Thursday 22 March 2018

Parenting: My husband gave our son alcohol. I feel I don't know him anymore

Ask the expert

Illustration: Maisie McNeice
Illustration: Maisie McNeice
David Coleman

David Coleman

The clinical psychologist advises on how to resolve a difference over when your child should have alcohol and what to do when you think your toddler is picking up bad habits from others.

Question: Our eldest son is almost 16. While we were away on holiday my husband bought him a beer. I couldn't believe it. I said nothing in the restaurant because I didn't want to cause a scene. But later that night we had a huge row. I was so shocked and upset. So much for shared values about alcohol! The argument was so unpleasant and escalated into accusations and counter-accusations in all sorts of areas. The rest of the holiday was horribly tense and I don't quite know how to fix things as neither of us is willing to back down. Any ideas?

David replies: It sounds to me like you and your husband might really benefit from a period of couples therapy. The fact that you are arguing is not the problem, but the difficulty you are having in resolving the argument is the reason you might want help.

It is unrealistic to expect that you and your partner will agree about all aspects of parenting your children. Indeed, disagreement about parenting styles and parenting decisions is a contributing factor in lots of marriage and relationship breakdowns.

The difficulty those couples may have is not their differences, but their inability to resolve the differences in a constructive manner.

Odd as it may sound, I think it can be a good thing for couples to argue, especially when those arguments centre around the core values where they may have different opinions.

Indeed, the row itself may simply represent the passion and strength of our convictions. We are just, energetically, trying to persuade someone else of our perspective.

Rowing about what you believe in, in an effort to find common ground and a shared stance to present to your children, is very appropriate.

But, approaching those differences of opinion with a desire to persuade the other person, without a willingness to be persuaded, is often the time when we have most problems.

It isn't often that we go into a row looking for compromise, negotiation and conciliation. We usually just want the other person to change.

What we don't often accept, in any disagreement with our spouses, is that we have to be open to really hearing, and trying to understand, their perspective, as much as we want them to hear and understand ours.

The issue that you describe, above, where your husband encouraged and facilitated your son to drink alcohol is a big deal.

Perhaps, before this holiday, teenagers and alcohol was an area where you felt you and your husband were of one mind.

What you have discovered is that you and your husband obviously diverge greatly in your beliefs about what is okay or not okay for teenagers to do with regard to alcohol.

Perhaps this is something that you have talked about, previously, but I am guessing that it is, in fact, an issue that you hadn't really discussed.

It is certainly an area where you hadn't reached agreement about how you would respond to your son.

It is perfectly fine for you and your husband to have very strong, and very different, beliefs about alcohol use. The challenge, however, is to be able to merge those beliefs into a single unified set of values to present to your son.

Given that the row escalated into further accusations, the incident with the beer may actually be only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to issues that you and your husband disagree on.

Often we are not aware of how our views differ until some moral, or value-based issue with our children arises. But, once we discover that we think or believe differently, it provides an opportunity for our relationship to deepen.

This incident can now be a positive catalyst for you both to move things forward in your relationship.

Now you know that you both have work to do to be able to find some common ground. It seems to me that you just need help to understand each other's perspectives better. This is what you will be asking a therapist to help you with.

My toddler has picked up boisterous and aggressive habits from his childminder's kids. Help!

Question: A local woman minds my two-year-old son. She is lovely, but she has three children of her own, including two older boys aged 7 and 11. These boys are very boisterous. I now see my son being very physical with other little boys and girls. He might shout in their face, or push them, or knock them over. I am mortified. The childminder brushed off my concerns and said she never sees any aggressive behaviour from my son, so I couldn't even suggest that her sons might be causing it. How will I deal with this situation?

David replies: The first thing to consider is that there might be other reasons for your son's behaviour than that he is learning it at his childminder's.

Two-year-old boys can be boisterous all of their own accord! If you look at a group of two-year-olds playing, you will see that they rarely play cooperatively with each other.

Rather, they are usually engaged in what is called "parallel play". That is to say that they are playing by themselves, separately from the other children, but in their company.

Two-year-olds are also, typically, single-minded and selfish in their interests. So, for example, if a two-year-old sees a toy that he or she wants to play with they are quite likely to go and take it, without regard for the child that might be currently playing with it.

Consequently, scuffles, thumps, pushes, wails and tears are common enough occurrences among a group of two-year-olds. This is why they need constant supervision by adults.

Adults being in charge reduce the potential for friction, by intervening if it looks like a child is getting upset, or is about to scuffle for a toy, or is cross that they can't have the toy they want.

It is the adults that coach toddlers about sharing, turn-taking, waiting and such like.

That said, if your son spends a lot of time with older boys, then he is probably also picking up some of the rough and tumble ways that they might be exhibiting. This is a natural part of life, just as it would be if he had older siblings.

You seem upset by the way your childminder dismissed your concerns. I could imagine that if she does indeed have boisterous boys of her own that she pays little heed to a few bumps and thumps that she may consider to be part of the to and fro of life.

Even if your son has picked up some boisterousness from the older boys, it isn't really their fault and it might be a bit much to expect them to change, just because your son is also there.

So, even if you feel that her children are "causing" your child to be aggressive or pushy, there would be little that you could expect them to do differently in their own home.

However, if you feel really dissatisfied that your son is learning to misbehave in the childminder's house then you may have little choice but to change to a new childminder.

To my mind, this seems like an extreme response to a minor and, hopefully, transient phase that your son is in.

Assuming that everything else about the childminder's is good, then the positives must significantly outweigh this possible negative.

Rather than focusing on the childminder and what might be happening in her house, you may be best focusing on how you can teach your son that certain behaviours are okay and certain behaviours are not okay.

The most effective way to do this, with young children, is repeated direction and instruction, coaching them moment to moment. So when you see him behaving appropriately you can reinforce this by praising the good behaviour you see.

Be specific about what is good about the behaviour, for example, saying "you are playing in a very friendly way, sharing your toys".

Then, if you see him grabbing or hitting another child you must intervene, saying firmly, "no grabbing/hitting" and then lifting him away from the other child.

Regularly "catching him being good" and redirecting him if he misbehaves is the most effective way to guide him away from aggressive behaviour and towards more friendly behaviour.

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