How to help modify toxic behavior in 3 yr olds?
March 27, 2010 3:06 PM   Subscribe

How to help my friend's marraige and mental health survive their 3 year old dictators?

After years of IVF, fraternal twin girls are born to overjoyed parents. They turned 3 last week and came for a visit to us, the god parents. Due to distance I hadn't seen them for 1 1/2 years and I was horrified. Apologies in advance as this may be a little long. The problem is the parents and perhaps how desperately they wanted these babies.
They have no boundaries.
They have never gone out and left them with a sitter or even family (and their families are very distant and don't want to help).
They drop everything when they scream, cry, demand, interrupt. They "negotiate" and gennerally lose, as in "Sweetie, lets' put on your clothes and go out" (X 20minutes) "No!", end up taking both of them to physically hold down screaming kid. One twin in particular is far worse than the other and constantly gets Daddy's attention. If he doesn't give it instantly she screams.

Daddy is the main problem. Mum is a paeds nurse and has tried to implement boundaries but Daddy comes home at night delighted that his girls want him, clearly prefer him as he gives in to all demands and it is an ego trip for him. This means the girls sitting on his lap during his dinner, and being soothed to sleep by him almost every night. They cannot self-soothe. They will only feed themselves when he is not there. If his wife in trying to establish boundaries allows the girls to throw a tantrum and scream he accuses her of being cold. She is at her wits end, their relationship is really on the skids. If she suggest readings about a different parenting style, he accuses her of being jealous (!!)

He is a highly intelligent physicist, quite Aspie, and incredibly self absorbed. He respects my husband and me. Because of this relationship I managed to explain how bad this was for the girls' development in very strong terms. I explained that spending 30 hours poring over car safety docs to ensure he has the safest car for his little darlings is pretty meaningless if the emotional development of these children is so incredibly neglected. At this stage they will not be able to go to School!

He appears to have taken this on board and I have offered to come stay for a weekend in 3 weeks to help kick start a programme which might help. In the meantime he has offered to read articles about why boundaries are so important and hints and tips about implementing change before the problem gets any worse. In the run-up to my visit they have agreed to find a sitter.
One other serious issue I believe is that one girl is significantly better behaved than the other. But the other gets all of his attention because "she's sensitive and highly strung" So when the better behaved one misbehaves a little he shouts at her, whereas the other can get away with a two hour tantrum. He is basically reinforcing the bad behaviour constantly and being unfair to boot!

So mefites, other than being a parent, I have no idea where to start to help this family. Please point me in the direction of useful strategies for change as well as the problems that this type of parenting can cause in the future. I have to overcome the ego trip he is on where he is the adored and favorite parent by appealling to his genuine love and concern for his children.

Sorry for the long Q, I'd be happy to answer any other questions you might have. Thanks!
posted by Wilder to Human Relations (57 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
You are incredibly kind for the weekend visit. Hopefully they'll use that time to attend their first joint therapy session.
posted by sallybrown at 3:11 PM on March 27, 2010

But let me get this straight -- neither one of them asked for your help? You've just decided that they're doing everything wrong, and you're the one to set to instruct t hem on how to properly parent? You're describing a difficult situation, but nothing that sounds actually abusive or dangerous. Because they sit on dad's lap at dinner, can't self-soothe to fall asleep and have tantrums they will not be able to go to eventually go to school? This sounds like a big pile of mind your own business to me.
posted by BlahLaLa at 3:11 PM on March 27, 2010 [15 favorites]

It seems to me that this is none of your business. Also, the girls will be teenagers soon enough, wanting nothing to do with their mother or their father. Let the parents enjoy the few precious years of their kids being young as they see fit; the girls will turn out just fine.
posted by halogen at 3:18 PM on March 27, 2010

Yeah, that's important: have they actually asked you for help? I'd assumed they had.

The reason I suggested therapy is because you, a friend, shouldn't get tangled up in advising or mediating their marriage or child-raising. A therapist would give them a neutral and unbiased space in which to talk things through.

But if your friends haven't turned to you for help, I would stay out of their marriage.
posted by sallybrown at 3:19 PM on March 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

Have they asked you for help? Or have you just decided that they need it?
posted by Solomon at 3:19 PM on March 27, 2010

You are a parent. How would you receive it if a godparent decided your relationship with your children were based on Asperger syndrome and ego, gave you reading material for how to improve your parenting skills, evaluated your marriage as failing, and came for a weekend to kick-start a program to change you into the parent and spouse they think you should be?

That probably will be how they receive it, too. Hopefully that guides your decisions about your best path forward?
posted by Houstonian at 3:27 PM on March 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I have to overcome the ego trip he is on where he is the adored and favorite parent

I would start out by reminding him that however momentarily angry he might make his daughters, they will still adore him without reservation. Remind him that if a three-year-old says "I don't like you any more!" they're just saying "I'm mad at you." If he has Asperger's tendencies, he may be getting hung up on their literal words.

Watching some episodes of Supernanny might appeal to him if he would like to see examples of behavioral intervention techniques in action.

I'm going to go ahead and assume that they've asked you for help.
posted by corey flood at 3:27 PM on March 27, 2010 [5 favorites]

Get a grip, peeps, these are godparents, not random people. It sounds from the post that they have agreed to the help, so let's go from there.

Perhaps you can ask them to check with their own pediatrician for some resources. I'm wondering if perhaps there could be something besides simple behavioral issues causing one twin to be more of a handful.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 3:30 PM on March 27, 2010 [5 favorites]

Unless the parents WANT to make a change, most anything you do will be short lived at best. That said, the children are in for a big surprise when they get to school because the teachers won't tolerate this kind of behavior. In the US, unless the girls get their behavior into the acceptable limits, they may well end up in special education class for their behavior.

Children need and want limits. They need rules and consistency and will respond well to them. That said, when instituting a change, the behavior will get worse (sometimes WAY worse) before it gets better. Stick with it and everyone's life will be more peaceful. The girls' behavior is learned and they and the parents need to learn to say what they mean and mean what they say.

I have dealt with these kinds of kids often (too often) in school and if the parents would do their job and set limits, everyone would be better off, especially the girls.

Google opposition defiant behavior for some suggestions about how to deal with them.
posted by Flacka at 3:30 PM on March 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

Sorry, really, Wilder. This is not an AskMe resolvable question.

You really need social services folk, immediately familiar with the particulars of your friend's marriage, to intervene. Life, including children, is tough enough for the sane, and "normal," where perceptions of reality and children are concerned.

In any situation where either the "normality" of parents is at issue, or the reasonable treatment of children is in question, the current social imperative is to err on the side of the indefensible children.
posted by paulsc at 3:31 PM on March 27, 2010

Leave them alone. One three-year old it bad, two must be impossible. Unless there is actual abuse or they beg for your help, you have not right to intervene.
posted by fifilaru at 3:31 PM on March 27, 2010

Watching some episodes of Supernanny might appeal to him if he would like to see examples of behavioral intervention techniques in action.

Actually wanted to come in here and second Supernanny. She's awesome.

While I understand the sentiment of MYOB, it sounds like the parents here are on board to take any help they can get. And OP sounds like a close enough friend (a godparent, even!) to help intervene and, perhaps help save a marriage which doesn't sound like it's doing too well on its own. Kudos to you, OP, for being a kind and considerate friend.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 3:32 PM on March 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

OMG to the mind your own business people.

I do second the suggestion that a family therapist may be able to help your friends. If the parents are not communicating and are not on the same page, change will be very difficult to implement.
posted by prefpara at 3:35 PM on March 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: thanks St Alia, yes they have actually (gasp) asked for the god parent's help here, firstly the mom by phone before they arrived saying "you will not believe what you observe" and then the father as we stood by and didn't interfere in the 2 hours "negotiation" he had with one about changing her dirty nappy which ended with both parents having to physically hold a screaming child down to change a shitty nappy.
Since that was the third time that day when he turned to me and said "what can we do, when does this change?

For the posters who seen hypersentive about this issue to the extent you would assume I'm pusing in unwelcome, please read the guidelines.
posted by Wilder at 3:39 PM on March 27, 2010 [5 favorites]

Whatever you do, if you do anything, it should address the root problem, i.e., the disagreement between the parents. Everything else is bandaids on arteries.
posted by milarepa at 3:40 PM on March 27, 2010 [4 favorites]

I'd like to add these are not dictators and their behavior is not toxic. Typically at this age, when the *parents* are done dealing with their own behavior problems, the children will quietly and happily adapt. Children change much, much more easily and willingly than adults. Stop villianizing the children, even in jest. It doesn't help and removes the spot light from the real problem.
posted by milarepa at 3:47 PM on March 27, 2010 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: I've recommended Supernanny to them, thank you, I'm hoping they can buy it. I am also very concerned about the shock these girls will have when they have to interact with teachers and educators who simply cannot drop everything to deal with their needs.

One poster clearly assumed I was being flip since I used Aspie. I say this as the 25 year partner of an Aspie, the mother of a 12 yr old Aspie, and the friend of this diagnosed adult male Aspie. I've earned the right to use the term.

Some poster here clearly feel that this is just a bit of spoiling or doting on your kids and it'll all turn out fine. I wish that were true. Both parents agreed with me that they have never witnessed behaviour like this in the wider group of pre-school kids. They have been asked several times to do something by the Pre-school and they cannot get more than 1 1/2 days because of how the girsl behave.
posted by Wilder at 3:49 PM on March 27, 2010 [2 favorites]

"... For the posters who seen hypersentive about this issue to the extent you would assume I'm pusing in unwelcome, please read the guidelines."
posted by Wilder at 6:39 PM on March 2

Hypersensitive, Wilder?

Please, we're talking, now, about the very sanity of custodial parents of infants. Sorry if your personal instincts side with the atypical parents, but the view of the larger society is generally focused on the results provided to the helpless infants.
posted by paulsc at 3:50 PM on March 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

Good on you, Wilder. I wish more people would get involved. It's too easy to always think situations are none of one's business. Trying is better than not trying.

If that Dad every says about his wife, "she's just jealous", my response would be, "It doesn't matter if she is jealous; this is still not a good way to run a family. If she is jealous, then that's also a very valid emotion, and not dealing with the way you're causing it is a good way to completely destroy the relationship and the family."
posted by amtho at 3:51 PM on March 27, 2010 [5 favorites]

Response by poster: paulsc thanks, but in my own marraige a neurologically typical partner and an Aspie partner have managed to raise two quite happy and well-centered kids so this couple looked to us for that reason too. His Asperger's isn't a mental illness so I don't think social services would be helpful.
I agree with all the posters that the marraige is the main focus, they need to back each other up first. I know that the process of establishing clear boundaries is sometimes very difficult in the early weeks with the behaviour issues getting worse in the short term, I'd be grateful is you know of any blogs, websites where parent who have implemented change like this were successful. I've been googling, but there is simply so much out there and I'm not familiar with the landscape anymore. I felt certain there would be mefites with strong opinions on this but I promise not to declaw my goddaughter's honest!
posted by Wilder at 3:57 PM on March 27, 2010

Sounds like the father learns best by reading. Here is an Amazon list of books about parenting.

I agree some comments to you here have been over the top, but I also think that your help will be better received if you can really focus on helping the parents. Language like "very concerned about the shock these girls will have" seems perhaps unhelpfully dramatic (because it is a prediction about the future, and someone like myself who can focus on accuracy might be distracted by trying to debate whether your prediction will come true) and language like "incredibly self absorbed" might be unhelpfully judgmental (because at a certain point, being judged feels so bad that someone might avoid being fully open with the judge).

Change is going to occur in very small increments, and the parents are going to have to learn every change the hard way, so I'd focus more on providing tools (like books and videos and time to go to therapy) and supporting and encouraging their efforts to change.
posted by salvia at 3:58 PM on March 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

Sorry, but this just sounds like most new parents to me. They may not do things the way you would, but, for whatever reason, this is how they are doing things (as a family). Nothing you can do, necessarily - unless you want to pipe in with your ideas..
posted by marimeko at 4:00 PM on March 27, 2010

Give them books that explain how kids need boundaries and behave worse when they can't see them. Explain that parents' jobs are to train their little preciouses into competent members of society.
posted by gjc at 4:00 PM on March 27, 2010

Hopefully your clarifications will silence the people who are jumping all over you for what they saw as butting in. I know some kids like this, and they don't just automatically turn out fine as some have suggested, they struggle in school, they become bullies, or outcasts because no other kids will tolerate them. Anyway, I just came here to agree with those who suggest looking for professional help for them. You may be a great parent, but you aren't trained in correcting the parenting problems of others. Help them find referrals to family therapists.
posted by ishotjr at 4:05 PM on March 27, 2010 [6 favorites]

Sorry, but this just sounds like most new parents to me.
The kids are THREE. The people have been parents for three years. The OP said that other kids in their age group do not behave in this way, and that they can't even go to preschool for more than a day or so because the teachers can't handle their behavior. That is not "most new parents."
posted by ishotjr at 4:07 PM on March 27, 2010 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: thanks, I'm heading to bed now guys so don't assume I'm taking my ball and going home cos I don't like some of your responses honest!

I tried to be a bit humourous in how I described this but I'm on lots of pain-killing drugs as I have a cracked rib from one of these tantrums when I offered to change the nappy for one of my god daughters. (I'm not making this up, see my Twitterfeed wilder2007) I obviously couldn't describe all the behavior, but when these girls are being entertained and challenged mentally they are adorable angels. A visit to the zoo showed me loads of areas where we could divert the tantrum because there were so many interesting animals around, but that kind of distraction 24.7 must be exhausting for them.
posted by Wilder at 4:15 PM on March 27, 2010

Best answer: Most kids are not that challenging. I might venture to think that the twins themselves may be temperamentally challenging--perhaps inflexible, perhaps more likely to explode and fight than some. I have three kids, very temperamentally different from each other, and can say from my own experience that indulgent parenting (exactly the kinds of things you describe) doesn't necessarily create this kind of behavior in kids. And depending on the child, imposing additional discipline a la SuperNanny may only inflame things; this is true of my oldest. I don't know their situation well enough to say this is the case; I only know my own situation and kids well enough to say it might be.

The most helpful resource for us in dealing with a really volatile kid was the book The Explosive Child by Ross Greene (Amazon UK link). They might consider reading it, and if his description of "easily frustrated, chronically inflexible children" describes the twins, try his program. It's not a quick-fix; I wrote about this on my blog recently and said something like, it's not "10 days to a less-defiant child" but for us more like "three long and challenging years to a blossoming child" but it did reduce the fights in the short-term and really give our son coping skills in the long term. It helped us hang in there, gave us a plan instead of just flailing around ineffectively, until our son's development reached the point where he could be more flexible, more accommodating, less explosive--he still is those things at 8, but not as badly and not as often.
posted by not that girl at 4:20 PM on March 27, 2010 [4 favorites]

I'm going to suggest a consult with the doctor. There may be something going on besides poor parenting. If Dad has Asperger's, there might be something similar neurologically going on with the girls. Do they show any symptoms of Asperger's or autism? Asperger's is often misinterpreted as bad behavior by parents and teachers.
posted by tamitang at 4:23 PM on March 27, 2010 [2 favorites]

If there's any way you can talk the father into letting them attend a half-day daycare twice or three times a week, that might be a good idea for everyone involved. No one should be around their children 24/7/365 with no break - I say this as the laid-off stay at home mom of a toddler with a husband who's working 2 jobs. I couldn't imagine doing it with twins and without a little alone/adult time. And the girls obviously need socialization and need to adapt to situations in which their parents aren't around.

I have a feeling it would be a very hard thing to sell and may indeed be financially impossible, but phrasing it as "you should nip any problem in the bud before they go off to kindergarten and need special education classes" could help.

Also, does their pediatrician know about their behavioral issues?
posted by kpht at 4:29 PM on March 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Here are some practical suggestions - two books that are well targeted to confused but loving parents of young children.
Magic 1-2-3 is a very simple system for enforcing boundaries that is also very effective.

The other is my Anthony Wolf called "It's not fair, Jeremy Spencer's Parents Let HIm Stay Up All Night" This is one gets more into the practical nuances of parents, with great sympathy. Most parents think once they tell the child they have to do something, good discipline means following through no matter what.The best lesson I learned is that when I tell a child to do something, listen once and be open to changing my mind either because she has a good reason I hadn't thought of or because I realized that this is battle I don't have the energy to win and it is much better to change your mind than to fight and then give in.
posted by metahawk at 4:47 PM on March 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Ex childcare worker of five years here - see a previous answer to a question I've given in a similar situation.

The key takeout is rules and systems aren't just for kids, they're for adults, too. The system I describe there will *just* be able to encompass 3 year olds. Also, holy shit I can't believe they're not toilet trained yet...
posted by smoke at 4:48 PM on March 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

Bravo for stepping up to help. The last thing the world needs is MORE self-absorbed children. Get them set right now and save their eventual significant others/spouses from suffering.

The one most important rule my parents had was you only got to ask 'the question' from one parent and had to abide by that parent's response. It was anything requiring a parent's permission. Can I do this, that or whatever.

The goal there was to make sure the parent's weren't asked independently and their responses set against each other. Then it was up to the parents to understand how to balance their responses. This is critical, for unless both parents are on the same wavelength it won't work. It required both parents to be mindful of what was better for the children. That understanding and cooperation was important for the health of their own adult relationship.

The penalty for breaking this rule was to triple whatever the usual punishment was at the time. You learned very quickly to NEVER break this rule. You also learned to be selective about which parent you asked. But this never lasted long because the parents would have some back-channel 'discussions' and that would put an end to the manipulative angles.

Good luck helping them, glad to see someone making the effort.
posted by wkearney99 at 4:52 PM on March 27, 2010 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Sounds to me like Mum already has a handle on what needs to be done, and that really the only change that needs to happen is that Dad needs to be persuaded that Mum knows what she's talking about and should be listened to. Perhaps seeing it all laid out in print would help a lot. Get three copies of the revised version of Toddler Taming and have yourselves a little book club. Also seconding The Explosive Child - lots of good stuff in there that's well worth thinking about even for not particularly explosive children.
posted by flabdablet at 4:55 PM on March 27, 2010

I just want to add to the people that think you are being a good friend (and to second super nanny). I'd also suggest that they need to reach out to other people besides you, perhaps the pre-school can suggest a nanny who would work with them on a regular basis? Or the kids could be enrolled in more activities once they get it together a bit more. It sounds like they would really benefit from interacting with other adults who have more normal expectations for their behavior.

People aren't born knowing how to parent and kids sure as hell don't come with manuals. Most people learn from their families or friends how best to raise their kids. My siblings are constantly exchanging tips on child raising and asking each other questions, as well as asking my parents for advice on various topics. If the families aren't in the picture then you are doing their job, in essence, but they need ongoing support and it sounds like you're a bit too far away to offer it.
posted by fshgrl at 5:29 PM on March 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

How to Stop the Battle With Your Child was a good manual on how to set boundaries for me.
posted by selfmedicating at 5:35 PM on March 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

I think the girls' behavior, if it truly has resulted in a preschool limiting their time there, and them cracking one of your ribs, might need some professional intervention (by a therapist, not a state agency). It sounds out of the range of normal to me, even for the child of indulgent parents (I know several of these, and I've actually observed that they quickly come to behave much better at school than at home, because the rules at school are consistent and known, unlike at home).

I'm not saying that the parents couldn't do better for better results, and the reading materials suggested above would surely be helpful. But it's possible that a professional could, first of all, help get them both on board with consistent parenting; and second of all, look at the girls' behavior and determine whether it's something that needs further attention.
posted by palliser at 5:52 PM on March 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk is good for any age. Also, it's unclear whether your friend is trying to get you to fix her husband, her marriage or her kids (or all the above). It sounds like they need to work on *their* relationship and their relationship with their kids before any serious parenting work can get done.

I wish them luck, 3-year-olds are rough, I can't imagine doing two at the same time.
posted by Wuggie Norple at 5:55 PM on March 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I just read and greatly enjoyed Setting Limits with Your Strong-Willed Child : Eliminating Conflict by Establishing Clear, Firm, and Respectful Boundaries. I thought I knew all about setting clear boundaries with my almost-4-year-old, but the detailed scenarios in this book were so great that I found myself picking up lots of great practical behavioral tips.

If Daddy still needs help understanding why this is important, I recommend Making Room for Miss Manners Is a Parenting Basic, a short piece in the New York Times by pediatrician Perri Klass and follow-up discussion in the Well.

Good luck! It's great that you're helping out your friends in this way.
posted by alms at 6:08 PM on March 27, 2010

ishotjr - if your oldest child is three years old, then you are still a new parent. And, as far as I know, this has become the norm. Friends and family of mine tend to induge their children (now) in ways that would have never flown fifteen years ago, let alone when I grew up. Better in some ways = yes. Worse in others = yes.

I am, of course, only speaking from my own experience.
posted by marimeko at 6:17 PM on March 27, 2010

Parenting is about picking battles, and 3 yrs old is a little young for socializing anyway.

Listening and responding to demands at an early age can build up trust later.
posted by KokuRyu at 6:33 PM on March 27, 2010

I suspect useful help will have to have at least some respect for the current parenting style. I don't think the nasty "Supernanny" shenanigans will appeal to a man who likes to put his children to bed kindly. Some of the stuff you find shocking is...well, not so shocking; who cares if they've never had a sitter? And it sounds like you and Dad are at opposite ends of a spectrum.

These are excellent basic monographs not tied to any particular parenting philosophy that might help you meet in the middle:

Helping Young Children Behave
Something Better Than Punishment
Am I Spoiling My Child?
posted by kmennie at 6:33 PM on March 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

FWIW, potty-training at 3 is normal these days, according to our children's pediatrician, because diapers are much more comfortable and convenient than they used to be (cloth and disposable both), and 2-year-olds are so naturally defiant that it's much easier to potty-train at 3.

I was trained at 18 months, as I was in triple-fold, safety-pinned Gerbers, washed at home, and a third child to boot. My son is newly trained at age 3, as he was in these delightfully comfy disposables. Neither of us shows any sign of developmental delays.
posted by palliser at 7:48 PM on March 27, 2010 [3 favorites]

It's amazing the kind of misbehavior that can happen when a three year old knows she can get away with anything. Kids are pretty savvy at three, old enough to have plenty of wants that aren't in their best interests and three years of trying to get those wants filled. It's their whole life, every day, all day. The fact that there are two of them means they feed off of each other's energy. I have no doubt that they are as bad as you imply and I think you are awesome for taking this on. You'll be surprised how fast those two girls accept a new standard and how long it takes to modify the adult behavior. Kids in my care have been happiest when they know exactly where the boundaries are and, if they stay on the right side of the line, it's smiles, fieldtrips, and dress-up play to their hearts content.
posted by Foam Pants at 7:51 PM on March 27, 2010

About the toilet training thing....

In Australia, it's quite the trend to toilet train kids around three now. It means it's over and done with in a few days, not months of wet undies and beds. My daughter was three and we toilet trained her in 1.5 days.

I picked up a book from the library when she was 2 1/4 and was about to toilet train her and the first paragraph said something like "American paediatricians have a saying... that if you start toilet training at 2, you'll be finished by 3... and if you start at 3 you'll be finished by three." Based on that, I put the book back in the shelf, and chose to wait till 3.

So it is probably not significant.... the toilet training part. The rest of it... hard to say. But good luck with it. Three year olds are always a hand full.
posted by taff at 8:19 PM on March 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

Mod note: few comments removed - this is sort of getting far afield, please take disputes on specifics to email or metatalk, thanks
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 8:25 PM on March 27, 2010

Best answer: Parenting is about picking battles, and 3 yrs old is a little young for socializing anyway.

Listening and responding to demands at an early age can build up trust later.

Not even a little bit. "Picking battles" is just defining where the battle line is drawn arbitrarily. Parenting is about consistency. Some behaviors just aren't acceptable.

"Responding to demands" with anything but calm and loving correction just teaches them to trust that you will respond to their demands.

And socializing must be a part of child raising from day one. At an age appropriate level, of course. An infant can't be expected to know not to cry. But there are different kinds of crying, and they need to be responded to in different ways. You don't tell a hungry infant to suck it up, but if they are whining because you need to put them down go to the bathroom, that's different.
posted by gjc at 8:50 PM on March 27, 2010 [3 favorites]

Bah. I wrote a huge version of this and I crashed and lost it. Here's the short version.

1) The title of your post should be "...toxic behavior in parents". They're the only ones that can fix this, so I'd spend the bulk of your visit working on building your relationships with them. They will need to reach out to you in the future, one weekend won't cut it.

2) Be careful of big changes. One weekend is just long enough for the kids behavior to get worse in reaction to any changes and not long enough to see the improvements. The last thing you want is for the parents to see the bad reaction and give up. I'd focus on positive reinforcement, see below.

3) I would try to tackle the fairness with some type of behavior-based reward, like "If you finish your lunch without a tantrum, we'll go to the zoo". Ideally both of the girls will go, but if only one does I'd go with her and the dad - that gives you a one on one chance to work with him in addition to the reinforcement for positive behavior. I'd try to do this many times though, hopefully both will come around by the end.

And yeah, you're going to be a marriage counselor, childcare specialist, common enemy, etc. But I don't think you have a choice. Good for you and good luck.

(My vote on the great toilet training debate is - not worth it. 3 isn't that late anymore, and it's a symptom you just don't have time for. You need to triage, and where they poop just doesn't make my list of things to tackle in the first weekend)
posted by true at 9:01 PM on March 27, 2010

Oh, and gjc's reminded me I forgot to retype this:

If I had to pick one lesson for the parents it would be consistency. If you say 'we're not going out if you don't clean your room' then you better be able to back it up. No re-negotiating a new solution, so if you have to go out anyway you shouldn't say that in the first place. Positive consistency as well - if you promise to come play with them in 2 minutes you need to do it.
posted by true at 9:05 PM on March 27, 2010

Best answer: I'm the mother of a three-year-old, who was described by our pediatrician as "the most stubborn child in my practice."

Honestly, a lot of what you're saying sounds very familiar to me. We have had multi-hour tantrums, we've had to tag-team holding the kid down to change her diaper. We have screaming fits, and obstinacy, and dramatic melting down at the least sign of "no." I had her in timeout once for slugging me -- three minutes twenty seconds of timeout, plus an apology. She was in timeout for the better part of an hour before she deigned to apologize.

She's not a bad kid. She's smart as hell and stubborn as a thirsty mule, and she has a very strong inborn idea of her own importance and of the importance of her desires. In the hospital, when she was two hours old, the nurses had to re-swaddle her with her hands free because she was working herself into such a lather.

The most important thing I've learned is that no amount of bad parenting can cause this. Ineffective parenting can allow the situation to get more out of control than it would otherwise, but shitty parenting alone doesn't cause this situation. But it really is up to the parents to help train that personality to get along in the world she was born into. It's an awesome spirit, and it will be much appreciated when she gets her first book published or gets nominated to the bench or gets her Nobel Prize or whatever, but every moment until then is going to be a challenge. ;-)

I would recommend picking up How to talk so kids will listen and listen so kids will talk and The Explosive Child. The second is more geared towards children with much more disordered behavior than your godchildren (or my daughter), but I've found the techniques involved really helpful nonetheless. In both cases, the emphasis is more on parenting along instead of parenting against; not to say that you let the kid set the agenda, because you totally don't, but instead of simply expecting obedience and punishing when it's not forthcoming, you spend the energy instead on talking with the kid and acknowledging where they're coming from. In my experience, this approach has resulted in things getting done my way a lot more frequently.

Parenting children like these is a lot of work -- a lot more work than a quote-unquote "normal" kid. Sorry, that's just the way it is. The good news is, the cheerful empathizing loving way that I've found actually works is no more effort than either the screaming authoritarian kind or the no-boundaries dictated kind. And in further good news, my niece was one of these children, exhausting and migraine-inducing. Now, at thirteen? She is the most independent, self-assured, responsible, mature young woman, utterly invulnerable to peer pressure and many of the self-esteem crises that cripple girls her age. There really is an upside.
posted by KathrynT at 9:39 PM on March 27, 2010 [4 favorites]

Not really trying to derail on the side issue here, but where did the OP say anything about anybody's ribs being cracked or broken? Anyway, to the actual question: I agree with others on the "setting up consistent boundaries" advice, but I think the other key has to be consistency. The parents need to figure out in advance what they're doing, and then have both of them stick with it. Dad needs to know that if Mom has decided to take a course of action, regardless of what he thinks about it, he goes along with it for the moment (within reason, obviously). The girls need to stop being able to play one parent against the other.
posted by Happydaz at 10:21 PM on March 27, 2010

"Not really trying to derail on the side issue here, but where did the OP say anything about anybody's ribs being cracked or broken? ..."
posted by Happydaz at 1:21 AM on March 28

posted by paulsc at 10:27 PM on March 27, 2010

No need for them to buy Supernanny episodes if they're in the UK. Most of them are on 4od for free.
posted by brambory at 3:45 AM on March 28, 2010

Response by poster: all of your responses have been incredibly helpful, even the fighty ones act as a corrective. I need to be clear as their friend what I can hope to help them with.
Priority 1 is Mom: She was so exhausted and withdrawn as the full-time carer, especially as she can't get more day-care so she can go back to work. She is a nurse consultant in Paeds Cardiology (which is why Farther doesn't think they need to "waste money on a Paediatrician") She described getting back to heart transplants on 1 year olds (She does Friday night and Saturdays on call) as "a holiday". I took her for a facial and a haircut on the weekend as it was her 40th birthday, then sent them off to the movies and dinner that evening.

As Twin 1 was asleep, twin 2 and I, (the one I believe has, from reading lots of the above, an element of Oppositional Defiant disorder) had an incredible 3 hours until the other woke up of puzzles and drawing, she's incredibly bright and creative. E.g I made a little dot matrix of her name so she could trace the letters which she LOVED. Excitedly she spent the next hour asking to trace all our names, and them everyone in her family, toddler group etc.,. This kind of focus is unusual, and while I will be keeping an eye out for ASD element, it is far more likely she is just incredibly bright. So my concern for her in particular is that this intellingence will be lost in the noise of the screaming tantrums at school which will frustrate her and cause even more problems. On one occassion they tried to follow a pattern to get her to eat anything but fruit and plain pasta and she refused to eat for three days. She's simply that strong-willed.

I'm making the mother my focus as what I observed could just be exhaustion but can also be incipient depression, she feels she simply can't fight the husband's indulgence anymore. (both my partner and I are medically qualified by the way)

The Father playing favorites (by giving in all the time) to the brighter and more challenging girl will also give twin 1 the impression that she is somehow lacking, something which has the potential to negatively influence her relationship with the key men in her life.

I'm so grateful for those of you with personal experience of bright challenging children and regret my flippant "Toxic behaviour in children", your're correct of course, the toxic behaviour is the adults here, including possibly my own, I will constantly test this as I go forward.

The problem is we have only communicated by phone and e-mail and other than spotting the mother become quite withdrawn I didn't see any of this. They normally visit every 6 months and the fact that they haven't should have alerted me to a potential problem. we should have gone to them but as most of you will understand when it's a young family...... Since they have no family support I feel I have to try to help.

(Paul the broken rib is purely wrong place at the wrong time, the way I was bent over while changing her, a short burst of force at the right angle is more than enough. Pure accident. She did me a favour, I've started calcium supplementation!)

Once again my thanks to all, especially the mods. Jess sorry sweetie I had NO IDEA this would be a sensitive fighty question, but I have loads of tips about the better books, articles to start with.
posted by Wilder at 4:19 AM on March 28, 2010

Response by poster: Oh and just to add my partner said "If I had to examine this girl in clinic and she didn't want it I might miss something really significant" Luckily as her Mom is unlikely to miss anything significant we weren't worried but this is the kind of serious concern I have on observing this behaviour. They will need to interact with other significant adults who can help them be all that they can be.
posted by Wilder at 4:23 AM on March 28, 2010

I can't recommend this book enough: The Incredible Years: A Troubleshooting Guide for Parents of Children Aged 3 to 8 by Carolyn Webster-Stratton. Yes, it's a terrible cover, but it's an amazing book. Our family took part in a study at the University of Washington to help us all figure out how to deal with my son's behavioral problems (caused by severe ADHD and dyspraxia, although we didn't know it at the time), and it helped us tremendously. From how you described their home, it sounds like this book is exactly what they could use.

There's more about the program here, including links to resources in several countries.
posted by The corpse in the library at 8:58 AM on March 28, 2010

Response by poster: Just an update. I prepared a long e-mail with a good bit of the advice and tips I've seen on here, sent it 10 days in advance and I went up to give them a bit of a break and enjoy my goddaughters for a weekend.

In their home setting they are better behaved as long as no-one says the word "NO" Then they go into a sulk or throw themselves on the ground screaming. So, having established that there was nothing they could do to harm themselves (open windows etc,,) I would simply remove all of us from that room and play with the others elsewhere. It worked beautifully except when Mum and Dad got bac on day 2. Playing in the yard on a beautiful sunny day I said no to one of them, she simply walked over to a corner and crossed her arms and sulked! Big bottom lip out, sad look on her face, nothing else. It would really have been easy to ignore her until it passed but Daddy rushes in, scoops her up "oh, sweetie are you sad??" then brings her in to watch TV.

I'm not sure the message is getting through. When I asked him why, (he had observed the first day the tactic of simply ignoring it which was working) he said "but she looked so sad!"

Thanks guys, I'm placing a resolved tag on this because you gace me all the help I needed.
posted by Wilder at 1:37 AM on April 29, 2010

When I asked him why, (he had observed the first day the tactic of simply ignoring it which was working) he said "but she looked so sad!"

I suggest that every time he does this from now on, you should respond by walking over to a corner, crossing your arms and sulking, with your bottom lip stuck out as far as it will go. Or perhaps throw yourself on the floor and scream. I bet you can scream louder than any of the kids.
posted by flabdablet at 5:04 AM on April 29, 2010

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