Wednesday 26 April 2017

Ask the expert: How can I discipline my toddler son who lashes out at me?

Illustration by Maisie McNeice
Illustration by Maisie McNeice
David Coleman

David Coleman

Clinical psychologist and parenting expert David Coleman has several ideas on how to successfully discipline a three-year-old and advises on the best approach for toilet-training.

Question: I was wondering if you could offer any advice about disciplining my three-year-old son. He's very active and tends to lash out at me and his seven-year-old, very patient, sister. We use the naughty step regularly and at weekends he spends a lot of time there. When he is there all he asks is 'can I get off now?' If I get cross with him he reacts in the same way. If his dad gets cross with him he won't challenge him the way he does with me. He can also be very loving and wants to sit and have a cuddle. He also says sorry and that he won't do it again, but of course he does!

David replies: Yes, I have lots of ideas for disciplining three-year-olds. All of the ideas take into account the nature of active, 'boy' energy that you might be facing. Your experience of spending ages trying to negotiate, or enforce, the naughty step punishment will, I'm sure, ring true for many parents. Lots of parents who use time-out as a punishment find it to be ineffective and the source of increased conflict.

So, I'd suggest you move away from using a naughty step and focus on these positive approaches to discipline instead.

I'd guess that lots of the misbehaviour, or trouble that he causes, happens when you take your eye off him. You may find that by keeping close to him you will be able to foresee some of the trouble on the horizon, such that you can help him to avoid it.

One such way might be to be able to give him a helping hand when he is struggling to achieve something. Three-year-olds can get very frustrated, very quickly, when they don't have the dexterity or strength to do something.

Having an adult there to get him started, or get over the particular hurdle, might offset some of his frustration, leading to less shows of aggression.

Also, when you are observing him, you may discover that there are lots of opportunities to distract him. So, if you can predict that a row is going to erupt, or that he is about to annoy his sister, then intervene to distract him with something more fun or less troublesome.

Indeed, distracting him with something that can allow him to burn off energy is even better.

Spend more of your time trying to actively 'catch him being good'. The danger of him doing lots of 'bold' things is that you start to think of him as a 'bold child'. If you start to consciously note and comment on his good behaviour it will change your perception of him.

You may remember that he is essentially a good boy who sometimes does some bold things.

By focusing on his good behaviour you also increase the amount of attention he gets for being good, such that he may start to realise that you will notice him more for doing good things than bad things. This, in itself, may motivate him to be better behaved (because mammy likes it!).

It will help your son, and yourself, when you become more directive of him. Part of establishing our authority with small children is showing them that they have no choice but to do what we say.

So, rather than simply telling children to stop doing something, we have to actually make them stop. Let's use an example of, say, your son taking the pots out of the cupboard and banging them on the floor.

You do tell him to stop banging, once, but you must back up that direction, or command, by taking the pots from him and putting them out of his reach. If you simply keep repeating your request to stop banging (getting louder and more cross yourself) then it is easy for him to ignore you, and you appear powerless.

You do need to be powerful (but not aggressive) in your interactions with him. You need to show him that you mean business and that you will back up your requests, commands or directions with action.

For sure, too, there will be times when the best thing for everyone will be to remove him from the scene to allow him or you time to calm down. This is time-out, but not time-out as a punishment.

With this kind of time-out, you are just creating some breathing space, welcoming him back to the room or the activity as soon as he is calmer and willing to play by the rules that you have established.

Have you any tips for toilet training our  three -year -old? She seems stubbornly resistant

Question: We are having a lot of difficulty toilet training our three-year-old daughter. We first tried to train her at two years, six months, but she showed no interest and proved incredibly resistant. We stopped, but have started again. She is fully aware of what we want her to do and she is not playing ball. She asks to have her nappy off for a while but always demands it on again if she needs to wee or poo. We give in, as she is visibly upset. She has to be trained by September for her ECCE year and I am becoming anxious that she won't be. Any tips?

David replies: It is always hard when we feel external pressures to push our children into achieving something that we, at heart, don't believe they are ready for. I am not surprised to hear that your daughter resisted your attempts to toilet train her last year. She sounds like she just wasn't ready.

Learning to master bowel and bladder control is a very significant developmental step for children.

They can only achieve that step when they are ready for it. If we try to push them to achieve it sooner we can create an anxiety for them, or give them a sense of failure. It is difficult for children when they don't reach our expectations of them.

Anxiety or fear of failure can set children back even further, making them more cautious and more resistant to taking the risks required to wee and poo in the potty or the toilet.

This sounds like the position that your daughter is in. Part of her, perhaps, is feeling that readiness to wee and poo in the toilet, but at the last minute some anxiety or internal struggle leads her to opt for the safer, more known option of weeing or pooing in her nappy.

Indeed, your daughter has done a good job of listening to her own, internal, instinctive sense of what is right for her just at this moment.

My guess is that, if you didn't feel the pressure of the pre-school's insistence that she be toilet trained before she starts with them in September, you wouldn't be hurrying her along to be trained at this time either.

If the September deadline wasn't in the back of your mind, I'd imagine that you'd be happy to wait until whenever your daughter shows more inclination to toilet train.

So, at the moment, you seem to have a potent mix of your anxiety that she won't toilet train (and, consequently, won't be able to start in the pre-school) and her anxiety about weeing or pooing in the toilet.

So, my advice to you is to try to manage your own anxiety such that you can give your daughter the time she needs to determine, for herself, that weeing and pooing in the toilet is a good plan.

It is good that you let your daughter use a nappy when she asks for one, and, equally, that you let her not wear a nappy when she doesn't want one.

That gives her a lot of control about her own toileting and this will increase her sense of autonomy.

Generally, when we feel we are in control of those things that affect us, we feel less anxiety than when we have no control over what happens to us. So, if your daughter feels like she can be active, and determine what happens with her wees and poos, then she is likely to feel less anxious.

It might also help if you think positively about your daughter, reminding yourself that she will inevitably start using the toilet. Try to focus, positively and confidently, on her ability to make good choices for herself.

Even the way you phrase it, that "she is fully aware of what we want her to do and she is not playing ball", suggests that the toileting is much more your agenda than hers.

Let the toileting become something valuable for her, rather than it just having value for you. I do think that if you can relax a bit more about it that you will find she takes more and more interest in, and more and more responsibility for what happens to those wees and poos.

As she feels more responsible, she will, of her own accord, choose to wee in the potty (or using an insert and step, in the toilet).

All you need do then is just give relaxed positive feedback to her, to let her know that she should feel proud of herself.

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