Mumsnet live chat - Tanya Byron

This is an edited transcript of our live webchat with Dr Tanya Byron on 6 September 2007.

Tanya is a practising consultant in child and adolescent mental health who has two children of her own. She is the author of three books, the most recent of which is Your Child Your Way. To download a podcast featuring an interview with her, click here.

Style and beauty | Parenting "experts"Challenging behaviour | Fussy eating | Early waking | Potty-training | Parenting techniques | Selective mutism | Tackling anxiety problems | Too young for time out?

Style and beauty

Fimbo: I don't want to ask her parenting questions. I want to ask about her clothes and make-up
Aitch: I love her hair and her wrap dresses and her eye make-up and her boots and her nail varnish. And, what's more, I love that she never gets her (probably also lovely) knickers in a twist.

Dr Tanya Byron: Hello everyone. Thank you, Mumsnet, for inviting me to have this chat and thank you so much everyone for the kind and complimentary things you say about me. I've never done something like this before so forgive me if I mess it up at first. I have laughed at the comments about clothes and make-up, so, as a warm up, do you want to hear something about that? In the TV series The House of Tiny Tearaways, I had a stylist (...) who bought clothes for me. Some I loved, others I despised (a rather unpleasant beige polo neck/cardi combo comes to mind...). I also had (and still have) a make-up artist, lovely Lisa M, who would do my make-up when I arrived at the House at 6am and refresh it through the day. As the week [over which each programme was filmed] progressed, we would all be getting exhausted (we did about 16 hours per day. Lisa and I would become hysterical and she would just layer on more and more make-up until I ended on Fridays usually looking like a drag queen and unable to open my eyes from the weight of my lashes!

Parenting "experts"

Dr Tanya Byron: Anyway, more serious now: my new book is out today - plug plug! I just want to explain a bit why I wrote it because it will help with our chat. I think now there are too many "parenting experts" around (me being one of them) and an overload of info, which leaves many parents feeling confused and less expert in raising their child. I see this in the parents in my weekly clinic. I think we have to get back to a point where we feel the most empowered in raising our kids and don't feel we need to defer to an "expert" or a book etc. So I don't want to just do a Q & A "she's the expert" type thing here today but think more broadly about why we often know what we want to do with our kids but can't.

Challenging behaviour

Dr Tanya Byron: Many of you asked about kids with challenging behaviour. The general rule is that, for the under threes, actions speak louder than words. When they get older, other strategies can also help. The general psychological principle is that the behaviour you give your child after theirs will determine whether or not that behaviour will occur again. So aim is to reinforce the great stuff (praise, cuddles and, for the over 3s, sticker charts) and don't reinforce the bad (ignore, time out in extreme cases). Time out is a bit like being sent to your room (like my mum did when I was a kid) and is only for one minute for each year of a child’s life. I not a fan of naughty steps (because, often, there can be physical struggle to get the child to stay there) and I say a huge no to smacking. But let's go beyond the "techniques" and be more analytical first: why not monitor your child and your behaviour for a week or so? How far do you see a pattern in your responses that, in some way, is escalating the behaviour you don't want? In my new book, there are self monitoring diaries so you can do this.

For any child's behaviour to be managed, the most important things are to be consistent and boundaried. Set a boundary and follow through consistently with a consequence if it is crossed (eg time out for hitting your sister...) Make sure all involved in the care of your child do the same or else your child will get mixed messages. Be aware that yelling is attention and so that will increase the likelihood of the behaviour you don't want. Ignoring is very effective but difficult to do in the early days of trying to manage the behaviour. But do ignore if you can. Praise is hugely potent but must come from the heart and be both verbal and non verbal.

Fussy eating

DANCESwithTheMorningOff: Can you tell us about food, please! What do you do when one child will not eat what you have given them?

Dr Tanya Byron: It is not a good idea to give different meals to a food-fussy child. Remember, toddlers can go through a stage of neophobia (being afraid of new foods) and this can even extend to foods previously loved. Don't show your anxiety to your child. And do lock away the wet wipes! For those of you who do tend to wipe, get a friend to feed you a meal with a big spoon while looking at you intently and wiping your mouth with a disgusting fragranced wipe every five minutes: will you continue eating? Watch snacks, as some kids lose an eating pattern because they graze throughout the day. If a child refuses a meal, then stop the meal and offer nothing until the next meal (apart from water, obviously). Sometimes, being paradoxical with a kid helps: "I bet you can't eat that faster than your brother..." Or stickers for older kids. No treats or dessert, if meal not finished.

Early waking

Bandofmothers: My one-year-old recently started sleeping through the night (mostly), for which I am ever grateful. However, not wanting to sound like it's never good enough, I can't get her to sleep past about 5.30am. She still wakes then and wants milk (I breastfeed morning and bedtime still) and rarely goes back to sleep afterwards. How can I get her to wake later? I have started keeping her up until about 11am for her nap, so she sleeps til about 1pm, so I can consistently put her to bed at 7pm, though she is knackered by then. Is this the right thing to do? Or should I try something else?
PS, she is still in my bedroom as she wasn't sleeping thru, and now cos she is up so early. I want to put her in with her sister and get my room back, should I just do it?? Would she sleep better if not in with me?? Sometimes if I even roll over, or god forbid try to get out of bed for a wee it can wake her up. I really don't want her waking her sister at 5 too.

Dr Tanya Byron: There is no way I can get to individual questions, so I will look through and give broader answers. Hope that's OK. Sleep problems are usually twofold: problems settling to sleep, and night waking. From six months, most kids should be able to settle themselves to sleep in a dark or dim room. Some children require some help in learning this. The key issues are a settling calm routine before bed and positive sleep associations, which means things like their cot or bed, and a teddy next to them. If you rock your child asleep or they suck on a bottle or dummy to sleep or fall asleep in front of the TV, when they wake in the night (and we all do briefly as we go through our sleep cycles) they will require those things (and thus also you) to get back to sleep. You can do "controlled crying" but I am not a fan of long spells left crying, so leave her only for a few minutes, then in and a brief "ssh!" and then out. Or, with an older child, if they come out of the room, just be outside and return them with no response at all (even if they kicking and shouting) and then leave. Or, for kids who appear anxious, you can sit by them until they're almost asleep and then slowly move further away each night. In all these scenarios, you must be calm and not talk (and thus don't reinforce their behaviour or make it a game).


chankins: Any advice on dealing with a three-and-a-half-year old who wets herself constantly and does not mind being wet and smelly? I've tried sticker charts, reward incentives, taking away pudding/treats etc, telling her off, and ignoring it. It's not that I mind the accidents, as her older sister was slow to toilet train, too; it's the not telling us she's wet that annoys me! What am I doing wrong?

Dr Tanya Byron: Toilet training must only start when a child shows they are ready. In this world of competitive parenting, I am amazed at how many parents push their kids before they are ready because their friend's kid is the same age and using the potty. Ridiculous! Let kids be kids and develop at their own pace, not at our agenda. Besides, being potty-trained early is no marker of being an Oxford undergraduate later on. I've had kids in my clinic who are faecally impacted and need it removed and then laxatives to help them poo because they so anxious about soiling/wetting. It's trial and error and mistakes must be allowed. Anxious kids could be helped by slowly de-sensitizing them to what they're about – usually the toilet – by letting them do their business in their nappy but in the bathroom, then, over time, sitting on the loo/potty and then, eventually, loosening the nappy.

Parenting techniques

Tigana: As a new mum, the first of my friends to have a baby, and with a very small family support network (my mum died several years ago), I didn't really have anyone to give me parenting advice. I felt like I must be doing it "wrong" as I wasn't following any particular "method". Nonsense, obviously! Also, I think we are all so painfully aware of the potential consequences of what we see as being Too Strict or Too Soft that we blither about fearing that our reprimand is Damaging The Child and Turning Them into a Serial Killer/ASBO-teen/Alcoholic/Person Who Can't Form Healthy Relationships With Others as their mum told them they had to eat their first course before  pudding.

Dr Tanya Byron: My condolences to you - that's really tough - but I like what you said earlier about our kids being different and we should respect that and that programmes, including mine, push out a notion that it's all techniques in a one-size-fits-all way. I agree and think you will be a good mum, despite having less support than many new mums do. I also agree that TV can simplify and, while I always tried to be diverse in my work, and look at what was underlying the problems the parents were having, not focus on labelling the kid as the problem, I have stopped TV shows because I also think there's too much now and it's getting too simplistic.

Hurrah for Dr T! She agrees with moi (and Tigana)! I will now use that fact to any smartarse mum who thinks always a right way/wrong way to do things. One size does not fit all is my new mantra!

Selective mutism

mountainhigh: My son is six and has selective mutism (SM). I know you had a little boy with SM on The House of Tiny Tearaways. I know it is quite a rare condition and, in my experience, a very misunderstood condition. It is especially difficult in school: the teachers seem to have no knowledge of SM at all. From what I can gather, in the US and Canada, they have much more knowledge on SM and more support groups. Apart from SMIRA (which have helped me a lot in the past), why do you think there is so little support and help for children with SM?

Dr Tanya Byron: Selective mutism is a rare condition but a real one and not attention-seeking in a child. Often, these kids will talk to those they feel safe with (mum, dad, gran) but no one else and often they will only speak in a safe space (such as their home). For the SM parent, I agree, there is little info and support but I would recommend thinking psychologically and looking at using a technique called "sliding in": getting your child used to talking in front of others in a gradual and systematically pre-planned way by starting with them whispering to you when someone else (maybe the classroom assistant) is in the room but looking away, and then build from there in stages until the other person is sitting near you and your child is whispering to them through you. And then keep building from there.

Tackling anxiety problems

In general, for any anxious child, the process should be a slow, calm, steady exposure to what they afraid of – so licking a small bit of fruit will build to biting, chewing and swallowing over time. To plan this with your kids, draw a ladder on a piece of paper and, at the top, put where you want your child to be in terms of their behaviour and then, at each rung, plot your small steps to getting their. Telling kids to blow out imaginary birthday cake candles (slows breathing) or having a red/orange/green system of colours to point to to indicate when they OK, A Bit Anxious or Very Anxious helps as well.

Too young for Time Out?

Tutter: Is there such a thing as Too Young for Time Out?

Dr Tanya Byron: Time out for over-twos only. But please can we be less hooked up on techniques and think this: why do I have x problem with my child? What does it say about me? Why, when our children are behaving like... children... do we lose our nerve, fall apart and wonder whether they will be banged up by nine? Why, when our child has a tantrum, do we have one back? (They are the child, remember; we're not). If you just could try to be less hooked into “Oh Dr T, you're the expert, tell me what to do” and calmed a bit, looked at the behaviour, analysed when and how it happens and how you may inadvertently be reinforcing it. Think about whether your child is getting mixed messages from other adults who care for them. Think perhaps whether your child's behaviour is less about them being "naughty" and more about them reflecting some bigger emotional issues in their life/the family etc. Get back to a sense that you are instinctively the expert on your child. Pick a management solution and stick to it calmly and consistently. And, by the way, for parents of children with special needs, I advise the same behavioural messages and boundaries for your child and lots of support for you. Finally, remember the notion of the self-fulfilling prophecy: if you and others think and label your kid a problem, then you and others will behave in a manner that will signal that to your and child and, bingo!, they will be.

Here's the thing: I have to go as have a meeting before picking my children up from school! I am sorry and feel guilty that you are all probably very frustrated by my probably too general advice. I hope some was useful and it's been fun – although I now have severe hand cramps! Anyway, goodbye lovely mums and dads (and all other carers out there). Thanks for this slot and please remember that a problem only becomes one when we label it as one, and most of what we are describing as problems are in fact behaviours that are normal for the developmental stage of your child.

Last updated: 9 months ago