Recently I took my daughter, Miss J, to the maternal health centre for her routine 3½-year check. I strolled into the centre holding my daughter’s hand and happily handed over the PEDS parental feedback form, which I had filled out before arriving. In every box beginning with the question: “Do you have any concerns?” I had ticked “No.” Every. Single. One.
Rewind a year and a half to her two-year check up and the assessment form was littered with behavioural concerns. At breaking point, I remember discussing these in detail with the maternal nurse. At the age of two, Miss J was clingy, defiant, anxious and demanding. We wrestled with multiple tantrums and meltdowns on a daily basis. It may sound like typical two-year-old behaviour, but it was excessive and worrying.
Miss J suffered from many anxieties that got in the way of family harmony. She was afraid of loud noises, cars, the postman, dogs, cats and diggers. She was a fussy eater, socially clingy and sensitive to temperature. If it rained and we were outside, she bellowed. If we saw a dog in the street, she leapt into my arms. If we saw a digger nearby she was convinced it was coming to dig her up. Even the innocent postman arriving on his bike terrified her.
All these anxieties interfered with life, and our enjoyment of it. For a long time I lived in a state of anxiety myself; anticipating the next thing that would set her off. However irrational her fears seemed to me, they were rational to her. Frustration, tears and conflict characterised our relationship. I constantly felt on edge, desperate not to crack the eggshells I was walking on.
Exasperated, I sought professional advice and consulted a behavioural expert. Together, we developed a behavioural management plan that, combined with plenty of positive reinforcement, patience and compassion had a significant impact.
Initially, it was difficult to organise one-on-one time but I recognised the importance of setting aside time just for her. It was impossible to allocate large blocks of time, due to having two other little ones to look after, but even 15 minutes a day had a positive effect. Each day I allowed my daughter to choose the activity and the results were quite immediate. Miss J responded with great enthusiasm and it strengthened our connection. We continue to enjoy this special time together. It’s no longer a strategy; it’s become a lovely everyday ritual.
We developed a set of family rules to create boundaries and encourage an active participation in family values. The rules were simple, like: “We always use our manners”, and “We don’t shout or push” and had a big impact. We wrote the list together in bright colours on a big piece of cardboard. Our behavioural expert suggested we display it prominently for at least four weeks, but almost a year later we haven’t taken it down. It acts as a reference point and a reminder that we all play our part in family harmony. It also helps to identify and reward good behaviour.
In order to help Miss J better understand and control her emotions, we created a folder called “About Me”. I drew a collection of faces representing various emotions; happy, sad, scared, and confused. I asked her to describe a corresponding situation for each emotion. Throughout the day I encouraged her to communicate her feelings, enabling me the opportunity to validate her emotions: “It’s OK to be angry, just use your words and tell me”. In relation to her anxieties, reassurance was key: “It’s OK to be scared but I am here to help.”
At first the changes were subtle and incremental but then just like a growth spurt, Miss J literally transformed in front of my eyes. She turned three and within the space of a few months she went from filling my days with angst to filling them with joy.
Effectively, she has undergone a transformation. Where she was once anxious, emotional and reactive, she is now calm, capable and controlled. Where she was previously frustrated, impatient and demanding, she is now patient, kind and empathic. And her insecurities and clinginess have been replaced by a confidence and independence. She still has the occasional meltdown but her disposition is markedly happier and calmer. Miss J is the shining light in my day now.
And our relationship has undergone a transformation too. Within this shift is an underlying tenderness and affection that is the foundation for our new relationship. My approach softened. I became more relaxed and tolerant, and the ripple effect was huge. Where I once felt exasperation, I now feel compassion.
I can’t say if the behavioural plan was exclusively responsible for her transformation, but seeking professional help was the catalyst for change. It may have also been my attitude, or her maturity, or perhaps a constellation of factors. Some sensitive children take time to feel secure; perhaps she was one of them.
For all the parents who may be struggling with their child’s behaviour and wondering if it will always be this way, my message to you is: it won’t. There is an end to every stage. Things can change, and they can change spectacularly.
My darling Miss J, you are the most gentle soul. I love you to bits and bits and bits…..
* First published on Essential Baby.
* A little footnote to this post: For parents struggling with behavioural issues, I found the following resources so helpful.
Easy Peasy Kids – Nathalie Brown is the behavioural specialist we consulted. I can’t recommend her more highly. She is also a natural with kids and interacts with them in a play-based setting so they don’t feel they are being “assessed.” I have also written about her advice on making meal times with kids more harmonious.
The Challenging Child, Stanley L. Greenspan. This book outlines how to understand, raise and enjoy the Five “difficult” types of children. It helped me to recognise Miss J as a sensitive child and equipped me with tools for tolerance and support. I can’t recommend this book more highly for anyone struggling with challenging behaviour.
Are you struggling with parenting a ‘challenging child?’ What techniques have you tried? What has/hasn’t worked?