Category: Behavioural Management

What makes a child anti-social?


The media is full of the rise of anti-social behaviour (e.g. violence, aggression, bullying, fighting, lying, stealing, vandalism, fire-setting, drug and alcohol abuse, cruelty to animals) in children and youth offending, but what is the cause of childhood antisocial behaviour and are all anti-social children the same? What is the role of parenting?

Are all anti-social children the same?

There is evidence that not all children with anti-social behaviour are the same. Some children may show a phase of anti-social behaviour in adolescence but this passes and they settle down in adulthood. Far more concerning are children with a life-long tendency to anti-social behaviour. These children tend to be anti-social from a younger age and behaviour is more extreme (e.g. cruelty to animals at age 5 years), but even amongst these children there is evidence of different subgroups. Much research is focused on differentiating groups of anti-social children to see if we can better understand them.

One differentiating factor found is lack of empathy. Empathy is the ability to share someone else’s feelings and experiences by imagining what it would be like to be in that person’s situation. Psychologically speaking, this requires two different types of processes: a “thinking” part: the ability to see things from another person’s point of view; and secondly a “feeling” part: the ability to recognise emotion in others and to feel it in oneself. People without empathy are described as being callous and unemotional. To be anti-social, violent or aggressive is easy if you do not empathise with the victim, so it is no surprise that >90% of children with callous-unemotional traits are involved in some form of anti-social behaviour.

How does empathy affect anti-social behaviour?

Researchers have been interested in children that lack empathy for a while now because of its links to extreme anti-social behaviour, and the definition of “psychopathy/ sociopathy” (this is a criminal justice not mental health term) includes having this lack of empathy. The childhood precursor to this psychopathy label is “callous-unemotional traits” (as it is pretty harsh and pessimistic to label kids as psychopaths), and even this terminology has recently been rebranded as “limited prosocial intent” so that it sounds less pejorative; but this is just semantics, we are essentially talking about the same thing: people that have shallow feelings with lack of empathy and guilt.

My colleague, Essi Viding does research into these traits and wrote a great summary paper (2012), the findings of which I wanted to share as I thought it was fascinating. It turns out that if you study ASBO kids (kids with anti-social behaviour), you will find that 50% of them have these callous-unemotional traits. These children don’t really care about others’ feelings and tend to show no remorse for wrong-doing. It is this group of kids that have the most serious and long lasting problems.

What is the difference then psychologically and biologically between children that commit antisocial behaviour with and without empathy?

In experiments where anti-social kids are hooked up to show responses (for instance heart, skin and eye-tracking monitors or brain scans) to photos/ voice recordings of other people in pain or grief, the children with callous-unemotional traits showed no or reduced physical or brain response. Most people will wince in shared pain if shown pictures or exposed to sounds of others in pain, but these children don’t. When these children were asked to play a game where not following the rules led to punishment, they continued to flaunt the rules and did not seem to learn from punishment. There is biological support for these findings with differences in brain scans in areas of the brain linked to emotion processing and reinforcement learning pathways in callous anti-social children.

In contrast, the anti-social children with empathy showed the same aversive responses as children not involved in anti-social behaviour to pictures and sounds of pain and grief, and learnt quickly from punishment. However when they are shown threatening faces, they over-respond with emotion and when they are shown neutral and ambiguous facial expressions, they identified them as being threatening. Brain scans back up these differences. The anti-social children with empathy tended to have abnormal amygdala development. This is the area of the brain involved in fear and anxiety processing. These anti-social children have normal empathy but have a heightened awareness of threat, which explains why they perceive neutral faces as threatening. In a world where everyone is viewed as threatening, hostile or an enemy, it can make sense to be combative, aggressive and violent. This is that bully in the playground that says “Are you looking at me?” – when you weren’t even looking at them.

Genetic studies have also supported this divide, finding that there is strong inheritance of callous nature, whereas anti-social behaviour without callousness was not inherited but generated by environmental factors such as harsh or inadequate parenting, or an interplay between these environmental factors and genes associated with anxiety or heightened emotion.

Finally, it has also been found that the children in the different groups respond differently to parenting strategies. Punishment and traditional sanction-based strategies (time-out, withdrawal of privileges) works well for empathic anti-social children, but has no effect on callous children. Callous children only respond to positive reinforcement (praise) and rewards.

What causes anti-social behaviour?

This type of evidence has led to different theoretical models for two groups of children involved in anti-social behaviour.

Group 1: Genetic predisposition. Antisocial and callous kids: these children are thought to lack empathy as they do not find other people’s distress aversive and because they fail to be able to learn from punishment. It is easy to be aggressive and cruel if you are unable to feel guilt and if the suffering of others doesn’t bother you. It is easy to continue to behave in this way life-long if you are unable to learn from punishment. These difficulties are often inherited in brain structure.

Group 2: Environmental Causation: Anti-social but not callous kids: these children have abnormal socialisation because they have a heightened sense of threat, and view the world as hostile towards them. They exhibit aggression and cruelty as a result of living in unstable and threatening environments which has shaped their brains and psychology to respond in this way as a means of coping and survival. Their anti-social behaviour is often in the context of a peer group within which there is support and empathy.

What has this got to do with parenting?

Whether we like it or not, parents are the first line defence against anti-social behaviour in society. By better understanding the causes of anti-social behaviour and by understanding our children, we can best adapt our parenting to prevent our children becoming anti-social. Although children in group 1 with genetic predisposition are the more difficult to help, they can be supported by fostering self-esteem. They will respond better to motivation to act in a pro-social way, rather than harsh punishment which will not deter them. Anti-social behaviour in children with empathy can be prevented by strong loving families that place appropriate boundaries and sanctions. For these children, wider society has a great role to play in generating or preventing anti-social behaviour, as tolerant, peaceful and accepting societies can offer protection whilst violent, unstable and alienating societies can fuel them.

Anti-social behaviour in children with and without callous-unemotional traits. Viding et al. (2012) Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine. 195-200.

Managing your child’s behaviour: Can’t behave, Won’t behave?

Incredible years

Over the last few weeks I have been asked by a few people to write something on managing behaviour of children. This is one of the biggest challenges for parents, and yet I had put off writing about this as it is not as easy to give advice on this as it sounds. The “tips” that friends were asking for basically amount to what we in the industry call “behavioural management”. Ways in which parents can magically “change” or “manage” their children’s behaviour. Sadly, there is no magic tip, only all the things that you have already heard of and tried. Behavioural management tries to spell out what is and is not desirable behaviour and strategies try to tip the balance of choice towards behaviours that are desirable. Well known strategies include “the naughty mat” or “time out”, “ignoring” your child’s mild bad behaviour and also the blessed “reward chart”. If you want to read up on behavioural management an excellent book is “The Incredible Years” by Webster-Stratton. I won’t précis what I feel is a thorough account of good behavioural management, but instead ask:

Does behavioural management work?

The answer in theory is unequivocally “yes”.

But, so often in practice is “no”.

This is because behavioural management is easiest to implement when your child is “typical” and has no other problems, and you (the parent) are brilliant, have no problems and are super consistent in everything you do both with your co-parent and school.

Which basically means “no” or only “a bit”– as when does the above situation ever happen?

Here are two reasons why your child may not be “typical”:

Neurodevelopmental problems:

Neurodevelopmental problems, in particular learning difficulty can heavily impact behaviour.  In young children, aggression and temper tantrums are typical responses to frustration, but by school age, some control should have been gained over these behaviours. If a child is developmentally delayed, then their ability to behave should be compared to their developmental age rather than chronological age. A 16 year old boy with the developmental level of a 4 year old; can be expected to behave in line with a 4 year old. For a four year old, temper tantrums and hitting out are common responses to frustration, the trouble is that being hit by a 16 year old boy in a temper tantrum has very different consequences to being hit by a 4 year old, and yet, the child “can’t” help responding in this way. These children are often clients in child mental health services as parenting children with severe learning difficulties can be extremely challenging. Other neurodevelopmental disorders also cause behavioural problems. In ADHD children with problems with attention cannot listen to or follow instructions as well as other children. They will tend to act without thinking and may do things that they regret later because they acted without thinking. Children with Autistic Spectrum Disorder may have behavioural problems as they are having difficulty in understanding what is being expected of them and poor social understanding can lead to many more frustrations on a daily basis. Standard behavioural management may not work in these groups of children and behavioural management needs to be adapted to the child’s difficulties. In general it is harder to implement and with more varied results than in children without neurodevelopmental difficulties.

Emotional problems:

Children who are having emotional problems may have difficulties in behaviour. Emotions and behaviour are inextricably linked. When we feel down or stressed out, our behaviour changes. Some of us reach for chocolate, some for alcohol, some people become withdrawn and unsociable, other people become irritable and angry. It is important to assess emotional aspects of your child’s life if their behaviour changes or deteriorates. Children may not always volunteer their states of mind to you. They may not be able to label their emotions, or to express themselves. They may be afraid to talk about these things. Their unhappiness and frustrations are displayed in their behaviour rather than in words.  It is your responsibility as a parent to notice, to ask, to label for them, to give them words, to give them permission to talk about their difficulties. To guess and to investigate from asking teachers and friends if nothing is forthcoming. It may be that they are being bullied at school, it may be that they are picking up on the stress in your marriage, it may be something trivial, but if you don’t notice/ enquire, you won’t know and their change in behaviour will just be called “bad behaviour” or “acting out”.  In these cases, behavioural management will not work well. Rewards will feel irrelevant, ignoring and punishment will feel like persecution, negative attention will be better than no attention and rejection is a welcome confirmation of their own self-loathing. Finding out what is wrong, offering security will work better here. Unattended emotional problems in children can impact personality and aid development of long-lasting traits that can lead to “bad behaviour” becoming habitual and “part of” a person’s personality that can no longer be easily mended.

In children without these additional problems, the limiting factor to good behaviour is usually the parent not the child.

Lack of sustained motivation:

In the defining clinical trial for children with ADHD where they compared medication to behavioural management (The MTA Study), behavioural management achieved equal outcomes compared to medication. But wait, here the behavioural management programme used highly trained psychologists to work with highly motivated parents and teachers to obtain this outcome. Real-life trials (what we call pragmatic trials) using existing services, which tend not to heavily involve the schools (as the Department of Education is separate from the Department of Health), and non-selected patient groups, that have looked at the efficacy of community parenting and behavioural management programmes have netted unimpressive results.  It is not that children’s behaviour cannot be managed; it is that the will of society and parents, is insufficient.

I know this all too well. Big Sis has a weekly spelling test. On the weeks where I have my act together, we sit and learn the words and I test her on the words each day to make sure that at the end of the week, she gets full marks and I reward her for this attainment. This is basically behavioural management in action: co-working towards a set goal that is achievable, achieved and rewarded. This works fantastically well, thumbs up and smiles all around. Once she has done this for a few weeks, I get complacent and I think, well now – maybe I can just give it a skip this week, she and I can both have a relax and we’ll just have a quick look at the words the night before. She gets a couple of mistakes. That’s basically my anecdote for behavioural management. It genuinely works until one day, you can’t be bothered and it all goes a bit wobbly again. The limiting factor is me, not Big Sis.

Parental problems:

Wobbles in my behavioural management can also be seen when I am stressed or distracted. One time when I was very stressed waiting for a phone call regarding a job offer; the children were extremely badly behaved – “for no reason”. I was snappy and shouted at them and they just wouldn’t do what they were told – “it was as if they knew exactly when to wind me up”. Eventually, the phone call came, and I had got the job. That afternoon, they were very well behaved. The change had been in me, and their behaviour merely reflected my state and parenting capability, not something innate in them.

Unrealistic parental expectation:

When we talk about “bad behaviour” we all mean different things and we all have different thresholds as to what is meant by “bad”. Some friends and relatives come by our house and make “tutting” sounds when they see our kids glued to the TV, leave the table at meal times on a whim to dance around the kitchen, bonk each other on the head with cushions and generally shout at each other and at us. To me, this is not bad behaviour – this is just life in our household! Equally, I raise a brow when I see children that never say “please” or “thank you” and run away from their parents on the street, while this is not something that bothers them. When parents complain that their children “Will not do as they are told”, the severity of the issue rather depends on what they are being told to do. If they will not do 60 minutes of piano practice every night, that is rather different from refusing to do their homework, or refusing to stop watching TV; and “good” and “bad” behaviour is sooo dependent on what the  parental and school expectation is. Often there are cultural and generational expectations of how children should behave. A normal child in a school with high behavioural expectations may be deemed to have “bad behaviour”, a normal child in one culture may be deemed badly behaved in another. The behaviour is relative and in order to assess behaviour properly, it is important to first evaluate that the expectations are reasonable. There is a limit to how much a child can “change” and they will not bother to attempt to change behaviour if they feel that the bar is being set too high.


One of the main saboteurs of a good behavioural management programme is “other people”. The well-intentioned/ or not so well-intentioned other half who disagrees with what you are doing. By not supporting you, they are de facto sabotaging the behavioural management plan because children are such buggers that they can spot disagreement a mile off and work it to their advantage. Much like MPs claiming expenses and benefit fraudsters, they are not averse to trying to get away with as much as they can. Playing one parent off the other must be a favourite game for children. In my opinion parents who want to succeed at behavioural management need to get on board together, or not bother. A similar conundrum exists with the school. If children are told one thing at home and another at school, the “authority” of “the rules” is undermined. It is a good idea when implementing behavioural management to discuss plans with the child’s school so that the same message is delivered to the child.

So in summary, if emotional problems are excluded, behavioural management delivered consistently and well will definitely improve your child’s behaviour, even if they have additional difficulties; but it is by no means a magic wand. It takes hard toil, stamina, guts, persistence and tears, but can reward you with likeable human beings. Isn’t that the essence of parenting?

If you want to know more about behavioural management please buy/ beg/ steal/ borrow: The Incredible Years, by Carolyn Webster-Stratton. This is the programme recommended by my colleague Professor Stephen Scott OBE of the UK’s National Parenting Academy. I have read it cover to cover and it’s good common sense.


Carolyn Webster-Stratton. The Incredible Years. ISBN 978-1-892222-04-06.

The MTA Cooperative Group (1999) A 14-Month Randomized Clinical Trial of Treatment Strategies for Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. Archives of General Psychiatry. 56:1073-1086

Why the stay-at-home mother is more vital than the female CEO to achieving gender equality

Babymonitor v Blackberry

The female CEO and the stay-at-home-mother have often been pitted against each other in the media as arch enemies. Popular press likes to publicise the idea of the stay-at-home mother lambasting the female CEOs (or other high-flying career women) for “selfishly pursuing their careers while neglecting their children”, whilst stay-at-home mothers are looked down upon for perpetuating female stereotypes and being “bad role models” for their daughters, basically “letting the side down”. Yet, in my opinion, feminism is about choice in an environment of equal opportunity. The choice to be a CEO or a stay-at-home mother is a personal one, and I feel that either choice is respectable. The trouble is that the “equal opportunity” part is not quite there yet in our society, and to this end, although much has been made about the need for more female CEOs, I actually think that the stay-at-home mother (or a working mother that is heavily involved in parenting) has more to contribute to advancing feminism than the female CEOs (if they are childless or largely delegating parenting).

I watched Emma Watson’s speech for the HeforShe campaign in solidarity, having been a life-long feminist. What interested me was that at one point Emma describes her realisation of gender inequality when she was called “bossy” for “wanting to direct a play she and her siblings put on for her parents, whilst the boys were not”. I am presuming that it was her parents that called her “bossy” (as if it were her siblings, then why didn’t she just tell them where to go), which made me think about our responsibilities as parents in the pursuit of gender equality. Had Emma Watson’s parents; and every other parent in the world fostered and promoted the self-belief, confidence and ability in their daughters, and cared as much about their future academic and employment prospects as they did their sons, then we would not have gender inequality. Of course, Emma got the last laugh, perhaps because she was “bossy”. Good for her.

I attribute any academic successes that I have had 100% to the fact that I did not have a brother. Taiwanese parents of my parents’ generation had a strong preference for sons. My parents had told me that they had hoped especially that I would be a boy, having had 2 daughters already, and were disappointed when they found that I was yet another girl. They had no choice but to put their hopes and aspirations into us girls and foster and promote our abilities as if we were boys, capable of anything. My father spent time teaching my sisters and me computer programming and electronics when we were in primary school. I was never interested, but my sisters went on to study engineering and maths at top universities. Had we had a brother I am sure that things would have been different. Our brother would have been the one encouraged and burdened in equal measure with the pedestal, and we girls would have been left to cultivate a pastime. When I went to study at Cambridge, I was one of a few British Taiwanese children to get there, and it was no surprise to me that the only other female Taiwanese students that were there were ones without brothers. I read somewhere that China is seeing a surge of successful female business women and entrepreneurs and I wonder if this is related to the one-child policy, such that families are now invested in their only child, whatever the gender.

In the West, where the gender preference is less explicit, one can almost believe that the problem does not exist, but when you examine behaviours more closely, you begin to see that gender-based parenting is also pervasive. We can blame media and society at large as much as we want, but the reality is that we are all culpable: from the toys we buy, the behaviour we encourage, the expectations we hold, the activities we choose to do, the assets that we praise and our own day to day behaviour and language.

Even when we think we are being gender neutral, or are trying to be, we are not because gender bias is so subtle. How many parents of boys have actively gone out to a toy store and bought their son a baby doll, a push chair and a bottle? How many parents of girls have done this? From my inspection of the bedrooms of the little boys I know, I would say that very few boys have been bought dolls specifically. The parents will make the justification “Oh, he was never interested in dolls, he’s a boys-boy – so we didn’t bother”. Yet, from my experience of little boys with older sisters whom they look up to and wish to emulate, the majority enjoy playing with baby dolls in the preschool years (before peer pressure). Even more so if actively encouraged, as you would naturally encourage a girl. That’s just one example of many.

How many times have you praised your daughter for looking beautiful or commented on her clothes? How many times have you done this for your son? How many times have you praised your daughter’s social skills, whilst praising your son’s mathematical ability? How many times have you persisted with a 1:1 craft activity with your daughter even though she was bored and you ended up doing it yourself, while saying that your son does not have the patience for it and taking him out to run around in the park instead? When it’s a boy’s birthday party, how many times have you bought Lego as a present, while choosing a craft jewellery kit for a girl? In answer to that last question I can reveal that at a recent joint birthday party for my kids, the total tally on craft activity for Big Sis was 5/20 and 0/20 for Lego; for Lil Bro he scored a whopping 8/20 on the Lego, 0/20 for craft. We are all guilty to a greater or lesser extent of the above perpetuations of gender stereotypes; myself included.

This type of unconscious gender bias has been studied in relation to the lack of advancement of women in academia and the workplace and is thought to be one of the driving factors for lack of women in science. The King’s College London website has some interesting papers on this issue and says:

“Unconscious bias refers to the biases we have of which we are not in conscious control. These biases occur automatically, triggered by our brain making quick judgments and assessments of people and situations based on our background, cultural environment and our experiences. There is a growing body of research which suggests unconscious biases influence key decisions in the workplace and are responsible for some of the enduring inequalities that are evident today. One example is a study by Moss-Racusin et al (2012) which examined the assessment of applications to science faculties from students applying for the position of laboratory manager. The same application was used 127 times and randomly assigned either a female (64 times) or male (63 times) name. Selectors rated the male applicant as significantly more hireable than the female applicant. They also chose a higher starting salary and offered more career mentoring to the male applicant. The gender of the selector did not affect responses.”

My view is that it is not only in the workplace that these unconscious biases are occurring. By virtue of being unconscious they permeate every aspect of our lives, including the parenting of our children. What effect does this have?

In my line of work, “behavioural management” is a parenting technique that uses discriminant encouragement, rewards and praise to shape children’s behaviour. It can be used to get a child to do anything from concentrating longer to eating their greens. If our parenting is guided by unconscious bias that encourages, rewards and praises our children according to gender stereotypes, then we are unconsciously using behavioural management daily to shape our children into gender-based norms. It is only by making bias conscious that we can act in a child-centric rather than gender-centric way when acting and responding to our children.

How does this relate to the title of my post?

A female CEO can improve the lot of women in two ways. Firstly they can inspire and prove to the world that women are capable. However, the reality is that aspiring women will look at the few female CEOs and scrutinize their lives. Do I have the same intellect, ambition, personality? Am I willing to work as hard and sacrifice as much? For the majority of women, the answer will be “No”. Secondly, a female CEO can influence the culture at the top and enact policies that will help women reach the top. However, these policies and helping hands can only be extended to women that have already climbed to the middle and are reaching up to the top, and at the moment, there are insufficient numbers of women in that position. We are forever told that the reasons that there are so few CEOs, MPs, establishment figures, is that there are a dearth of applicants. So, in my view the impact of a female CEO is extremely limited.

OK, but surely the stay-at-home-mother is the antithesis of feminism? I say, NO, a stay-at-home mother that parents in a way that promotes gender equality can produce citizens of the next generation that expect equality. Boys that become men that respect women, value women, understand women and believe that men and women are equal partners in work and parenting. Girls that become women that respect men, value men, understand men and believe that men and women are equal partners in work and parenting. A stay-at-home mother that enacts child-centric rather than gender-centric parenting can create a new generation of citizens that can change the socio-political landscape. At present, given the billions of stay-at-home mothers worldwide compared to the handful of CEOs, I would have to conclude that the future of feminism depends on stay-at-home mothers practising child-centric parenting. Unbiased parenting by CEOS, stay-at-home mothers and their partners/ husbands has the ability to give our daughters a true choice of stay-at-home mother, CEO or both.

This is not something we need to lobby for; it’s something we can enact now.


Naughty mat misadventures

Naughty Mat

“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.