“Help! I have locked myself into my bedroom whilst my son hurls nappies around outside. I have lost all control. He is not even 3. What hope is there for the future?!”
A friend of mine recently posted this message on Facebook. We have all been there haven’t we? She got lots of sympathy and solidarity comments, but no one actually revealed how they would manage the situation. Yet why don’t people talk about it?
“Setting boundaries” is one of the most important aspects of raising functional children, and yet the term is bandied around as if we all know what it means. What it actually means is letting your child know what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour and enforcing this. The “enforcing” part is where the term gets rather shady. You hear professionals telling parents to “set boundaries” all the time, but few tell you in detail how to do it. It’s as if they expect children once told the boundaries to say “Great idea mum and dad, I’ll do that from now on”.
Programmes like Supernanny are great as they bring behavioural management techniques to the mainstream, but their entertainment value is largely for middle class parents to feel smug that they do not have children with such extreme behavioural problems, and have no need for the attendance of Supernanny – aren’t they? Whilst parents of children with severe problems are desperate to seek help and advice and are happy to talk about their parenting, the rest of us are like clams when it comes to talking about disciplining our children, lest we be judged to be “bad parents”. The problem then compounds on to itself as without peer judgement on what is and isn’t appropriate, and without friends’ support and advice we are left to our own devices to “muddle through” and feel isolated in our ineptitude, all the while feeling that we need to pretend that our children never misbehave, and that we never lose our rag.
This is a fairly new phenomenon as up until recently, physical disciplining was widely accepted. The majority of my generation were probably hit at some stage by our parents. There is even a story of a wooden spoon being broken on the backside of a member of my husband’s family. Children used to be caned, pulled by the ears and made to stand in the corner wearing a dunce’s hat in school. These days smacking and physical punishment are not recommended. It is not illegal to smack children or use “physical punishment that does not leave a mark”, nor do I think that it needs to be, or could be realistically enforceable. However, as a child psychiatrist, I know that it is not particularly effective as a means for long term boundary setting, may instil fear and aggression in children and may have the unwanted consequence of children learning that “might is right”. As a child psychiatrist, I was determined that there would be no physical disciplining in our household. That said; have I ever FELT LIKE hitting Big Sis and taking Lil Bro over my knee for a good smack of the bottom? Hell yes. And these are really good kids.
However educated, civilised, gentle and kind you are, I don’t think anything ever prepares you for the incessant whinging, nagging, wailing, annoying-ness that a child in full tantrum can be. If you are lucky enough to have a placid child, good for you, but not all children are temperamentally like this. I totally take back all the furrowed brows and superior looks given to parents in my clinic when they admitted using smacking to discipline their children. I can now totally understand their sentiment. Still, the fact remains that smacking is not a good option for boundary setting, and in child psychiatry clinics, it is good practice to keep records of families using physical disciplining as a proportion go on to “physical punishment that leave a mark”, which constitutes physical abuse.
How to enforce boundaries then? The favoured regime of The National Academy for Parenting Practitioners, led by Professor Stephen Scott who works in my department is the Webster-Stratton method. The book “The Incredible Years” by Carolyn Webster-Stratton (CWS) is superb and I would thoroughly recommend it. There is no secret formula and much of what she describes is also used by Jo Frost (supernanny) and other behavioural management programmes. That said even being a trained professional; and having read the book cover to cover, here is my less than optimal account of my use of one major method of boundary setting, “Time-Out” with Big Sis and Lil Bro:
From around 3 years old, the designated place for “Time-Out”, the “naughty mat” (in our case a cheap circular bit of carpet from IKEA) was introduced to Big Sis. CWS does not recommend you call it “naughty” but a “calm-down” or “thinking” mat, but somehow “naughty” still caught on (failure number 1). It is probably not ideal to use a common brand of household accessory as the “naughty mat” either, lest you wish your children to enter someone else’s home and declare “Oh look they have a naughty mat” as happened with us.
The idea of the mat/ step/ designated place is that if the child breaks a set boundary (such as hitting), they should be taken to the naughty mat to calm down. In our household, lesser levels of undesirable behaviour evokes reasoning, encouragement to make the right choice, negotiation and warnings that time out may follow, but hitting/ pinching/ scratching(these things happen more when they have a sibling!) and deliberate property destruction is an immediate time out. Big Sis got the idea pretty quickly and after one or two times of being taken there, she got the message. There was some initial fuss but in general it worked like the textbook. Sometimes when she was naughty, threatening that she would have to go to the naughty mat, was enough to stop the behaviour, and once or twice when she had been naughty and was wailing and screaming, she actually walked there herself and sat herself down (success number 1). The best thing about the naughty mat was that it allowed me to calm down as well. Sometimes, in the fury of a situation, you just need a minute peace to calm down, collect your thoughts and think about how to manage the situation more calmly. The child is supposed to sit there for either a few minutes, or until they are “calm and quiet”, although more accurately in our case “till they stop wailing like a banshee”. Many a time it was pleasing that I could get on with the washing up or laundry in peace without disturbance as often the wailing went on for some time. “Naughty-mat me-time” if you will, albeit with a soundtrack of howling like a fire siren in the background. Sometimes, I was even annoyed when Big Sis stopped wailing as I was almost through the washing up, and if she would just wail a bit longer I could finish the task.
The naughty mat was such a success that when Lil Bro came of age that the naughty mat became appropriate, he also started out using it without a problem. The first few times he was told to go, he literally ran there and sat bolt upright with a big smile on his face finally “being allowed” to sit where he had seen his big sister sit so often.
Unfortunately, that’s not the end of the story – some time around the age of 5 years, Big Sis began to tire of the naughty mat, and also realised that she could fight back. She was now significantly bigger and stronger so fighting back was becoming an effective strategy. Here on in, she would stray from the naughty mat and follow me around the house stamping, wailing and hitting. Thus not only was she not on the mat, but I was unable to get peace to calm down. Each time I was taking her back to the naughty mat (as per protocol) I was becoming more and more physical with my restraint because of her increased kicking, pushing and physical resistance. This started to feel very uncomfortable. CWS does not recommend physical restraint to get children into Time Out (failure number 2).
As such, I changed the strategy to going into her bedroom. She would then follow me, at which point I would run out and shut the door, thereby trapping her in her room. CWS does not recommend using a child’s bedroom as the “thinking place” as the bedroom is interesting and stimulating (failure number 3). The funny thing is that neither Big Sis nor Lil Bro when in this situation ever went off to play with the myriad toys in their room. Instead, without fail, they would both try to leave the room in order to follow me around hitting and wailing. Thankfully, they didn’t often go about trashing their room either. CWS does not mention “locking” children in their rooms. However, I am unsure how else she means for the child to stay in there. Clearly, she cannot actively recommend incarceration and yet an illustration in her book implies incarceration by showing a door being beaten outwards as if someone is trying to get out. One would presume that if the door was not locked, then the kid would just walk out. In any case, none of our interior doors have exterior locks on so locking was not an option. Thus I initially stood on the other side of the door, holding the door shut. However, it can take one of my lot up to 45 minutes to “calm down” and standing holding a door shut whilst a raging child does their utmost to huff and puff a door down can get pretty tiresome. I therefore came upon the ingenious idea to tie the doorknob to the bannister with a dressing gown cord preventing it from opening. I sat next to the door, periodically calmly saying “You can come out as soon as you calm down and stop crying” (as per protocol), but at least I could sit next to the door and read a magazine in the interim (success number 2). I was dubious as to whether CWS would recommend this strategy. It reminded me of having to put violent patients into “seclusion” – basically a padded cell to calm down, when I worked in adult mental health wards. Here, staff need to stand right by the door and do regular observations on the patient until they were calm, and it felt very much like what I was doing with my kids…I wasn’t sure if this was a good or bad thing – but wasn’t sure who to ask. The occasion never arose to ask other school run mums if they were tying their children into their rooms using a dressing gown cord.
This strategy was quickly abandoned as I quickly realised that all the things CWS highlighted as negatives for physical restraint also applied to incarceration. Two incidents led me to this quick conclusion, despite it having been an effective strategy. 1) Lil Bro on encountering this situation for the first time shouted from behind the door “When I am big, I am going to lock you in your room!” – this sent shudders down my spine, with visions of my elderly self being subject to elder abuse by my traumatised son, now much bigger than me; 2) Big Sis grabbing my dressing gown cord saying she was going to tie Lil Bro into their room because he had been naughty towards her (failure number 3).
After this, I adopted the ignoring strategy. Not ignoring the behaviour, but the child. They would be told that because they had been naughty, I was not going to interact with them until they calmed down. Given that the children were too strong to be physically taken to the naughty mat and incarceration clearly was not working, I just grew a wall against wailing. They could follow me about the house wailing, but I did not pay them any attention. When it got too much, I like my friend who sent the Facebook message barricaded myself into the toilet. However, rather than feel a cowed victim being chased by my kids into the toilet, I would walk there calmly grabbing a magazine on the way and have a good catch up on fashion and gossip while they howled and hit away at the door.
I am still not sure what CWS would make of this…
The only blessing I have found is that child development and brain maturity at some point clicks in. Big Sis has now definitely graduated to slamming doors and going to sob on her own bed when she is told off. The IKEA mat, long outgrown has gone into the skip. I am much relieved, although I am sure there will be worse challenges to come and one day, I will probably be wishing for the simplicity of dealing with tantrums over what-it-is these days that teenagers get up to…
Please don’t judge me too harshly. I am hoping that by putting my account out there that others will feel more able to talk about disciplining. I think it is a really tricky territory to get right and there is insufficient information out there on this for parents. I do think that if you are constantly questioning “Is it ok?” then it is at least a start.
Carolyn Webster-Stratton. The Incredible Years. ISBN 978-1-892222-04-06. http://www.incredibleyears.com