Cathy Talks About Parenting

For more details see my book Happy Kids.

What is your tried and tested method, in a nutshell?

The 3Rs – Request, Repeat and Reassure is my incredibly simple and highly effective technique for managing children’s behaviour. Based on 25 years fostering experience and sound child psychology it works for all ages – from settling a crying baby to teenagers and young adults.

What are some of the easiest patterns for parents to fall into – that actually wind up making children display even more challenging behaviour?

Allowing the child to be the adult in the relationship. All children need age appropriate autonomy and independence but they also need boundaries for good behaviour. These boundaries are put in place and upheld by the parent or adult looking after the child. The parent knows best, not the child. Closely related to this is the misguided desire of many modern parents that they should be their child’s friend rather than parent. Children need a responsible adult – as a role model, someone they can look up to, who will keep them safe, and whose example they can follow. It is part of being a parent that sometimes our children will dislike us when we make them do something they don’t want to for their own good, for example, going to bed at a reasonable time. Many parents avoid going against their child’s wishes which gives the child an unrealistic amount of power and responsibility which they don’t have the life skills to cope with.

How do parents know if their child needs a diagnosis like ADHD, autism, dyslexia etc? Many parents wonder if their child crosses over into these medical conditions.

There is a whole chapter in my book dedicated to special needs. I am very wary about the rising number of children labelled special needs. When I was growing up the average person had never heard of ADHD, autism, dyspraxia, dyslexia, Asperger’s syndrome, bipolar disorder, attachment disorder, conduct disorder, oppositional defiant disorder or any of the conditions which now seem to be endemic in our children. It would be difficult to imagine that these conditions have suddenly been spawned by a generation, so they must therefore have existed to some extent in the children I grew up with, but without being diagnosed. These ‘special needs’ children were simply acknowledged as being a bit different by their friends and peer group, who accommodated their differences in their social interaction, and by parents and teachers, who gave extra help and disciplined as and when required.

Diagnosing children as having special needs is now so prolific that every class or random group of children contains some special needs children; many school classes now have upwards of 20 per cent. Special needs falls largely into two categories: those that affect learning and those that affect behaviour, although the two categories often overlap, so that a child with ADHD, for instance, may also be dyslexic. Having a special needs diagnosis can be useful, in that it opens doors to funding for extra help, both in and outside school, as well as reassuring parents who may have been struggling for years to manage their child’s unusual/challenging behaviour. However, with the diagnosis comes a label, and that label can have a negative effect by tolerating and excusing what would otherwise be unacceptable behaviour in the child, as well as placing a ‘glass ceiling’ on the child’s ability and potential to learn. Parents, carers, teachers and other professionals often refer to a child’s ‘condition’ early on in describing the child, as though it is the single overriding factor, responsible for all the child’s negative behaviour, as if it is a fait accompli.

Many of the children I have fostered have been diagnosed with a special need that manifests itself in behaviour – ADHD, autistic spectrum, attachment disorders, oppositional defiant disorder, conduct disorder, etc. – and have arrived with behaviour that was completely out of control. Without exception, the behaviour of all of these children improved dramatically, sometimes miraculously, as a result of managing their behaviour, using the techniques described in my book. I am not saying that all the children were diagnosed incorrectly or that the condition disappeared, but that it is important to deal with the behaviour rather than bowing to the diagnosis. Regardless of which special need(s) the child has, if challenging behaviour is one of the symptoms, it can be vastly improved, even completely changed, by enforcing clear and consistent boundaries.

Can particular kinds of toys and activities help children with challenging behaviour e.g. toys with long-lasting play value, toys that encourage physical activity to let off steam etc…

All children need some form of daily exercise to let of steam, and in my experience boys need more exercise than girls. Many of the children I have fostered came to me with very challenging behaviour. Without exception they all improved with a good diet, daily exercise (e.g. walking to school) and boundaries for good behaviour. If a child is very angry and frustrated then I encourage them to punch a pillow or cushion (rather than the wall or someone else). Play dough is a favourite with all ages – it is safe to use and kneading and moulding the dough has a calming effect. I limit the amount of time a child spends interacting with a screen, e.g. play station, Nintendo, television, computer. In my experience children can become very irritable, agitated and frustrated by sitting in front of a screen for too long. One child I looked after who had very complex needs could only manage 10 minutes at a time before he became angry and frustrated.

People often assume boys are more likely to display challenging behaviour – is this your experience? And what key differences are there, if any, between challenging behaviour among girls and boys?

In my experience boys and girls can display challenging behaviour in equal amounts, although the type of behaviour is different. This is a generalisation but on the whole boys tend to be more ‘up front’ and ‘in your face’ with their challenges; more openly defiant and more easily crossing into physical aggression. Girls tend to be more furtive – quietly slipping away to do something you have forbidden. Worryingly, girls tend to internalise their anger and frustration which is more likely to lead to self-harm and eating disorders.

Do you have some Dos and Don’ts for parents attempting to deal with challenging behaviour?

The Dos:
Remember it is the behaviour that is at fault and not the child
Have a working routine, it is essential for any household to run smoothly
Establish your house rules. They are there for the benefit of all family members; make sure everyone in the house knows what is expected of them, and that the house rules are adhered to by all.
Be firm when necessary. Acceptable behaviour is the only behaviour that you will accept.
Reward positive behaviour and sanction negative behaviour; but remember a reward need only be verbal praise.
Boundaries and guidelines for acceptable behaviour must be clear and consistent at all times and in all situations.
Assume positive behaviour, and start each day afresh.
Assert enough control over your children to discipline and guide them, but not so much that it squashes individuality and character.
Remain calm when dealing with negative behaviour, and if necessary take time out to calm down.
Be sensitive to any factors that might be affecting your child’s behaviour, e.g. moving house or parents divorce, but don’t let those factors become an excuse for unacceptable behaviour.
Treat all siblings equally and fairly, and never make comparisons between one child and another.
Make full use of the closed choice for gaining you child’s cooperation (page 32-35). It’s a wonderful device that never fails to work.
Teach your child respect for others and property.
Spend quality time with your child and make sure your child has ‘free’ time when he or she amuses themselves.
Respect your child’s right to privacy, particularly with the older child, as he or she must respect yours.
Give your child age-appropriate responsibility.
Keep the lines of communication open by talking to your child, teen or young adult, as well as actively listening.
Give your child a good diet with plenty of fresh food. Children need to eat regularly and have plenty of fluids. If your child has a behavioural problem, pay particular attention to additives.
Make sure your child has enough sleep; a tired child is a fractious one.

The Don’ts:

Never shout, smack or fly into a tantrum – you will set a bad example and one that will be followed by your child.
Never give in to a child’s demands. You cater for their needs and wishes but not their demands. .
Never refer to yourself in third person. When talking to your child use ‘I’ – I love you’ or ‘I want you to put your toys away,’ not ‘Mummy wants you to put your toys away,’ it dilutes your request. .
Don’t avoid disciplining your child because you don’t want to be in his or her bad books. Being disliked by our children sometimes is part of parenting, so don’t take it personally.
Don’t criticize, satirize or make fun of your child; many adults can’t cope with being laughed at, and your child won’t be able to.

How can parents get schools involved in a positive way to help children’s behaviour?

I have included a chapter in my book for teachers managing children with challenging behaviour as often teachers (nursery workers etc) fall into the same traps as parents when dealing with challenging behaviour. Parents and teachers obviously need to work closely when a child is exhibiting challenging behaviour so that the child realises everyone is ‘singing from the same hymn sheet’. Set up a meeting with the class teacher if you have concerns and keep in daily contact. Last year I fostered a boy aged 8 who was displaying challenging behaviour at school. I worked with the class teacher, at the end of each day she told me what sort of day the boy had had. If he had done well I praised him, if there had been an incident I imposed a sanction – usually loss of television time. Within 3 weeks he was as well behaved at school as he was with me at home.

Any particular anecdotes you can share to show how even the most challenging behaviour can be turned around

I have included many anecdotes in my book showing how almost miraculous improvements can be made in children’s behaviour using my 3Rs technique. Here is a favourite of mine:
One nine-year-old boy I fostered for two-week periods every couple of months, to give his parents a break, had been diagnosed with ADHD (among other things). He had been medicated in the past but couldn’t tolerate the medicine, so was no longer taking it. He used to arrive on my doorstep at the start of his stay like a free radical, charging around and yelling continuously at the top of his voice, completely out of control. By the time he left two weeks later he was a different child, talking normally, listening to what others said and able to sit still and concentrate in order to complete a task. However, within forty-eight hours of his returning home he was back to his old uncontrollable self. This went on for the best part of six months, with his mother joking that it must be witchcraft. But it was no witchcraft. During the weeks he was with me I changed his diet, replacing the processed foods and fizzy drinks he had at home with fresh and mainly additive-free food, and put in place clear and consistent boundaries for good behaviour, which I reinforced using the 3Rs. Eventually the parents were so impressed that rather than burning me at the stake, they agreed to try my formula. It was so successful that they never asked for respite again and enjoyed being with their son.

Do you think more children nowadays are less well-behaved than they used to be?

Yes, I do. I appreciate this is a generalisation but I think children have been given too much power, independence, and responsibly, too early. Children need routine, nurturing, guidance, and boundaries for good behaviour so that they grow into sociably acceptable adults. Parents have tried to become their children’s best friend and have shied away from discipline and taking responsibility for their children’s behaviour.

Do you think it is always still possible to change a child’s behaviour, even once patterns have been established?

Yes, definitely. I do it all the time in my fostering. In my book, Happy Kids, there is a whole section on how to turn around a child with challenging behaviour.

You have a “Happy Kids Forum”  – what is that?

It is a section on my website dedicated to reader’s questions and comments about parenting. After the publication of my fostering memoirs I received thousands of emails from parents and childcare workers around the world praising the way I managed children’s often very difficult behaviour. Their comments made me realize that the techniques I used for successfully changing children’s unacceptable behaviour were not universally known so I began offering some advice on the forum. The books Happy Kids and Happy Mealtimes For Kids followed.

Happy Mealtimes for Kids:

You start your book by saying one of your greatest challenges as a foster carer is to win the children over to a healthier way of eating. Can you give us a couple of practical tips on how to do this with a. a whinging toddler and b. a teenager, who goes behind your back and raids the corner shop on the way to school?
In both cases I would establish a regular mealtime routine, with the family sitting together and enjoying each other’s company as well as the food. Clearly, if a toddler is whinging then the root cause needs to be addressed. Never take a whinging toddler to the table but calm them first. A toddler should be seated comfortably at the table in a high chair or on a booster seat (older toddlers), and should feed themselves as much as possible, using an attractive brightly coloured bowl and spoon.
Teenagers do snack between meals and as long as it is between meals and not instead of a meal then little harm will be done. Parents with teenagers will be having to deal with plenty of issues (more serious than snacking), as teenagers test the boundaries to establish their autonomy and independence. Try giving the teenager a healthy snack to takeout with them as teenagers do get hungry between meals; this may limit the amount of junk food they’re eating but it won’t eliminate it.

What would you say to parents who all too easily give in to their child’s pester power in the supermarket?

Read my book Happy Kids and use the 3Rs technique. I describe the supermarket tantrum and how to deal with it in detail, and my strategies do work.

Why do kids now-a-days not like greens? What is your best tip on getting them to eat their veggies?

Some green vegetable have a very strong flavour and are an acquired taste. I would never expect a young child to eat Brussels sprouts, for example, although I’ve known some children who’ve loved them. There are plenty of other green vegetables that can be eaten, and incorporated into dishes that children love, for example, broccoli and pasta bake, rice and peas, vegetable soup, or try adding chopped cabbage or spinach to a stew or hot pot. The children will still be eating their greens although they won’t necessarily realize it.

You list on p7 of your book various additives that are banned in other countries but available in the UK. Is there any lobbying ongoing to ban these?

More needs to be done. From time to time concerns are raised usually after a piece of scientific research has shown that a food additive can be harmful, but there needs to be more control. I am convinced that many of the behavioural and learning difficulties we see in children today is made worse and sometimes even caused by a diet high in the additives in processed food. Many of the children I’ve fostered arrived with appalling diets and behavioural problems, as well as having poor skin, hair and teeth. Without exception they all improved dramatically once they were eating a healthy diet, and in some cases their bad behaviour completely disappeared.

You mention that sometimes parents need to accept genuine dislikes. How many times should a parent keep offering a child a food before accepting their refusal?

It depends on the age of the child. When weaning a child, new foods can be offered regularly – each week for months, with older children if they try a new food two or three times and really don’t like it then I wouldn’t push it. As they get older they may try it again and as long as they are eating a balanced diet there is no need to worry.

There is a fine line between genuine refusal and a child using food as a means of control. With toddlers in particular how should a parent cope with a child who is refusing nearly all foods?

Stay calm, don’t make an issue of it, and present the food in different ways. If a toddler has been weaned with a wide variety of foods they are less likely to be fussy. If a toddler is at the table and can see everyone else enjoying their meal they are more likely to join in. Virtually all children’s behaviour is learned and that includes eating. Set a good example, and encourage the toddler to feed themselves and they are more likely to eat happily; no one likes having food pushed into their mouths.

My two and a half year old has always only eaten food when it’s cold and would spit out or gag on hot foods – any advice or logic you can offer here?

Don’t worry would be my first piece of advice. As long as your child is eating a good diet it doesn’t make any difference to the nutritional value of the food if it is eaten hot or cold. I’m sure you know this but babies, toddlers and young children are a lot more sensitive to heat than older children or adults. What might feel warm to an adult could feel hot to a young child; one of the reasons why young children don’t like very spicy food. You could try warming the food just a little but if your child really prefers cold food, I wouldn’t worry. It is something he of she will grow out of, although even adults have preferences in how hot or cold they like their food.

You offer some great advice on packed lunches and meals. In your experience what foods/recipes have you found to be favourites with kids?

The foods that are visually attractive and are easily and quickly eaten work best. School children want to be out in the playground with their friends not in the canteen. The ‘pots’ recipes in my book Happy Mealtimes for Kids are good examples, as the food is chopped and easily eaten with a fork or spoon. Those recipes with pasta are great favourites, and pasta is versatile so you can add many foods to it, for example, grated cheese and coleslaw, chopped boiled egg and mayonnaise, chopped ham and pineapple. There are many more suggestions in chapter five of my book.

In the line of my work I often hear that parents struggle to get their kids to eat eggs and try soup – any advice?

This surprises me as there are so many different ways to present eggs, for example: softly boiled with soldiers, omelettes with delicious fillings, eggy bread, scrambled (try adding a little salad cream or mayonnaise to taste), fried (add a blob of tomato ketchup before serving), poached (make sure the white is set), hard boiled – can be sliced or chopped and put in to a sandwich or added to a rice or pasta ‘pot’. Eggs are also in quiche, or make a souffle if you are feeling inventive, as well as many puddings, for example, egg custard, bread and butter pudding, and home-made cakes. Children like their soups quite bland and smooth so blend any chunky soup in a liquidizer before serving to a child. Make the soup more interesting by adding croutons (not garlic croutons), or encouraging the child to break up their bread into small lumps and float it on the soup before eating. Don’t worry they will grow out of this before it becomes a social embarrassment.

What advice do you have for her almost four year old who has regressed to wanting to be spoon fed? This came at the same time his younger sibling was being weaned.

This is classic and I often receive emails from worried parents describing an older child regressing when there is a younger child in the family. My first piece of advice is not to worry; it is a phase and they will grow out of it. To a four-year-old it can be very appealing to be a baby or toddler again. You get lots of attention and can suck on a bottle or trainer beaker, which feels nice, and mum feeds you. Make sure the older child has her fare share of one-to-one – preferably when the younger child is asleep so it is uninterrupted one-to-one. Tell the older child how pleased you are that they are no longer a baby or toddler and can do things for themselves, for example, they can use a knife and fork and don’t need feeding or changing any more. Emphasise all the positives in growing up and being an older child and say you are looking forward to the time when the younger child can do these things as well. If you are comfortable with the idea then you could playfully spoon food the child the odd mouthful. As with so many parenting issues there is no right or wrong way, you go with what you and your family are happy with.