The Parent Practice: grandparent tension, morning dramas, bickering siblings & constant hunger

Hello everybody, I am delighted to introduce our new column – The Parent Practice! Every month, founder of The Parent Practice Melissa Hood will draw on the latest thinking in psychology, neuroscience and psychotherapy to help worried parents across the land address everyday challenges all parents face. This month we take a closer look at grandparent tension, morning dramas, bickering kids (just in time for half term), and the one when your child is always seemingly “hungry”.

My seven-year-old son acts badly whenever his grandparents come over and it’s creating tension. Why does he do this and how can I make him change his behaviour? 

There is always a reason for behaviour so you’re very wise to consider what that might be. My guess is he feels tense around his grandparents or maybe he wants more attention from you. Maybe they have been critical of him, or you have. That would be understandable if he had behaved badly in their presence previously but you now find yourselves in a negative spiral of misbehaviour and disapproval. Since you are the adults the onus is on you to break this pattern.

If the grandparents are sympathetic I would involve them in what you do. If not just tell them what you are doing and accept that they may think you’re crazy or disapprove. But you’ve got nothing to lose.

You need an obvious change to break the cycle. Maybe next time you meet up with the grandparents go somewhere different, where your 7 year old will be happy and engaged. Maybe you can meet in a park and have a picnic? Adult environments like restaurants or fancy living rooms don’t always bring out the best in children.

Ask him beforehand what behaviour is expected of him when his grandparents are around and practice it in role play. This will bring it to the forefront of his mind and may reveal more of what he is feeling or finding challenging.

Give him lots of descriptive praise to encourage the behaviours you want to see more of and to build the connection between you that gives him a big incentive to behave as you expect. That means you need to go further than the usual ‘good boy’ or ‘well done’.

You need to comment specifically on the small things he is doing right. E.g. “you looked at grandma when she said hello.” “You waited until I’d finished what I was saying to Pop before you told him about your aeroplane. That took self-control.” The advantage of praise that is very factual is that others begin to see your child in a more positive light too. Pointing out good behaviours to him will help him feel lovable and capable and to behave well.

You can change your son’s behaviour, not by exerting power but, by strengthening the influence you have over him. Children want their parents’ attention and approval. If you do fun things with him and let him know you value him he will listen to you more.

Getting ready in the mornings is a complete nightmare in our house. Both my children are so unhelpful and I end up yelling at them. How can we have a calmer beginning to the day?

I remember how horrible it was in my own family in the mornings. I felt so bad about the howling banshee I became in the face of apparent obstinacy despite resolving every day to be more patient and calm. Nothing worked until I learnt to look at my children’s behaviour through a different lense.

I had thought they were just being obstructive. After all they knew what they had to do; they were capable of putting their clothes on and brushing their teeth and making their beds (and I was prepared to let the last one go at a pinch!). Since they weren’t doing it I assumed they were deliberately trying to wind me up.

But then I realised that although my children were physically capable of getting dressed etc they had different agendas to my adult schedule-directed one. Their impulses led them in the direction of play or against being controlled and they needed support to curb those impulses because their own emotion-regulating rational brains were as yet under-developed.

Here are 9 ways to banish morning mayhem:

  1. Go to bed earlier –you need to be rested to deal with mornings!
  2. Get up earlier – make sure you and your child have plenty of time.
  3. Involve the children –have a family meeting and ask them what needs to be done in detail; getting dressed, eating breakfast, packing bags, brushing teeth etc. HOW and WHEN are they going to do everything? Perhaps they want to brush their teeth before they get dressed. Give choices. Write down their ideas and take photos of them doing what’s required for a pictorial chart.
  4. Chat through what needs to happen the night before. Let them tell you what needs to happen instead of you issuing instructions.
  5. Small steps – Break down what needs to be done into manageable tasks.
  6. Prepare the environment– the night before get your child to lay out their clothes and pack their school bag. Make sure there are no screens on in the morning. Put a toothbrush and hairbrush in the kitchen for quick getaways.
  7. Descriptively praise small steps in the right direction. “You’ve already got your pyjamas off. Good start. What’s next?” DON’T criticise or nag.
  8. Try and make it fun – perhaps put some music on. (Mission Impossible soundtrack for getting dressed?).
  9. Acknowledge how they feel about what they have to do.

My children fight all the time about who gets what and how much of it. How can I teach them to let some things go even when they are ‘not fair’?

To deal successfully with our children’s upsets, whether it’s a sibling spat or something else, we need to understand what it’s like from their perspective. We may regard the source of their upset as unimportant or trivial and we think their reaction is out of proportion.

We don’t understand why it matters that they have the blue cup rather than the red cup or why they absolutely NEED to be on Facebook at 10pm when we know they NEED a good night’s sleep. We have to put ourselves into the shoes of the 3 year old or 14 year old and see how it feels to them. Then we can empathise, even if the circumstances will not change at all.

We can acknowledge the feeling of loss or unfairness even if we’re not going to buy another packet of biscuits. You might be thinking “well it’s only a biscuit and they need to learn that life doesn’t always go their way”. Remember it might be about deeper sibling rivalry rather than just biscuits.

And yes, we do want to teach our children to roll with the punches, to be resilient. But we won’t teach them to deal with life or gain perspective by dismissing how they feel. All they will learn from that is that their feelings don’t matter, that they don’t matter.

When we acknowledge how our children feel and describe that feeling for them we actually help to reduce the feeling. When we say “I hear how much you really wanted that last biscuit, I know you feel it is unfair that your brother got it and you didn’t” they feel understood and don’t need to keep protesting.

It is a normal part of having a sibling to feel hard done by, to be sure they’re getting advantages that we don’t have or that they get told off less often or that mum or dad prefer them to us. More so if a child’s sense of self-worth is low. So make sure you are giving your children consistent messages that you value them.

Tell them often what you love and appreciate about them. Also set aside some one-to-one time with each child so that they know there is a ring-fenced time in the diary when they have your undivided attention. It doesn’t need to be a lot of time but it does need to be reliable.

I’m worried that my little girl eats too much. She claims to be hungry even when she’s just eaten. I am worried about setting up poor eating habits – what can I do?

You are very wise to want to avoid problematic eating patterns or ways of thinking about food which could become habitual. Firstly I would check with your paediatrician that there is no medical reason for her eating patterns. Then think about the following possibilities:

It may be taking time for her to feel full. Some children are slow to transition from one experience to another. Young ‘foodies’ may be so stimulated by the tastes and sensations that they are on their third helping before they feel the signal that they are full. By the time they stop they have overeaten. The obvious result can be weight issues, which can create other problems with self-esteem as well as physical problems.

Talk to your daughter about her body. Explain how all bodies are slightly different and some of us take longer than others to get a message from our tummies to our brains that tell us we’re full. If we don’t pause to receive the message we may eat more than we really need. Teach her to listen carefully to her stomach for the signal that she is full. She needs to WAIT 20 minutes to hear it well.

Since she only behaves in this way around you consider whether she is using food as a means of control. This would be developmentally normal. Having control over one’s own life is a fundamental human need and young children are exploring the boundaries of their own power.  Mealtimes and toileting are often areas where young children can exert some power. She does need to have agency in her life and particularly over her own body. Giving her age-appropriate choices wherever possible will help. Often she won’t be able to choose whether to do something but can choose how and when and where to do it.

Is she using it as a way of getting your attention? Be sure to give her lots of positive attention for other things through Descriptive Praise and setting up some 1:1 time just with her. Also talk to her about her feelings, both around food and more generally. All behaviour is communication. So if she can express herself in words and she knows that you will not dismiss or diminish or try to talk her out of her feelings or shame her then she will choose to use words rather than communicating via her actions.

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About The Parent Practice

Melissa Hood, founder of The Parent Practice, has been supporting parents to bring out the best in their children for 20 years. Join their Positive Parenting Online Academy with my 25% discount code MOTHERHOOD here. Find out more about their daytime and evening classes, free taster classes and six-week course in London at The Parent Practice website.

Picture credits: People photo created by katemangostar – www.freepik.com, Girl photo created by freepik – www.freepik.com, People photo created by yanalya – www.freepik.com Children photo created by freepik – www.freepik.com

6 comments

  1. This series sounds like a great way to share some amazing tips and tricks for things that sometimes we struggle with. My daughter tends to act up in front of her grandparents but we just put that down to showing off. We also noticed that when shes around her cousins who are naughty she thinks she can be naughty.

  2. There’s some really good advice here. We have a 13 year old who eats for the sake of eating – sometime’s we’re convinced she’s not even aware she’s doing it. And she gets hangry if the cupboards are bare (which they have to be to stop her eating). I wish we could resolve this – we’ve tried distraction, she worries about being overweight, yet she’s eating as she says it. Our GP wasn’t interested as she’s not unwell 🙁

  3. There is some fantastic advice here. I struggle a lot
    with the morning routine and often if I follow the steps above it can make a big difference.

  4. Lots of good advice here, my kids bicker a lot about who does what and who is first. So I will take on some of this advice to try and calm it down! It’s never going to stop as thats siblings!

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