Tuesday, December 18, 2007

When our toddlers 'misbehave'

This is a post for any other parents out there who are wondering why on earth your toddlers are suddenly calling strangers in the street “Poo!”, telling your adult friends to “go away!” or embarrassing you in any other such lovely way. Next time your angel shouts “No!” at you, in public, don’t get angry, or wonder where you have gone wrong. Just sit back and feel proud that he is behaving just as a small child should.

When Jemima started showing utter disregard for my words or requests it really took me by surprise. I suppose I had always expected that she would be sensible and able to understand my explanations of why we have to behave in a certain way. She was a perfect child, after all. Yet here she was, confidently exercising a sometimes hostile, sometimes plain furious new form of self-expression. (I ought to be clear that I am not talking about tantrums, though I shall soon of course. This post is about what we generally consider defiance or bad behaviour that exasperates us, whereas tantrums are about extreme emotional distress or a desire to control.)

I couldn’t understand why she had to spoil an outing to a café by climbing all over everything? Why wouldn’t she listen when I asked her to please behave herself? How unappreciative! Why, when I asked her nicely to please help me tidy up, did she have to shout “No! You do it!” with a look that I imagined I would not see until she reached puberty.

It particularly got to me when it happened in public. I realised that I had no idea what to do about it. I wanted to stand there a while, scratch my head and think about the best way to respond. But the (perceived) pressure of other adults’ expectations made me jump into some un-thought through response, usually involving bribes, a sharp tone, or desperate pleas – all totally ineffectual.

A good example is her kid’s yoga class, run by the mother of one of her best friends. Every Tuesday afternoon Jemima and I would have this conversation before hand.

“When you see Sofia you must remember that you will have ages to play afterwards. During the class I just want you to listen to her mother and enjoy the yoga with me. No more messing about and disrupting the class, ok?”

“Yes ok, I really won’t mess about Mummy”.

I would then resolve to relax, be very zen, and we’d enjoy the class together. But each week, we’d end up in a battle again. Jemima is unable to resist the charms of her gorgeous little friend and the two of them would just giggle and run around. For some reason I found this very stressful and heard myself whispering ridiculous things in her ear. “I did not bring you here to play, you are supposed to be doing yoga! She’s barely three years old for goodness sake! You will be pleased to hear that, by the last class, I finally realised it simply did not matter as long as she didn’t spoil it for the others. That afternoon I pretended to be a jelly fish with the other kids while my own daughter played outside with her friend.

It’s not just with me of course. At school she was put in time out for chatting too much, and, after teacher Lisa asked her to sit down for story time, she laughed, ran about and sang “We’re being naughty! We’re being naughty!” It sounds silly now but at the time I was thinking, where did I go wrong?

I found myself obsessing about it. Had I failed Jemima in some way when she was younger? Was she stressed? I decided it was caused by the horrible few weeks when we sleep trained her, using controlled crying. She was roughly the same age as her tiny sister is now. I have written about this episode before so I won’t go on about it here, (except to say that I deeply regret it and would not dream of doing it with Bella, now I am more confident and no longer swayed by what other mothers are doing with their babies.)

So you can imagine my delight when, after weeks of thinking there was something wrong with me and my child, I discovered last night that she is perfectly normal after all (still not sure about me). I know I keep talking about my parenting bible ,“The Science of Parenting” by Margot Sunderland, and no she is not paying me commission. It is just that it makes such brilliant reading and is so relevant to my every day experiences. So let me just tell you what I read last night. Actually it all sounds so obvious when I write it here, but still, we all need reminding don’t we?

Children under five simply do not yet have the brain development to control their natural urges to run, jump and climb. They are naturally impulsive, easily distracted, unable to focus and prone to lots of manic behaviour. If a child is lost in some activity it is ‘truly difficult for her to respond to you’. Name-calling is normal way of expressing anger, particularly when they do not have the words to express how they are actually feeling. Hoorah! I knew my child was perfect! The book explains exactly what is going on in their brains at a given moment – it is fascinating and such a great way of helping us understand our children.

But now we understand, what can we do about it? Of course the book gives us lots of tips for how to deal with it all. Most of them have a running theme – listen, watch, respect and try to empathise with what your child is feeling. Be aware that rationalising may not work, draw boundaries for unacceptable behaviour and cut them some slack.

Here are some of my recent methods. I encourage Jemima to jump all over our sofa (we don’t have grass and there are no parks here) to get some of her energy out. We play loud music and dance. When she says mean things I try to ask her what she is feeling and tell her that it is ok to feel that and but let’s find a kinder way of expressing it. E.g. I’m not happy with you because you did this. I mostly ignore her unless she talks to me nicely. I try to make things like tidying up into a game or a race. I cuddle her a lot when she is tired and grumpy. I try to avoid her getting bored. I try to make a point of not disciplining her in public because it occurred to me that if I hate public conflict, she may well do too. And finally, I let things that used to drive me crazy waft over my head, while repeating my mantra: “She is only three. I am 34. She is only three. I am 34.”

I’ll write again with more tips soon, but there is one last and powerful thing I want to share with you.

As I said, I hate any kind of conflict in public. I really am hopeless at dealing confidently with a defiant Jemima in front of friends or strangers. I became one of those guests who well out-stayed her welcome, simply because I did not have the energy or confidence to deal with the endless arguments and negotiations that come with trying to leave a place where your child has been having fun.

And then I remembered something my Kundalini yoga teacher said the other day:

“When you want someone to hear what you are saying and take you seriously, or act upon your words, speak from your third Chakra. Your navel is your power base, visualise it as you speak.”

It works. The last two weeks I have used this technique and it has worked every time. I use it sparingly, only when I really need Jemima to listen and act fast, be it to get her shoes on, get dressed, stop doing something or help me with something. It is amazing. Even James, forever a sceptic when it comes to energy and chakras and what not, admits that there must be something in it.

Go on, have a try. Just when you feel you are losing control of everything, your child will respond to you and it will make your day! Then you can congratulate them for being so fab and give them a big hug to celebrate, all the time feeling warm inside that it was largely down to you!

And remember, your child is not misbehaving. There is no ill intent. She is simply being a child. Something else worth congratulating yourself about.

If you like this post read this.


gaylee said...

I can really relate to this. I always find that my concern for how other mothers think I should react really affects how I respond to Josie in public. SHe always reacts badly in these sitautions as in her eyes I am actly strangley and inconsistently. I tell myself to be more confident in my approach but there are situations that are tricky, say at someones house where just explaining that the behaviour is normal doesn't work.

Like in your house, bouncing on beds and sofas has been OK in ours, in fact I've been known to join in on occasion, so how do you handle it when you go to a friends house who doesn't have the same ideas and has really nice big cream sofas?? Josie is only just over two so and I'm finding it difficult to explain the differences in acceptable behaviour at home and away and very difficult to know how to react when faced with a situation like this. There are certain friends that I'm too scared to visit now....

I'd be intersted how you handle this.

Georgie said...

Hello Gayle!

I really know how that feels. I am sure Jemima picks up on my own insecurities in public too and picks up on my incongruence. She is a year older nearly so it is probably much easier than it used to be. In fact I think when J was Josie's age I just let most things go. But she used to climb on other people's coffee tables and remind me and everyone that we did it at home. I know I used to tell her when doing it at home that it was a special fun thing we were allowed to do at home and not at others' houses (well, maybe some!) and I know that once I told her that if she continued to do it when we were out after I had said no, we would no longer have the privilege of doing so at home. But I am not sure that worked! They do say kids under five do not respond well to being given choices. When we were out i would take her to one side and whisper that it was not ok to do this here because xxx did not like it and might get cross!!! Sure that is not very pc!

Then I would say but as soon as we get home you and I can have a big sofa jamboree. Of course at 3 this does not become a tantrum but when she was 2 it often did. Then I would just take her away from the scene of the crime, cuddle her and try to distract her. She was not being naughty just upset that I was spoiling her fun. So I just had to show her I understood and that there were other ways.

What I am learning is that people never think what you think they are thinking anyway and whatever your response it may not be 'approved' by every one in the room so the best thing to do is act as you would at home, as your child knows you best and speak from your navel! I think it helps when I show J that I am on her side (unless she has been horrible or done something unacceptable).

Hmm, not sure if any of this helps? But definitely having a quiet conversation is better than loud, unconvinced "No Jemima, get off the table".

Also perhaps having the conversation before hand as well "you know if you keep jumping on xxx's sofa they won't want us to come back here. to play and that would be a shame! Today I think you stay off the sofa and when we get home...."

Hmmmm, let me know if any of this works! It's very easy to write but I know how hard it is in practice.

Actually there is another post I want to write (when holidays are over!) about us mothers. Because I am learning through yoga to be more confident in myself with my child and Jemima really picks up on that. I definitely notice mothers who are like this having a calmer and easier time with their kids.

Good luck!

Jo Trzcinski, Australia said...

LOVE this blog. Can you please stop making it so compelling?! I came in early to do work but all I'm doing is reading it. Jo Trzcinski, Australia

maddy said...

I'm just wondering about the talking from the navel bit....what do I have to do exactly?? Is it really as simple as picturing my navel whilst talking??
Gayle's little girl is 2, yours is 3 and mine is 4 and as each birthday comes around I hear myself saying, 'yep 3 is definately harder than 2', 'the 4s are way more challenging than 3s' etc etc...
I reckon a bit of navel talking sounds the way to go - I will report back on my success!

Georgie said...

Hi Maddy!

I imagine it helps if you do yoga and are used to breathing 'through your stomach' (ok, I know we don;t really but when you breathe in imagine you are filling your tummy with air and thus you blow your tummy out and this makes you use the whole of your lungs instead of just the top half. We seriously under use our lung capacity!!) I do this all the time now having practiced yoga for years but it was new to me once. I do it to calm myself in bed sometimes if can;t sleep. I love it. Anyway what I mean is perhaps if the whole concept of navel and tummy as power base is a new one to you then it may not be so easy so perhaps try some yogic exercises first to get used to it? I guess we need to activate our power base before we can use it if you see what I mean!? Check out Kundilini yoga website - I am loving it - it definitely unleashes creativity and positivity as well as making me feel so much better physically. Let me know how it goes! Gx

Sue said...

I just found your site yesterday by chance whilst looking for information on how to relate to 'spirited' children aged three and a half! And now I find myself rushing back from dropping Marina off at school to open up and read, and once again, it has been a treat. I loved this blog, it made me laugh, sigh and start to enjoy the fact that Marina is just a normal little girl. Once again, it was just like reading about her, and the approach you use is exactly what I have been trying with Marina over the past few weeks. When she has done something that noone has enjoyed being part of (all listed in your blog), I try to stay calm, give her my attention, give her the space and time to help her articulate why she has behaved in this way and make sure that she knows that I love her, even if I do not agree with her and want her to stop doing something. I often tell her that I am always on her side but that this is not the same as letting her do anything that she wants when she wants! She has started to understand that behaving badly makes people sad and we talk about the way bad behaviour stops us all from having fun and being relaxed and that maybe we will not be able to go back to that person's house or that restaurant or place, which would be a shame for all of us. I suppose I try and rationalise my response to her behaviour more than I did before. Previously, I often found myself losing my patience and snapping at her and she would just snap right back, which always shocked me as rather naively I did not think that a little person was capable of doing that!! It is all about confidence also, you are right, the confidence not to care what others are thinking but to focus on helping this little child come back and focus on where she is and who she is with. Things have improved now that I have so much precious time with her but there are still daily ups and downs. She apprently told her teacher the other day that she was naughty and did not want to go to bed yesterday and mummy got angry but it was alright because even when mummy is angry with her, she still loves her! We had just read our favourite book which we read when mummy has got angry called 'Mummy, do you love me?'. It is a beautiful book. However, back to belly buttons - you have reminded me that I have to remind myself everyday that she is just being a child but that at the same time it would be wonderful to get to that stage where my third chankra kicks in and dissolves the problem before it becomes a major outburst. I am off to practice my breathing before I go and pick up Marina from school! Thanks again, Georgie

Georgie said...

Thank you so much for taking the time to comment in such depth. It is so great to hear from other mothers and their experiences. This is such a great comment with so much information it should become a post of its own! I think I will post it where people are more likely to see it one day soon when I run out of inspiration, if that's ok with you!

Marina is a lucky girl and we can't wait to see her back in PP in March! Look forward to getting to know you and sharing more ideas over how to deal with our gorgeous, spirited, ever-stimulating daughters! Gx