independent

Wednesday 16 April 2014

Our toddler's morning tantrums have left us totally exhausted

I have a three-and-half-year-old daughter and I really need your help and advice on how to get over a number of issues we are having.

For example, she just won't get dressed in the mornings, even if she has a choice of outfits. We end up forcing her pyjamas off her and forcing her clothes on her. Bathtimes are a complete nightmare. We give her lots of notice that she is going to be bathed but she makes every excuse not to go and we have to lift her upstairs. She is screaming and kicking and only starts to calm down when her hair has eventually been washed.

We manage to brush her hair after her bath but can't put a brush near her head for the rest of the week or even tie it up! The only time we can cut her nails is when she falls asleep in the car.

I know that the above sounds minor compared to the behavioural problems that other parents have to deal with but these issues are stressing us out.

I was nearly left in tears this morning when we had to fight with her to put her clothes on.

Unfortunately I am the 'bad cop' and my husband is the 'good cop' in the family. It's just not in his nature to see her upset so he normally gives in and gives her what she wants just for a quiet life, although in the last six to 12 months he has gotten a lot tougher.

How can we avoid so much conflict and make all our lives easier?

IT CAN be very frustrating, and as you describe distressing, having to persuade, cajole or make your child do things that they don't want to do. However, it is a normal part of family life.

"No!" is often the first word that children learn, often because they hear it regularly and often because they discover that it is a very powerful word that seems to engage parents whenever they are challenged by it.

Some of the conflict that can occur is linked to the dynamic of individuation that happens for children. This is where they first realise that they and their primary carer (usually their mam) are separate beings.

Toddlers and preschoolers will often pitch themselves in opposition to their parents as their way of showing their initial independence.

It is really important that we show children gently, but firmly, that we are in charge and that we make the decisions in their best interests for now.

There will be time for children to grow fully into their own decision making, but at this age we still need to make the majority of choices on their behalf.

At most we will allow three-year-olds the kind of fixed choice that you describe, between two outfits, maybe, or two other predetermined options.

While this may seem restrictive, it isn't healthy for small children to grow up with an inflated sense of their own power.

If children feel that their power is unlimited then it causes them and us greater problems when they are older because they cannot accept the limits that life naturally imposes at times. They can struggle with rules and authority which will cause stress in school and beyond.

So your husband, particularly, needs to fall into line and adopt a more determined stance. He needs to set and hold the limits that your daughter requires.

If he gives in to her demands or her opposition on a regular basis then she will have too much power and it will teach her to be more oppositional.

Moreover, if you are trying to hold firm about a decision that you have made and your husband undermines it by giving in to your daughter then you too will lose power and will struggle more to manage and regulate your daughter's behaviour.

You and your husband, therefore, have a big challenge to talk more about how you will jointly approach the parenting challenges you face. The more agreement and consistency you can find and demonstrate, the less opposition you are likely to get.

So, be firm. Part of the reason that your daughter struggles so hard against getting dressed is because sometimes her struggle and her opposition gets her what she wants.

I think you need to be really firm, but understanding and warm, that while she may not like to get dressed she actually has no choice.

When your daughter comes to accept that no matter how hard she protests she will not get her own way then she will start to protest and struggle less. Consistency on your part is the key to achieving this.

While I am advocating firmness and determination from you and your husband, there is nothing harsh or punitive about this approach. While you need to be determined to get your way, it doesn't have to feel like a pitched battle with every issue. You can be warm, funny, empathetic, encouraging and understanding in the face of her resistance.

So, for example, when it comes to dressing you might choose to make it a race between you and her to get dressed first, or a time trial to see how quickly she can get each piece of clothing on.

With bathtime, perhaps let her have her baths with no hair-washing (if that is the main point of contention and stress). This means she might learn that being in the bath can be fun.

Instead wash her hair at some other time by sitting her on a chair with her back to the bath and washing her hair as if she was at a hairdressers. Or let her have more control of the shower head to wash her own hair.

Similarly, look for some detangling spray to reduce the tangles so that hair-brushing becomes less potentially painful.

Your aim is always to let her know that you can understand if some things are unpleasant but that unfortunately she has to put up with them. Then you and your husband need to act as one, in a determined fashion, to follow through with the decisions that you need to make.

Showing her, now, that you are in charge, warmly and fairly, will save you some conflict later in her childhood and her adolescence. So don't be afraid to be firm.

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