I don’t look like a monster…

…but I definitely feel like one. It’s hard not to when you make your closest loved ones cry multiple times every day.

It happens when you have a precocious almost-four-year-old, a wilful one-and-a-half-year-old, and a wife who would rather be a best friend to our daughters than a parent.

I see more tears than smiles. I say no far more often than I say yes. While my wife gives them toys and sweets and chocolate and ice-cream, I take away toys and sweets and chocolate and ice-cream. My weapons are the naughty step, the counting to three, the threat (never followed through with) of bed without supper.

I am the one who says, ‘You’ve watched enough TV,’ before switching it off. I am the one who says, ‘No, we can’t afford it,’ while driving past the restaurant on our way to homemade spaghetti bolognaise. Time for bed, time for bath, brush your teeth, put your shoes on, you need a coat, just behave, no, no, no.

And then once they’re in bed, I lay into my wife – stop buying so much, you’re spoiling them, the house is a tip, why did you give them sugar at bedtime? You have to toughen up, they’re walking all over you, I don’t care if they like having a tent in the living room, I’m taking it down. If you want to go on holiday, stop wasting your money on takeout. No, we’re not getting a gosh-darned rabbit, you don’t even look after the pets we’ve got. Another one? You want another baby? The two we’ve got are running me ragged and you want to add to this chaos?

So she goes to bed around half-eight every night, and I sit alone on the sofa and check to see if I’ve sprouted horns from my forehead.

How do my kids see me? When they don’t hate me, they seem to like me, but certainly from the eldest, the hate comes through far more often than the love. I’m definitely the mean one, the one who shouldn’t be crossed, the one who isn’t fun. I’m the one she wants to leave behind on family outings, and who isn’t invited to her birthday. I’m not the one she hugs and kisses and gives affection to, no matter how much I want to be.

And yet, I’m also the one she turns to whenever she’s in need of help. I’m the one who sorts out her ouchies, who wipes her bottom and fixes her toys. I’m the one she shouts for in the night to scare away the monsters. I’m the one that takes her to the doctor, the hospital, who gives her the medicine and puts on the cream. I’m the one she knows will be there for her, looking out for her, whether we’re friends or not.

In life, in relationships, we all have a role to play. Mine is the rock you cling to in stormy waters. I first noticed this at university, when I realised all my friendships were one-to-one, and consisted of meeting people in cafes so they could tell me all their problems and confess their deepest, darkest secrets. I wouldn’t see them for a few months until it was time for another counselling session. They had plenty of other friends to have fun with – I was the friend they needed when things got serious.

And that is the way it is with my kids.

I feel very lucky to be able to fulfil this role.

And awfully lonely because of it.

I guess even monsters have feelings.

My devious threenager

Normally it’s pretty easy to know what to do as a parent – they’re good, you praise them, they’re naughty, you punish them. This is just as true with new behaviours as old, because you generally expect the ways they behave, either as a natural part of child development or an extension of your own personality. They start to bite? You know how to deal with that. They hit you? You hit them right back (joking!).

However, my three-year-old’s recent behaviour has thrown me through a loop, because it’s so unexpected I have no idea how I feel about it and, consequently, no idea how to treat it. It’s just so naughty yet so gosh-darned smart I can’t help but admire it, and as it’s the first truly individual expression of her own personality, I don’t really want to squash it.

For at least a year now, my daughter has not been allowed a dummy, so imagine my surprise when I checked on her in the middle of the night to discover her asleep with a dummy in her mouth, only to have that dummy disappear by morning. This happened two or three nights in a row – no dummy at bedtime, no dummy in the morning, but a dummy in the middle of the night – so I casually asked her about it over breakfast.

‘Oh,’ she said. ‘That’s my secret dummy.’

‘Your secret dummy?’ I asked.

She nodded. ‘I keep it in a secret place.’

‘You know you’re not allowed dummies, right?’

‘I know, but it’s my secret dummy,’ she said, ‘and I only use it when I need to.’

Well, what the hell can you say to that? She’s not allowed a dummy, but the fact that she has a secret life that goes on unobserved by her parents, an independent little three-year-old world that’s entirely hers, is crazily advanced and individualistic, and I’d feel like a real meanie taking that away from her.

Also, I have no idea where she hides it!

This strange, devious streak infuses much of her behaviour. If I tell her she has to eat her dinner before she can have pudding, she’ll dutifully clear her plate. We’ll have a great evening, and then after I’ve put her to bed, I’ll start to tidy and discover her dinner hidden under a cushion or on a shelf. I’ve also caught her slipping food onto her sister’s plate, since my youngest – aka The Hoover – will scoff it down before anyone notices.

She’s also cunning with her excuses. Not when she blames her sixteen-month-old sister for things, or says she has her sister’s permission, or that her sister, who can’t talk yet, told her to – because that’s pretty easy to see-through. But some of her excuses are so, well, plausible, I sometimes wonder who’s the one being unreasonable.

Last night, for example, I caught her drawing on the walls with a set of coloured lip  salves she got for Christmas. Of course, I hit the freaking roof. But her excuse? On an episode of the TV programme Bing, they paint a rainbow on Sula’s wall to make the room pretty, and she thought she’d make it pretty for us as a nice surprise. She knows she’s not allowed to draw on the walls with pens or pencils or crayons, which is why she did it with coloured lip balm. And doesn’t it look nice?

Oh. Well, when you put it like that, it doesn’t seem quite so unreasonable. In fact, punishing you for it is what seems unreasonable. So, like, don’t do it again, okay?

And that’s happening every day at the moment. I look at my daughter and think, Aren’t I supposed to be telling you off right now? I’m not even sure myself. Maybe that’s a good thing.

Or maybe it means she’s winning.

The value of persistence

A while ago I posted An open letter to the Mental Health Community arguing that when confronted by a person with both autism and mental health difficulties, they found it all too easy to fob us off to the Learning Disabilities Team without properly investigating our problems. The specific cause of that letter was their refusal to see my wife, despite her deteriorating mental health, because of her autism. Hardly a stellar job of ‘care in the community’.

While not deigning to see her, they did, in absentia, recommend the GP put her on a second antidepressant in addition to the one she was already on, which caused her mood swings to become even more wild, and resulted in massive disruption to our home life without any follow-up. So my wife stopped taking all her antidepressants, and things got even worse. Again, a signal failure of the Mental Health Community to provide much-needed help and support to a person (and family) in distress. (Learning Disabilities, by the way, refused to see her because, apparently, her IQ is too high. So where exactly do people with autism go to get specialist help?)

I will be honest with you – thanks to my wife’s unstable, abusive, and downright crazy behaviour, her unwillingness to address her issues, and our increasingly fractious relationship, I have seriously considered walking out and taking the kids with me. It has been a year of absolute hell, and there is not one person I’ve spoken to who thinks I should stay, and fifteen or so who have told me I should go.

My response has always been the same: I want to make sure I’ve tried everything to make it work before I go so that if one day my kids ask me if there was anything more I could have done, I can honestly say no. People tell me I have passed that point, but I do not need to justify it to them, only myself and my children. But it has been far from easy.

Unwilling to give up and convinced there was more going on with my wife than simply autism, I read everything I could about developmental disorders, learning disabilities and mental health issues, until I eventually came across something called Emotionally Unstable Personality Disorder of the Impulsive Type. Of the five criteria in ICD-10, my wife fit all of them, and you need three for a diagnosis. Of the nine criteria on the NHS website (five required for a diagnosis), she fit eight.

Her impulsive behaviours without any thought of the consequences, her self-destructive tendencies, her mood swings and emotional overreactions, her uncontrollable behavioural explosions, her lack of opinions and minimal sense of self, her terrible fear of abandonment, her need for continual reassurance, her turbulent interpersonal relationships, her refusal to follow through with anything that doesn’t give instant gratification, her ‘zoning out’ whenever anything ‘difficult’ is discussed, her hypersensitivity to perceived criticism, her paranoia at times of stress and break from reality when she is highly emotional, her profligate spending, her binge eating, the fact she swings from obsessing over me to hating me, and that she can never be relaxed or comfortable – it all fits EUPD.

And it’s hardly a new thing – her school reports aged five, six, seven say the exact same things: gives up on anything that’s hard; does not apply herself; struggles to control her behaviour; will not take instruction or correction; retreats into her own world and is unreachable; does not mix well with the other children; terrified of failing; requires constant reassurance; moody; angry; difficult.

Armed with this knowledge, I wrote a document outlining all the symptoms and diagnostic criteria of EUPD, and all of my wife’s behaviours that fit these conditions, and examples of each. We then went back to the doctor, who again referred my wife to the Community Mental Health Team, and attached this document. Lo and behold, they agreed to see my wife this time.

She saw them today with her Care Manager. Yes, they said, she almost certainly has Emotionally Unstable (Impulsive) Personality Disorder. They are referring her to a specialist to diagnose her and giving her twelve weeks of CBT. It is a lifelong condition and they will work with her. Thank goodness.

I suppose I should be relieved, and thankful. But here is my issue: I am not a doctor. I am most certainly not a psychiatrist. I am in no way a mental healthcare professional. So why the hell was it down to me to investigate, research and suggest a potential diagnosis? Why on earth did I have to fight and struggle and browbeat and beg and eventually find the answers for myself before anyone would see us? And why, if it’s so plain she has a personality disorder, has it taken until she is 32 years of age for someone to spot it? Not to mention that if they had seen her seven months ago, it would have saved my family a shitload of soul-searching, heartache and pain. Seems to me there’s not that much ‘care’ in healthcare.

But at least this shows the value of persistence. If at first you don’t succeed…do their job for them.

A Problem of Discipline: My Toddler

Back in April I started a three-part series grandly entitled How to Discipline a Toddler because I was a smug git. At the time I had a very well-behaved toddler that I was easily able to understand and control, a foolproof weapon called the Naughty Step that could solve any problem, and the patience of a saint. The world could only stand to benefit from the fruits of my experience.

Regular readers of this blog might have noticed that after starting this series, the frequency of my posts dropped off the face of the Earth, and I am yet to write number three. The reason for this, I can now reveal, is that almost immediately after starting to write about how great I am at disciplining my toddler, things became slightly more problematic – which is a nicer way of saying that my daughter Izzie morphed into a freaking demon child.

Despite my best attempts to stress that good behaviour is not dependant on an external force but an internal sense of right and wrong, Izzie has decided that if I don’t see her misbehave then it must be okay. I know this because she has told me as much – repeatedly.

It’s my own fault for not being clear in my language – for allowing her a legal loophole she can exploit.

‘The next time I see you snatch your sister’s toy off her, you’re on the naughty step.’

‘Okay, daddy, I make sure you not see me.’

Little bastard! If I’m cooking in the kitchen while she’s misbehaving in the lounge and I tell her off, she often closes the door and shouts, ‘You not see, it’s okay,’ and goes right back to doing it.

Sometimes she even tells me when she’s about to be naughty: ‘Daddy, don’t look, I going to push Rosie over.’

She understands the concept of differential authority too. ‘Take your sister’s dummy out of your mouth, you know your mum hates it.’

She takes it out and looks around. ‘Where is mummy?’ she asks.

‘She’s in the bath.’

So she puts the dummy back in and grins at me with an I-outsmarted-you look on her three-year-old face.

Of course, this is nothing next to the tantrums that occur Every. Single. Time. We. Say. No.

It’s a constant battle for supremacy.

‘I want to get dressed downstairs.’

‘No, upstairs.’

Tantrum.

‘I want ice cream for breakfast.’

‘No, you’re having cereal.’

Tantrum.

‘Here’s your juice.’

‘I want it in that cup.’

‘Well it’s already in this cup.’

Tantrum.

And this is all before 8 o’clock! If I could drink toddler tears, I’d never have to use the tap again.

Then there’s the insolence. Every night, for example, at some point during the night she opens all her drawers and throws every item of clothing out over the floor – and since my wife is a hoarder, that’s a lot of clothes. So every night before bedtime I say to her, ‘You will not make a mess tonight or I will be very cross with you in the morning.’

She grins at me and says, ‘I’ll make a little mess.’

‘No,’ I say. ‘No mess. All your clothes are to stay in your drawers.’

‘Okay, I’ll only empty one drawer.’

‘No. No drawers.’

And then I’ll catch her doing it in the night, and I’ll snap, ‘What did I say about not making a mess?’

And she’ll laugh and shout, ‘You say I can make a big, big mess.’

Argh!

She’s also become really mean. It first happened when I was trying to get my youngest, Rosie, off to sleep. I was rocking her in my arms about 8.30, an hour after I’d put Izzie to bed, when Izzie appeared in her doorway and informed me that she had decided to have a bath and if I didn’t like it, I should simply look away.

‘Izzie,’ I replied. ‘Close the door and go back to bed.’

‘No, daddy,’ she said. ‘You listen to me. I having a bath.’

‘Actually, you’ll close that door and go back to bed by the count of three or I’ll cancel you seeing Granny tomorrow.’

‘Daddy,’ she said defiantly, ‘daddy, you not talk to me ever again and I not talk to you ever again, okay?’

‘Be that as it may, ONE, TWO…’

The door slammed, and I heard lots of sobbing and muttering interspersed with the words ‘daddy naughty’, over and over. Sucks to be me.

This has grown into a daily tirade of, ‘Daddy, I not like you anymore. Daddy, you very naughty. Daddy, I love mummy but not you. I not talk to you anymore. Daddy, if I have to choose you or mummy, I always choose mummy.’

Which, despite her being a toddler, is incredibly hurtful.

As are the lies she’s started telling about me. Whenever she says in front of people that she doesn’t like me, they invariably ask, ‘Oh, why not?’

‘He hits me on the head and pushes me down the stairs.’

‘What!?’ I cry. ‘I do no such thing!’

Which makes me look guilty as sin.

The truth is that she’s cross with me because I discipline her, and loves her mother because she doesn’t. Indeed, her mother is her best friend who plays with her and mucks around with her and is really just a big kid to her, while I’m the authority figure who exists simply to spoil their fun.

It has, without a doubt, grown far worse since my wife has started putting Izzie to bed. I spent three years putting Izzie to bed, every single night. I spent the past ten months putting both kids to bed, every single night. I hoped, I prayed, I begged for my wife to help me out, and after three years she finally relented about a month ago and put Izzie to bed.

And from that moment on, Izzie only wants mummy to put her to bed, and tantrums if daddy tries to do it. Which, after three years of my doing it, is a real kick in the crotch.

Of course, the reason she loves her mummy doing it is because her mummy doesn’t actually put her to bed. They go to the bedroom and play. Then my wife leaves and Izzie follows her and they get into mummy and daddy’s bed and play. And then mummy goes to sleep and Izzie continues to play. And then I come upstairs and shout at Izzie for not being in bed and shout at mummy for not putting Izzie to bed, and then I put Izzie to bed and she sobs herself to sleep because daddy’s so mean and mummy is her favourite. Again, sucks to be me.

I think what bugs me most about this is that, because she is now three, she’s going to start remembering things. And despite everything I’ve done for three years, her earliest memories are going to be of her mummy playing with her and lovingly putting her to bed every night while her daddy just tells her off all the time. And that’s not fair.

What it boils down to is that my wife has all the fun, playful, exciting quality time with Izzie, while I get to do all the practical things, like wiping her bottom, cutting her fingernails, kissing her ‘ouchies’ away, taking her to the doctor, ripping off her plasters, removing her splinters, and putting her on the Naughty Step. No wonder she doesn’t like me!

I’m not sure how I can change this, however. My wife encourages me to play with her more often, but my attempts to be a fun dad have only made things worse.

A typical example – we sit down to play with her Sylvanian Families and I pick up a hedgehog and put it in the toy car.

‘Brrmm, brrmm,’ I say, before she snatches it off me and shouts, ‘No, they having a picnic!’

I see she has arranged the chairs in a circle.

‘Okay,’ I say, picking up another toy. ‘Here comes Mrs Rabbit,’ and I put her in a chair.

‘No!’ Izzie cries. ‘She sitting over here.’

‘Okay,’ I say, picking up another. ‘Where does Mr Panda sit?’

‘Mr Panda not invited!’ she shouts, slapping it out of my hand. ‘You not doing it right!’

‘Well then!’ I shout back. ‘If you won’t let me do anything then I won’t blinking well play with you!’

And then she goes to her mum all stroppy and whines, ‘Daddy not playing with me.’

I tell you, she’s driving me crazy. As if to sum it all up, she has a new favourite song. I always flick between the rock channels on TV and I stumbled across an old hip-hop classic which she instantly fell in love with. In a moment I’ve come to regret, when she asked me what it was, I told her.

We have an Amazon Dot…or Echo, or whatever it’s called. Izzie used to say, ‘Lexa, play Tinkle, Tinkle,’ and it’d play Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star by The Rainbow Collection. Ahhh.

She’s not so pure any more.

‘Lexa, play House of Pain, Jump Around.’

And then she proceeds to jump around the lounge shouting, ‘House of Pain! House of Pain! House of Pain!’

And it truly is.

But that’s only half the reason I’m blogging so rarely. The other half turned eleven months the other day, and I’ll describe that demon child in another post – if I ever get the chance again!

How to Discipline a Toddler, Part 2: The Fundamentals

Right from the get go, let me say that I’m not a professional, I’m not trained in child care, and despite living all day, every day with a toddler, I am by no means an expert. Nor am I a perfect dad – like every parent, there are days I find my little girl’s behaviour so exasperating I just want to throw her out the nearest window – without opening it (I don’t, just to be clear for all the social workers reading this!). I make mistakes, fail to follow my own advice, and can sometimes make a real mess of things – especially as most of my books are out of date.

That said, I do think I’m doing a pretty good job of raising a polite and conscientious – if spirited, wilful and independent – little girl, and it’s all down to discipline. For those who think that ‘discipline’ is synonymous with ‘punishment’ or ‘conformity’, it doesn’t mean suppressing her individuality or stifling her need to express herself – it simply means we have certain standards of behaviour we all need to follow in order to get along with one another, and teaching a child what these are from an early age makes life a lot easier. Nobody wants a child that bites, or hits other children, or thinks it’s fun to break all their toys. Discipline is how you prevent that.

So, in that spirit, let’s begin.

Boundaries

Whether you’re a strict parent or more laid back, every child needs boundaries, even simply as something to push against as they develop their personalities. It doesn’t matter if you have five house rules or fifty-five (although that does seems slightly excessive), as I mentioned in How to Discipline a Toddler, Part 1: Understanding your toddler, the basis of discipline is to be clear, calm and consistent. Your child needs to know where the boundaries are and what happens when they cross them, every time, no matter what day it is, where they are or who they’re with. And that takes thought and communication.

You need to decide what’s important and what the rules are, and you need to make sure your partner, parents and other care givers are on the same page. I’m not saying the grandparents have to follow the rules exactly – they’re meant to spoil the grandkids – but make sure everyone knows what’s expected. Otherwise, your child won’t know whether they’re coming or going, or worse they’ll play you off against each other because they know you’re inconsistent in your approach, and if you want problems in a relationship, that’s a great way of starting them.

For the most part, effective discipline is simply saying what you mean and meaning what you say. Don’t lie to a child to make things easier right now, because you’ll have to deal with the repercussions of that dishonesty later. Don’t negotiate or bargain, don’t beg or plead, and don’t get into arguments, because they’re a toddler and their stubbornness knows no bounds. And if you threaten something or promise something, you have to follow through with it. The moment you fail to be consistent, you’re sending mixed messages and starting down the slippery slope towards chaos.

If your child asks for something they know they’re not allowed to have, look them in the eye and calmly but firmly say no. And then disengage. You’ve already answered their request, so they need to know that all the subsequent shouting, whining and playing up isn’t going to get them what they want. And no matter how hard it is, stick to it.

Nobody wants to spend all day shouting at their kids and saying no, no, no all the time, but that’s something you see practically everywhere in public – supermarkets, beaches, fairgrounds, the swimming pool. Shouting parents, screaming children, locked in a battle of wills. It shouldn’t be a battle – you’re the adult and what you say goes. Sticking to consistent boundaries is how you achieve that.

Avoiding discipline

The best way of avoiding conflict is discipline, and the best discipline is avoiding having to discipline at all.

What the hell does that mean? Simple. The use of specific disciplinary techniques should be part of a wider strategy that encourages good behaviour, anticipates problems, and relies on punishment only when necessary.

I heard recently that the average toddler receives around 300 negative statements a day – don’t do that, stop, be quiet, put that down, you’re driving me insane – and only ten positive comments. I can well believe it.

Instead of constantly correcting your child and turning your lives into a misery, use the other tools in your repertoire. Toddlers are easily bored, but this also means they’re easily distracted. If your toddler is fiddling with something you don’t want her to fiddle with, pick her up and move her away from it. If she’s heading towards something you know she shouldn’t, distract her with something else. Involve her in what you’re doing. Ask her if she can help you find X, Y or Z. Tell her to shout out if she sees a red car. Make a game of everything. Channel that energy into something positive and tell her well done and very good, because that way you’re giving her attention and reinforcing good behaviour instead of focusing all your attention on the bad.

This last skill is very important. If you’re spending all your time engaging with your toddler when she’s naughty, then she has a reason to be naughty – even if she’s not getting what she wants, she’s getting you. This is especially true if you have a younger sibling in the house – the acting out is to bring your attention from the baby and onto them. So one technique is to ignore the bad behaviour if you can – don’t give it the oxygen it needs to breathe. This is really clear if your child picks up a swear word. Reacting to it only makes them say it more – ignore it and they stop using it. Knowing when to punish and when to ignore is a judgement call, but one that becomes easier with experience.

With experience you can also anticipate problems and head them off at the pass. I know my daughter is going to kick off when getting out of the bath, at bedtime and when leaving a friend’s house, so instead of dumping these things on her, I give her a five-minute warning to get her head round it, then a two-minute warning, and a one-minute warning. You’re an expert on your child so you know the flashpoints, and you have to adapt your behaviour accordingly.

Much of this is about planning. For example, most kids are at their worst when they’re hungry and when they’re tired, so make sure they’re properly fed and well rested. Don’t cram too much stimulation into one day or you’re setting yourself up for a fractious child. Also, be careful what you feed them – a sugary snack is a nice treat from time to time, so long as you’re prepared to scrape them off the ceiling afterwards as their blood sugar goes sky high, and then deal with the corresponding sugar crash when it drops again. With a little effort and a lot of creativity, you’ll find you’re winning in the behaviour wars.

 

Types of discipline

Of course, avoiding discipline only goes so far, and sometimes, whether it’s once a day or twenty, you have to go further.

According to Hoffman and Saltzstein (1967), disciplinary techniques can be divided into the following three types:

  1. Power assertion – physical punishment, removal of material possessions such as toys.
  2. Love withdrawal – paying no attention, showing no affection.
  3. Induction – letting the child know the effect their behaviour has on others.

As Feldman (1977) showed, a key difference between these types is that the first encourages good behaviour through fear of an external threat, whereas the second two encourage good behaviour through an internal sense of guilt. In the long term, children disciplined through love withdrawal and induction are far more likely to develop self control than those disciplined through power assertion, who come to depend upon the threat of external punishment to control their behaviour. Indeed, the more aggression a parent shows, the greater a child’s dependence on this external threat, whereas those disciplined in the other two ways learn to behave irrespective of any exterior influence.

In basic English, this means that shouting at your kids from time to time isn’t going to do them any harm, but if it’s your main means of controlling them, eventually the only way you’ll be able to make them behave is by shouting at them – which is going to cause everyone a great deal of aggro, especially if you’re in a restaurant. Furthermore, if you’re not looking or they think they can get away with it, they are less likely to behave because the behavioural controls haven’t been internalized – they’re only behaving because they’re afraid of being caught and punished.

On the other hand, a technique such as the naughty step (see Part 3: the Techniques), which combines both love withdrawal and induction, is a far more effective way of creating a child who will behave whether you’re watching or not. Instead of behaving because they’re afraid of punishment, the child behaves because they want to be loved and don’t want to hurt other people’s feelings – which, for my money, makes it a no-brainer which type of discipline to use.

However, studies have also suggested it is not necessarily the type or strictness of the disciplinary technique but its consistency that is the key to developing good behaviour. Furthermore, utilising a single technique tends to reduce its effectiveness over time, so the choice of what to use is up to you.

The process of punishment

When resorting to punishment, it is helpful to know how punishment works and thus what might work best for you and your family.

The process of punishment tends to go like this: the child commits an infraction, which destabilises the equilibrium; the child is punished, creating a rupture in their relationship with the parent; the child performs a restorative act that repairs the relationship; and the equilibrium is restored. An example would be that the child hits her sister; you put her on the naughty step; she says sorry; then you kiss and make up and the punishment is over.

The shorter the gap between the transgression, the punishment and the restorative act, the more strongly they are associated in the child’s mind and thus the more effective the technique. Therefore, the punishment should be performed right away – no ‘wait till your dad gets home.’

This is another reason that the naughty step technique is so effective – it requires the restorative act to complete, whereupon everyone’s happy and gets on with their day. With power assertion techniques, the punishment ends with the smack or the toy being confiscated, and it can be a long time before a restorative act is performed. This means that, rather than being a short, sharp punishment, something like smacking is a punishment that lasts far longer than the simple physical act.

I well remember being sent to my room as a child and waiting for my father to come up and administer my punishment. After being smacked, the relationship would remain tense and an uncomfortable atmosphere would linger in the house, making it a prolonged and deeply unpleasant experience all round. Effective use of the naughty step is a far more appropriate means of controlling bad behaviour without creating an unhappy household.

A special note on smacking

This leads me to my last section in this post: whether or not it is right to smack your children. While there are arguments for and against the moral issue of corporal punishment, most experts agree that it just isn’t very effective – certainly not as effective as the other techniques that are available.

Legally, smacking is very much a grey area. In England, for example, smacking is classed as common assault, but if done in the home, the parent is able to use the defence of ‘reasonable punishment’, provided it doesn’t cross the line into ABH, GBH or child cruelty. However, where common assault becomes ABH  – the injury must be more than ‘transient and trifling’ – is unclear, and there is no definition of what constitutes ‘reasonable’ punishment. Citizens Advice suggests that if the smack leaves any kind of mark – a bruise, for example – the parent is liable for prosecution and can have their kids taken away and placed into care. Whether you want to risk that is up to you.

As somebody who was smacked as a child, I can honestly say, ‘It never did me any harm.’ Yes, I remember being smacked so hard on the bottom when I was four, I literally couldn’t sit down for the rest of the day – but I had just bitten my brother, and I never bit him again. Smacking, in this instance at least, did its job.

On the other hand, I’ve never smacked my kids and I don’t intend to, for several reasons. Firstly, if you smack your children when you’re angry, then you are lashing out and taking out your annoyance on a toddler, which seems wrong on so many levels. Furthermore, if good discipline is all about consistency, how consistently can you smack when you’re angry? Anybody who has slammed a door can attest to being unable to accurately gauge force when angry, so really, if you smack a child when you’re angry, you have no idea how hard you’re hitting them.

I also have problems with smacking children after you’ve calmed down. While it’s true that the force you use can be more measured, if you’ve waited until you’re less riled up, the punishment comes way after the transgression. Furthermore, deliberately deciding to inflict pain upon your loved ones for their own good when you’re not angry with them doesn’t seem like a psychologically healthy long-term strategy.

And lastly, if you’re hitting children in order to teach them not to hit, what kind of a cock-eyed lesson is that?

‘Don’t (smack) hit (smack) people (smack).’

Hypocrisy, thy name is you.

Look out  for How to Discipline A Toddler, Part 3: The Techniques

How to Discipline a Toddler, Part 1: Understanding your toddler

Understanding how a toddler sees the world is the first step in effective discipline. Below are the basics you need to know before you even begin attempting to correct your child’s behaviour.

Toddlers aren’t naughty per se

As an autistic guy, I’m told my Theory of Mind skills are fairly poor. This means that I struggle to read or understand the thoughts and feelings of others, so find it difficult to see things from another’s perspective, predict their behaviour, or put myself in their shoes.

However, I have to say that, as the father of a 33-month-old, I think most of society has poor Theory of Mind skills when it comes to toddlers. If anything, I think I understand toddlers better than most.

The important aspect of ToM – well, important to me, at least – is interpreting intent. If you can’t understand where people are coming from then you can’t understand why they do things and therefore you misinterpret their motives, their capabilities, and the fact that mostly another person’s behaviour has nothing to do with you.

My wife, for example, who is also on the autism spectrum, is unable to fathom that if somebody did something that upset her, they didn’t necessarily do it in order to upset her. She gets it into her head that the person has deliberately chosen to slight her, has selected a course of action designed to offend her, and is fully cognizant of the effects of their behaviour.

This seems to be the way most adults think of toddlers – that they deliberately misbehave, that they know when they’re being naughty, and that they have some sort of inbuilt moral compass that they choose to disregard just to annoy you.

I’ve heard it so many times – you did that on purpose, stop being naughty, you knew what would happen, what’s wrong with you, just behave!

I find myself doing it sometimes – ‘Be a good girl for Granny,’ I say, as though a toddler has any idea what being a ‘good girl’ actually means. She doesn’t – of course she doesn’t. Like a person with autism, she needs to be given specific instructions – ‘When Granny tells you to do something, you have to do it,’ is a far better lesson than the horribly arbitrary injunction to be ‘good’ or to ‘behave’. Being ‘good’ is a thousand different acceptable behaviours, and until a toddler has learnt them all, how can we possibly ascribe malicious intent to them?

So when your child is doing things that are naughty, try to get it out of your head that they’re aware they’re being naughty and doing it to be naughty. It’s nothing personal, it just is. As frustrating and upsetting as their behaviours can be, they don’t ‘mean it’.  Bear that in mind when they’re pushing every one of your buttons at the same time, as only toddler can.

Toddlers aren’t little adults

There’s been a trend in recent years to treat children as little adults – as rational beings that are capable of making informed choices. You simply have to explain things to them, so the logic goes, treat them with respect, ask for consent to change their nappies, trust them, and they will behave like great little people.

None of that is actually true, but people like to think it is.

The truth is that toddlers are aliens. They are totally unlike adults. You’d be better off trying to reason with a jellyfish. That’s not to say that they can’t learn and you can’t teach them to behave, but children are not moral beings and are unable to make moral judgements about right and wrong, and anyone who thinks they are hasn’t done their research.

I have. During my Psychology A-Level I experimented on children (nothing sinister). Adapting an experiment I found in a textbook, I wrote two stories. In the first, Sam was called down to dinner. Unbeknownst to Sam, behind the door on a chair were fifteen glasses, and when Sam opened the door, the chair was knocked over and all fifteen glasses smashed. In the second story, Jo wanted a cookie but Jo’s mother said no. When Jo’s mother went out, Jo climbed up onto the sideboard to get a cookie, in the process knocking one glass off the edge, which smashed on the floor. These were sent to various middle schools, to children aged 5-6 and 10-11, along with a questionnaire to ask which child was naughtiest.

I deliberately avoided using the words ‘accidentally’ and ‘on purpose’, since even very young kids are taught through tellings-off that accidental equals good and on purpose equals bad, and the results were pretty conclusive.

95% of the children aged 5-6 thought Sam was naughtiest because Sam broke fifteen glasses and Jo only broke one; how the glasses were broken, and what the child was doing at the time, didn’t factor into their thinking about morality. Right and wrong, to these kids, is based on the extent of the damage, not the intent.

95% of the children aged 10-11, on the other hand, thought Jo was naughtiest because while Sam’s was clearly an accident, Jo was being disobedient when he broke his glass. Right and wrong, to these kids, is based on the context and intent of the behaviour.

Clearly, then, unless you spell it out to them, children don’t have the cognitive ability to work out good and bad behaviour until they’re between the ages of 7-10. Expecting toddlers to make good moral judgements is the height of ignorance. The only right and wrong they understand is that which you drum into them. They’re not naughty because they’re bad; they’re naughty because they don’t understand the concept of naughtiness.

Toddlers haven’t yet learned to control their emotions

You can control your impulses because you’re an adult and have spent your whole life learning that feelings and actions are different things. You are aware that just because you have a feeling, that doesn’t mean you have to act on it.

Toddlers haven’t learnt that yet.

For the most part, they live in the present tense, with no concept of consequence. If they have an urge or a feeling, they want it gratified there and then. What’s worse, by the time they’re toddlers they know how to fulfil their wants and needs but haven’t yet developed the notion of whether they should.

Whether or not you believe in Freudian theory, it provides a useful illustration for this stage of development. The idea is that the human mind is divided into three parts that develop over time. We start with the id, that part of ourselves that is pure desire and lust. It is the part of the mind that says, ‘I am hungry!’

Then we develop the ego, the part of the mind that enables us to fulfill our wants. If the id says ‘I am hungry!’ then the ego says, ‘I will eat a biscuit!’

And lastly there’s the superego, which delves into morals and ethics. It’s the bit that says, ‘Well, I could have a biscuit, but I’m on a diet, and actually it’s not even my biscuit, so maybe I’d better not.’

Toddlers have ids and egos, but the superego is a work in progress. Thus if you expect them to ask themselves whether they should do something, you’ll be consistently disappointed.

Alongside this lack of impulse control is a lack of reasoning ability. If they want something, they want it there and then, and if they can’t, it seems unfair, arbitrary and painful. A toddler doesn’t care if you explain to them that the reason they can’t have a choc-choc bar is because the shop is closed: in that moment, all they can see is that they’re hungry, they want a choc-choc bar, and you are preventing them from having it. Thus toddlers have as poor Theory of Mind skills as many of their parents as they similarly believe that if something upsets them, it’s your fault and you’re doing it deliberately. Overwhelmed by the unfairness of it all, it’s no wonder they throw themselves on the floor and tantrum.

But we’re adults, and we have to be above it. They’re not having a tantrum to be naughty – they simply don’t understand and can’t process their emotions when their needs cannot be immediately fulfilled.

Setting boundaries and creating consequence

Taking into account all of the above, this is how it works in practice:

You’re sitting eating dinner with your child when she suddenly picks up a handful of potato and throws it right in your face. How do you react?

If you said, ‘Scream and shout and get angry,’ you’d be completely normal, because a handful of potato flung in your face isn’t exactly a pleasant experience. But why did your child do it? To be naughty? To annoy and upset you?

No, of course not. Probably, they did it because they thought, ‘I want to throw this.’ Or, ‘I wonder if I can throw this in daddy’s face?’ Or, if they’re slightly more advanced, ‘What would happen if I throw this in daddy’s face?’ So really, despite thinking you’re the centre of the universe, a toddler’s behaviour has very little to do with you.

Of course, they are capable of following instructions, so if they still throw potato in your face after you’ve specifically asked them not to, what’s happening there? Simple. Either they’re lost in the moment and have completely forgotten there might be consequences, or they’re testing boundaries.

Authority, consequence and the limits of acceptability are all things that need to be learnt. Your child is exploring who is in charge, what they can get away with, the effects of their actions, and the flexibility, or otherwise, of all these things.

Try to remember that just because something happened once in a specific context, that doesn’t mean a toddler understands right and wrong. In this example, she has learned once what happens when she throws potato in her daddy’s face. There’s still a whole world of possibilities out there to discover: is this what will happen every time or do the consequences change? What if I throw potato in mummy’s face instead? What if, instead of potato, I throw Spaghetti Bolognese? Does this rule only apply at the table? Does it only apply to food? What if I throw a plastic block in daddy’s face? If I keep doing it, will he eventually accept it?

That is why, when disciplining or instructing toddlers, you have to adopt the three Cs – be clear, consistent, and calm.

  • Clear – because a toddler needs to know where the boundary is. ‘Don’t throw food at daddy!’ leaves them open to throw food at other people and throw other things. Far better to say, ‘Don’t throw things,’ and leave them in no doubt what is expected of them.
  • Consistent – because a toddler needs to know where the boundary is and what happens when it is crossed. It’s no good shouting when she throws food the first time, putting her on the naughty step the second time, and ignoring it the third time as this sends mixed messages and confuses your child. The same behaviour should receive the same consequence every time.
  • Calm – because that will help you achieve the other two.

Be prepared to repeat yourself again and again and again. It takes time for a toddler to understand consequence; it takes them a while to learn; and it takes a long time for them to accept that they cannot have their own way all the time. Unless you master the three Cs, you’re setting yourself up for a far longer, harder period.

Look out for How to Discipline a Toddler, Part 2: The Fundamentals

 

My future daughter

It’s only natural, I think, to look at your two-year-old daughter and imagine what her life might be like in the future. She leaps around the room like a baby ballerina – a dancer. She gets out her plastic stethoscope and listens to your chest – a doctor. She pushes the dog off the back of the sofa – a pest-controller.

Then there are the hints of her future character. She tries to make sure everybody is involved in whatever we’re doing – she’s going to be sensitive to the needs of others. She befriends anybody and everybody she meets – she’s going to be sociable. She lures other children away from their parents whenever we’re in a pub – she’s going to be charismatic. Or a future cult-leader. No, I’m going with charismatic.

Unfortunately, not all of it is so positive. While her behaviour is probably (please God!) normal for a two-year-old, let’s just suppose for a second that my daughter acts the same way when she’s twenty-two. Those little idiosyncrasies of early childhood would look an awful lot different in an adult.

For example, imagine your grown-up daughter, who is called Izzie, suddenly appears in her doorway late at night as you’re walking past her room and declares, in a croaky, demon-possessed voice, ‘My name’s Actata.’

‘Jolly good,’ you reply.

‘What’s your name? Oi, where you going? Me talking to you!’

‘Go to sleep, Izzie.’

‘Me not Izzie, me Actata! Come back! Me in charge!’

You’d find that a bit weird, right?

Or what if your adult daughter disappeared upstairs for a couple of minutes, then reappeared wearing some sparkly gold sandals, a pair of knickers, a fluffy hoody, bright pink lipstick, dark sunglasses and a red woolly bobble-hat, with a bag of makeup over her shoulder, and then proceeded to strut back and forth across the lounge like something from the opening scenes of Pretty Woman, saying, ‘Me going to my new house. You not invited.’

You wouldn’t be strangely proud of her imagination – you’d be freaking terrified.

But that wouldn’t be anywhere near as alarming as your twentysomething daughter stripping off her clothes in the lounge every night before bed, climbing onto the back of the sofa, and doing five minutes of star-jumps while shouting, ‘Me naked, me naked, me naked!’ followed by, ‘Girls have noo-noos, boys have willies!’

And speaking of bed, what would you think if, every night after you’d made sure she was settled, your university-aged daughter took her pillow and duvet and made a little nest in the open doorway of her bedroom, and every time you returned her to bed you found her right back on the floor in the doorway again ten minutes later?

And what would you say to a grown-up daughter who claims ‘exercise’ is rolling off the arm of the sofa to fall flat on her face on the floor, time after time after time? Or who demands her dad sing to her every time she sits on the toilet to coax out her poop like a particularly gross snake charmer? Or who, whenever you’re driving the car screams, ‘Go, go, go! Faster, daddy, faster! Do your horn!’ Or who runs away from the cat every morning crying, ‘Don’t let her eat me, daddy, she’s going to eat me!’ Or hits her sister in the face with her doll Lucy, then claims it was Lucy who did it, not her.

Projecting into the future, there are only two types of adults I’ve met who behave anything like that. My daughter is going to be a melodramatic, free-spirited, adrenaline junkie nudist hippy who goes her own way, works as an actress, wears tie-dyes, conducts seances in her spare time, and is a shining beacon of what life can be like if we listen to our inner voice and refuse to conform.

Or she’s going to be a meth addict.

I’m really hoping it’s neither.