Dear Jenny,

We are in a panic. For ages we’ve delayed doing anything about our kid’s behaviour because we thought it was just a stage and it would be over in time for school. School has come around and nothing has changed.  Our eldest is six and a half years old, and then we have a five year old and a three year old, and their behaviour at home and out and about is nothing short of wild. By wild I mean they race around the shops and knock stuff over, they kick the back of my car seat relentlessly, they tell me the food I put in front of them is disgusting and getting them to stay in bed at night takes around 90 minutes.

Our parents can’t look after them because of how much they fight. I think our greatest battle is dealing with two very strong-willed children. They don’t take no for an answer and will argue back with all of us. I’m pretty strong-willed myself but they seem to beat me down. I have become a lot less tolerant lately and I am not happy with how much shouting I do. I also feel detached from them like it has all gotten too hard. I don’t think they have noticed.

Jenny’s tips

This sounds really tough and so natural to feel overwhelmed and distanced from your children. Believe it or not, your children want to behave well and will respond to your love as well as your limits. Some families decide that it’s time to reset things and to let the children know that a couple of things need to start happening differently.

This reset is positive and a time to remind the children that you are so glad to have them in your family. Children need to hear that they are wanted and they respond so much better to an invitation to join in, than being growled at or told how unhappy you are with their behaviour.

When we set limits, staying firm and calm helps children cooperate. Let’s take the car seat kicking as the first thing to manage. When it next happens, slow down or pull over and simply say, “No thanks, no kicking the car seat.” If you are ignored, be prepared to wait at a safe place on the side of the road. No growling, but a patient pause where you let your child know you are happy to start the car again as soon as the kicking has stopped. This is inconvenient, but will be less trouble than the regular kicking challenges.

Your children need you to engage with them, and this is not easy to do when you are fed up with their behaviour. One reason children misbehave is that they feel the disconnect and distance and will use anything to get into the arena again. Naturally this means any behaviour might be used. If you can see their bad behaviour as an attempt to get back in, you will feel less frustrated and respond less reactively. Perhaps you can even find the wherewithal to acknowledge that you would like to be with them and that there’s a story you would like to read to them or you are looking forward to watching them on the trampoline. Don’t worry if you are refused – just let them know you are ready when they are ready.

Children love predictability, so bedtime can be a time where you use a simple chart of the five things that need to be done as a lead up to bed. Each picture and number on the chart shows what to do.

  • 5 = Dinner
  • 4 = Bath
  • 3 = Pyjamas
  • 2 = Teeth
  • 1 = Story
  • 0 = Cuddle and kiss

The outcome

There’s definitely been less shouting in this family and the biggest thing we got from our coaching session was to reengage with our kids – especially me. I am seeing them in a better light and realise that maybe they are not out to beat me down. We have taken much less stuff off them which shows we must be doing something right. Bedtime was so stressful before and one of the easiest things to do was to make up the simple routine of what we need to do step by step. The kids love the photos of themselves by each of the numbers.

Fortunately we started with the positive stuff first and we felt closer to the children. We reintroduced the bedtime story as that had got lost in the negative cycle. I mentioned to the children that I would be stopping the car if there was fighting or kicking and I guess they were surprised that I actually did without the usual 10 warnings. It’s been slow, but there is less fighting and the kicking is a bit token now. I still have to watch I don’t overreact!

So overall the calmer approach is working well and I am aware that I do much better when I get enough sleep. I have reduced my work hours slightly so life feels a bit less stressed and time pressured. We have been more deliberate in putting our phones down while the children are awake and I have even let them help me in the kitchen – a big step for someone who likes the control!

For now, we have decided that the kids can just go to their grandparents’ one at a time while we make these changes and we’ve stopped threatening that we are going to take that off them if they mess up. It’s hard to say which thing has been the key to the changes but we feel encouraged that we’ve started a much needed turnaround and have already seen some light at the end of the tunnel.