Webchat with Christopher Green

In June 2001, Christopher Green, one of the world's best-known parenting experts, answered mumsnet members' questions. Since it first appeared in 1984, Dr Green's classic, Toddler Taming, has helped parents around the world survive their children's toddlerhood with sanity intact. Here he gives advice on subjects ranging from early morning waking to those hardy perennials, biting and tantrums.

Food | Biting | Speech | Leaving at nursery | Early mornings | Sleep | Hating school | Obsessive behaviour | Sibling rivalry

 Food

Letter QBells1: Our 23 month old has never been an especially good eater. The problem is that in general, he just doesn't seem to be interested in food (unless it is chips, crisps or chocolate of course!). It is not at all unusual for him to abjectly refuse to try a mouthful of his evening meal or maybe just have one or two spoonfuls. He will quite happily skip lunch and apart from breakfast, rarely makes it clear he wants something to eat. If after having refused his dinner, I don't offer him anything else, he never complains and doesn't try and get hold of something else to eat. If however, I then offer him something like a peanut butter sandwich, he will wolf it down as he is clearly hungry.

I am just not sure how best to approach the problem. As he seems to have a take it or leave it approach to food, making him go without a meal when he refuses something nutritious seems to have little impact. He has always been on the light side for his age although not materially. I would be very grateful for any suggestions as to how I can encourage him to have a balanced diet.

Letter AChristopher Green: All children are different in the amount of food that they need. Their appetites are bird-like: some eat like a sparrow while others eat like vultures! At 12 months, my older boy was picky about his food to the point of not eating. If I had been told about him by another parent I wouldn’t have believed it.

Ideally I would not encourage chips, crisps or chocolate, but at this young age when children have a very fast metabolism, it’s not as harmful as it may seem. But it does set the wrong trend for life.

I’m happy your son enjoys breakfast. At least he’s getting one good meal a day. Why not make it his main meal? Remember food comes in forms other than sitting down to meat and three vege. Milk is not only a drink; it’s a meal. Your son enjoys sandwiches and these can also be very healthy. Try some other fillings as well as smooth peanut butter, even the humble baked bean!

In theory it’s a good idea to offer him small portions of a wide variety of foods, of different colours and textures. For example, chopped apples with sultanas or chopped sausage with grated carrot. Almost all children enjoy pasta. Just keep offering as much variety as possible.

If his weight is all right, he has plenty of energy and looks healthy, there is little to worry about. Remember that what may seem like a strange diet to you, is okay if it’s nutritious. The key to getting toddlers to eat is to keep offering.

As it says in my book Toddler Taming no child has ever starved to death through stubbornness. It takes the average hunger striker 68 days to starve. I don’t think any toddler will wait that long.

Biting

Letter QTwinsmum: I'm keen to get some advice re my little boy who is 26 months old. He goes to nursery two days a week and has been biting some of the other children. He is a very cute / funny/ loveable little boy but has always had a bit of a temper. If any child tries to take anything off him he really goes for them. The biting is quite savage and he does leave a mark. My husband and I have always been very strict about it and the nursery use 'Time Out.' I don't smack him but we both shout at him/ take him away from toys/ make him apologise. I have tapped him on the hand but I don't think it has any effect.

He has a twin brother and they are very close but also fight a lot so he's kind of been fighting his corner from the start. He knows what his teeth are and understands what 'no teeth' means and he always says sorry and gives the other child a kiss.
Have you any other suggestions because it really is very distressing (not just for us but obviously for the other children and their parents)?

Letter AChristoper Green: As mentioned in the new Toddler Taming:
"The brain is a wonderful gadget where self-monitoring and sense are housed up top, in the frontal lobes. These are the bits that check behaviour before it happens and, below the age of three, frontal function is limited.
Some parents expect adult attitudes from their 2-year-olds, but at this age the ‘sense centres’ aren’t yet on line. Parents who are unaware of this conduct deep and meaningful debates with their toddler. The child looks interested, but this is about as useful as discussing the good qualities of postmen to a Rottweiler. When Fido sees a blue trouser leg, he’ll forget philosophy and think with his teeth. The same is true of your spontaneous tot.
At playgroup, parents are embarrassed when their 2-year-old is rough with other children, grabs, bites and won’t share things. There’s no waiting at this stage. They interrupt, won’t take turns and when they need a wee is has to be in ‘this flowerpot’. The toddler has no malice or aggression, his problem is simply caused by an under-developed control system. There’s not a bad bone in these little bodies. It’s easy for me to call these behaviours normal, but it’s not so easy when parents are struggling on the battlefront. The anti-social toddler is criticised by experts who have never had children, or who’ve been fortunate enough to score an angel. Don’t let others send you on a guilt trip – believe me, the most unsharing, shoving 2-year-old will turn into a polite, loving, grown-up.
"

Biting, especially at nursery, is always a problem because you are not able to take charge of the situation. Being a twin always makes fighting more likely because of the sibling rivalry, so fighting is increased about four times. Shouting at him is not a good idea. The best way to discipline a toddler is through your tone of voice. Transmit love and approval in your eyes. It’s these kinds of tones and actions that we should mainly use to encourage the behaviours we want from our children.

When they aren’t behaving the way you’d like them to, then we can transmit that message, again with our voice. This time you use a firmer tone, a tone of disapproval, and they will instinctively know that they have done something wrong. They may not understand what, but they will know you are displeased.

Keep telling him ‘no teeth’; he will eventually get the message. Sorry is only for show – he doesn’t mean a word of it. But it may make the other parents feel better. Watch for warning signs of impending bites and divert before they happen. Ignore the biter; give all the attention to the injured party.

Don’t despair – remember that biting is only a habit of the first 2 � years and be reassured that they will not go around biting others as adults, unless they take up rugby.

Speech

Letter QTigermoth: I found your advice in 'Toddler Taming' really useful with my first son. I now hope you can offer advice concerning my second son.

He is 21 months old and although he has a vocabulary of about 20 words so far, he is reluctant to use them. Unlike his older brother who was an eager speaker (too eager!), he shows little interest in naming objects. He just points and says 'there'. Likewise, when he wants something, he points and/ or screams or says 'baby' in a pleading tone of voice. He can say phrases like 'all gone' and 'oh dear' but he won't say a more simple word like 'dog' even though he can say the 'd' and 'g' sounds. Even if he says a particular word, he can go for days and days without saying it again.

I try not to interpret for him and encourage him to talk by having simple conversations with him but often he appears to be very disinterested in the whole word business.

He's affectionate, plays well with toys and is sociable in other ways. How can I encourage him to communicate with words?

Letter AChristopher Green: Any child who is late to speak needs a hearing test. Speech varies dramatically from child to child. Even Einstein is reported to have been very late to speak. If hearing is normal and your child is bright, alert and interested in his environment, and development and understanding are all right, then there shouldn’t be too much to worry about.

It sounds as though your little boy may be a bit lazy about speech and perhaps finds it hard to get a word in if his older brother does all the talking. It definitely sounds as though you are giving him the right encouragement. But it would be a good idea to go to talk to your health visitor.

Leaving at nursery

Letter QAmi: I have a 30 month old daughter who has always enjoyed going to nursery and still does. The only hiccup is when I try to leave her there in the mornings she screams the house down. This behaviour started approximately two months ago.

This is heart-wrenching. Any advice on how to deal with this? The nursery take her off my hands and comfort her. They assure me that as soon as I disappear she is fine. I have waited around the corner and she is fine after ten/ fifteen minutes. But I feel as though I should be able to leave her there without tears as I have been doing for 20 months.

Letter AChristopher Green: The more I work with children the less I really understand why some of these problems occur. Sometimes there just isn’t a reason.

Sometimes there may be a cause for this such as mum or dad having to work away from home for a while, grandma is unwell or the dog has just died. This type of stress in the family will tend to make a toddler clingy.

Though the simple answer with your daughter is probably that it is just a stage she is going through and will soon grow out of. All parents feel guilty when their child cries when they leave. But children at this stage have only a 10-minute attention span and soon forget why they were crying.

If the trained staff at the nursery assure you she is okay, then there is probably nothing to worry about. But I remember the concern I felt with my boys when they were being left at pre-school.

TEMPER TANTRUMS

Letter QWombat: Our two-year old is the youngest of our three children. She has the most amazing temper and such a strong will so that if something is not to her liking, she bellows and screams and lays writhing on the floor or arching her back, if we are carrying her - for hours! She's thrown herself out of her cot in anger too. It can be over something trivial like the cereal she's having for breakfast (which she loved the day before) or something important like holding hands while crossing the road.

We know she sometimes does it to manipulate us or her siblings, or if she's tired, unwell etc. She is able to listen to and understand our explanations. Our other two children had normal tantrums at the same age, but hers are so much bigger, longer and louder. We are all suffering (and she is too)! How should we deal with this both at home and in public?

Letter AChristopher Green: If you can possibly get a copy of the Channel 4 program ‘Living By the Book’, which featured Toddler Taming on 24 January this year, have a look at little Scarlet and how the temper tantrums were damaging the relationship between mother and daughter. Also look at how much it improved their relationship once the tantrums were ignored.

Tantrums like this are almost always attention seeking. Ask yourself what the child may gain from throwing the tantrum. Attention is nearly all that they are after. So the way to deal with a tantrum is to ignore it. This sounds very easy on paper but is very difficult in practice.

Some of the ways to ‘pretend’ to ignore a temper tantrum are:
- Stay calm, don’t fuss, don’t notice, don’t argue, go about your business
- Move away to a different room. Wash the dishes, peel the vegies, hang out the laundry, get outside for a breath of air
- If the tantrum continues, it may be useful to try ‘Time Out’: leave them to themselves in their room or whatever works
- Do this with 100% conviction

It seems as though you are carrying her for a long time while she is crying – this is only asking for more of the same. If in doubt, ignore her.

It is much more difficult to gain control outside. But once you have the problem under control at home, you toddler will know you are not going to tolerate it and so not try it on.
Children have differing temperaments. Some are easy and some are difficult. You’ve already noticed that your first two experienced normal toddler tantrums. Don’t think it is you. It is just that your third has a different temperament. But even the worst children I looked after were well behaved for 90% of the time. At times you can get so bogged down in the bad that the good times are forgotten.

Early mornings

Letter QWeezer: I really enjoyed the realistic and down to earth approach to your book. It helped me get through my own anxiety about employing the controlled crying method. Thank you. But my problem now is early moring waking. My 23 month old daughter has been waking at 5:30am for several months. She also usually has a 1 to 2 hour nap after lunch and gives us no grief at her 8pm bedtime. I absolutely hate waking up that early. We tried the controlled crying at 5:30am and she screamed more fiercely than ever before (or maybe my resolve was just particularly weak at that time in the morning). The paediatrician assures me that 9 1/2 hours a night is fine for some children and suggested that I just get used to it and go to bed earlier myself (which I now do). Do you think I should try anything to get her to sleep later and if so what would you suggest. I would so love to be able to sleep at least until 6:30am. I should also mention that she is still breastfed 1st thing in the morning and sometimes in the early evening. I wonder if she would sleep longer if she wasn't being rewarded with a breastfeed.

Letter AChristopher Green: There are two things that I think you should do to try and fix this. Have a go and see if they help.

The first is to reduce the time of the afternoon sleep down to one hour.

And the second is to slowly change the bedtime, a little later each night, in the hope that waking should be a little later each morning. This is similar to trying to change their sleeping habits for daylight savings.

It is possible that rewarding her with breast-feeding may be contributing to the problem. If you don’t feel strongly about continuing the breast-feeding, you may consider stopping it.

Sleep

Letter QEmmagee: When my daughter was a baby I said to myself that her cot would never be used as 'prison' it should be her place of sleep and sanctuary and therefore not be used against her. As she grew older and became more mobile this began to apply to her whole room. When we moved house and she moved into a bed there were a few problems with naptime - wandering around, playing etc so on one occasion I put her in back into her cot - she let me know how disgusted she was by drawing all over the wall!

Subsequently we have had problems on and off with her not staying in her bed/ room at night and at one point toyed with the idea of the rope thing but I just couldn't get my head around the idea of imprisoning someone in their own room. Can you tell me more about how you employ that technique and how it doesn't screw the child up totally?

Letter AChristopher Green: If the child wandering at night is not bothering you then there is no real need to do anything about it.

When you put your toddler to sleep at night, make sure you spend time reading, talking and settling her down. If she’s not staying in her room after that, then next I would probably give her some warnings that it won’t be tolerated if she comes out. However, if it is a concern, then the rope trick is one way of dealing with it.

If you do decide to use the rope trick it usually only takes three nights. The child is not imprisoned in their room. They can see out; they just can’t get out. Angry tired parents and children are far more damaging to relationships over a longer period of time than three days on the rope trick.

Letter QUrs: My four year old has never been a good sleeper (or even a sleeper!). We went to sleep clinics and followed their advice. I suffered from depression as a result of no sleep and stress. Now, finally, I have managed to get him to go to sleep on his own, without needing Paul or I to cuddle him. This is a major break through!

He still gets up during the night and you could spend hour after hour putting him back to bed (indeed we did) and he will still arrive back, now we just let him stay where he is, with him wriggling about and not getting our eyes closed. We have tried buying him a double bed, thinking that he might sleep better, but to no avail. Please help! Our three year old is a great sleeper and we worry if he catches on to the fact that Matthew is moving rooms all night that he too will start. I don't think that I could cope with four in the bed!

Letter AChristopher Green: I want to reassure you that it is very unlikely that the younger child will have the same sleep problems. Each child has a different temperament. You’d rarely be so unlucky to score it twice!

Most of the children I have seen with this sort of problem are starting to be sorted out between 18 months to 2 years. So if Matthew is still suffering at four years, his sleep problem has been tougher than most.

The good news is that he is getting off to sleep first thing and on his own. Also he is going to be easier to train because he is older. But we now have to do something about the middle of the night.

If you are serious about stopping the wandering, there are several ways you could do this. But since you’re really sick of it I suggest you go straight to the rope trick. Refer to question 7 above.

Some people may think it tough, but give it a go; it is usually only for three nights. Because of his age, tell him the score. It should work. Sleep well, Chris.

Hating school

Letter QTireless: I was an avid fan and believer in Toddler Taming and have just moved on to Beyond Toddlerdom. I would be interested in your views regarding sending children into full time school education when they have just turned four. This is what we have had to do for our daughter as she turned four at the end of last August.
She seems to have been transformed from a happy sociable excitable little girl into a rude bad tempered sad miserable little girl over a period of about six months.
She says nothing is bothering her at school, she just doesn't particulaly want to go all day every day. Are some children simply too young and will this cause any long term psychological problem?

Letter AChristopher Green: I’m glad you have Beyond Toddlerdom as there is a whole chapter on Starting School. An early start is fine for some, but others are not mature enough.

Maturity means the necessary social skills including mixing, sharing, playing together, working in a group, the ability to sit and listen, independent toileting, good behaviour control and the ability to separate from Mum. The preferred academic skills are holding a pen, writing your first name, recognising some letters, knowing numbers, counting objects and good repetitive and spoken language. Parents will often push their young child into school on the strength of their academic abilities without recognising the greater importance of appropriate social maturity.

If there is any doubt, hold them back for a year. In your case, the horse has already bolted. Have you talked to your child’s teacher? Does the teacher feel she should repeat?

Only a part of each day is spent at school. In the rest of the day make sure you give her a lot of time. Make her know she is loved and wanted. Boost her self-confidence.

Your child has become rude and bad tempered because she is unhappy. Make sure you don’t get angry in return, as this will really cause problems. Just love her and reassure her and you should have no long-term damage.

Obsessive behaviour

Letter QTyler: My daughter (age five) is always going to the toilet. Sometimes it is every five minutes. She does it at school and at home but when we're out and about she is not too bad if told firmly to wait till we get to the park etc. We have been to the doctor's and there is no infection. It sems to be obsessive behaviour. We've tried to ignore it and that hasn't worked. Its been a couple of months now and we're getting more and more annoyed and it shows! Any idea what we can do?

Letter AChristopher Green: You did the right thing in seeing your doctor. Although he/ she has ruled out infection, I would still be concerned about a physical problem. Obsessive ideas can occur at this age but if your child seems happy at home and at school it is less likely. I feel your child should be seen by a paediatrician to rule out physical problems of the urinary tract before she is labelled as obsessive. If the paediatrician gives her a clean bill of health then you may consider using a star chart or token system. The idea would be to reward longer periods between visits to the toilet with stars or tokens and hard rewards such as special treats. You will find this is Beyond Toddlerdom in chapter four.

Sibling rivalry

Letter QClairgod: The problem we have is, I am sure, a common one: sibling rivalry.
We have two sons, Sam who is 18 months, and Stirling who is 4 months.
We had the usual problems for the first six weeks but made sure we gave Sam lots of love and eventually they petered out... only to return as soon as I went back to work. I only work 15 hours a week but according to my mum who does the care, he spends the entire time trying to harm the baby. We've noticed a rise in the number of incidents at home, too,
including one night when he came into our room and tried to push the baby out of the bed as we all slept. Sam knows he is welcome to co-sleep with us, and always curled up to his father, but now only I will do, which makes it difficult when I am feeding Stirling.
I worked longer hours before the baby came, so it can't just be that surely? Please help before the baby gets injured or my Mum packs in helping!

Letter AChristopher Green: This is what I refer to in "Babies!" as the six-month sting:

"An outcome that may sneak up on you unawares. You arrive home with your new baby to find utter peace. Then at about 6 months, just as you thought it was safe to relax, guerrilla warfare hits you with a bang.

Don’t panic, this is an extremely common scenario yet one which will still have a happy ending. You see, when Baby first appeared he lay around doing nothing like a big doll who posed no particular threat to Junior. Then suddenly at six months the doll sits up, starts to gurgle and attracts all the attention. Faced with this unfortunate turn of events the toddler reacts against this change in status and becomes a pest.

All you can do is divert him. Keep him busy and ignore as much of the anti-social behaviour as is reasonable. Divided care, visits to Grandma’s, playgroups and lots of positive attention are the best way to cope.

Bickering, fighting and sibling rivalry are all parts of the joys of being a parent and will go on throughout childhood. As adults we are just as competitive and jealous of those who seem to have more possessions and get greater attention than we do, so why should we be surprised when our junior versions react in a similar way?"

Even though you are only working for 15 hours, sometimes this is quite enough to get your toddler upset. It’s understandable that you’re worried that the Baby could be harmed. But in reality this is most uncommon. Generally the older child is just investigating and prodding. This results in the toddler getting a lot of attention, so the poking and prodding is repeated. Remember at 18 months old Sam has absolutely no sense. (See the answer to the question on biting above). Try not to read too much into the bed incident. It is only a once off.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Last updated: 04-Mar-2011 at 10:42 AM