to a film or theatre where there is no danger of a heart-to-heart to frighten him off. How about giving a birthday party for yourself and putting him in charge of choosing the wine? Anything that will make him feel like a man, and not a child. As with sulkers of all ages, it’s best to assume they want to remain part of the family but need help with re-entry.
Q. I am desperately seeking inspiration to get my 12-year-old daughter out of the house. She is reasonably happy but apparently averse to exercise, and while she does not appear to be unfit I worry she may never develop a taste for exercise. We live in central London, so country walks are out, and she is allergic to dogs and horses, so two tempting possibilities are out.
Richard Templeton, Pimlico
A. Lead from the front. Do you jog, swim or play tennis? If so, enthuse about it. If not, start. At 12 she will be starting to worry about getting fat so now’s the time to put the message across that there are better ways of addressing that than dieting.