Did I ever tell you about the time (in October 2015, when the kids were nearly three) when I became so dismayed by Hattie’s tantrums and my inability to deal with them that we organised for Tristan and me to have a chat with a child psychologist?
Our main concern was that we really didn’t know to what extent we should be giving our very strong-willed little girl autonomy in her life. Everybody blithely assured us that, as she grew older, we’d be glad of her iron will, but we weren’t so sure. For one thing, part of functioning in polite society is the acceptance that one must often accept the need to balance one’s own needs with the needs of other people. And for another, we both know certain extremely strong-willed people who, even as adults, lack the ability to know when to pick their battles – and from what we’d seen and experienced of these people, the determination to react with belligerence whenever it wasn’t possible to dominate a situation didn’t make life particularly fun (for them, or for the people dealing with them). I didn’t want my little girl, who is sweet, funny, charming, helpful, and utterly delightful 95% of the time, struggling to build friendships or alienating her future teachers because she hadn’t learned how to control her temper. And while we didn’t want go crush her spirit, we also didn’t want to raise a tyrant.
So, although we certainly didn’t want to change her personality, we did want help to figure out how to teach Hattie to channel her frustrations in appropriate ways, and how to deal with her as parents: which battles we should pick. It was particularly pertinent for me because I bore (and have always received) the brunt of her more challenging behaviour. I’ve heard from many sources that being the parent for whom a child throws a tantrum is, in a warped sense, a symbol of that child’s great love for, and trust in, that parent: the rationale is that the kid saves their worst behaviour for the person that they believe will love them endlessly and unconditionally. And I don’t doubt that it’s true in our case, given that I’ve always benefited from the vast majority of Hattie’s expressions of affection, but it’s scant consolation when your child is losing her shit for the umpteenth time that day and you feel like finding your passport and skipping the country.
Anyway, beyond the ongoing tantrum issue, we had some big concerns about Hattie’s eating habits and our way of dealing with them – and that’s such a big topic that I’ll save it for a separate post, because OH MY GOD I never knew how much time and energy would be spent thinking about children’s food. And I felt like if I’d tapped the well of support and advice from friends and family members, so we did what we’ve done in the past when we’ve been flummoxed regarding child-related issues: we paid for expert guidance.
The hour we spent with the psychologist (without Hattie there) was extremely helpful, both because it provided much-appreciated validation concerning our current ways of dealing with Hattie’s behaviour and many other parental issues, and because it gave us a chance to take on board gentle good advice about how to move forward.
We were comprehensively grilled about our ‘behavioural management strategies’, and the upshot was that our approach (time outs, firm boundaries, all that kind of stuff) was deemed a Good Plan. We also got guidance on the food issue, but, again, look out for another post on that.
Anyway. This is all a very long-winded introduction to the actual thing I wanted to write about today: one on one time with the kids. The main piece of advice that the psychologist gave me was to incorporate one-on-one time with Hattie as much as I could, to strengthen my relationship with her and to hopefully temper her occasionally confrontational approach with me.
Spending individual time with kids is probably no big deal in most families, since children of different ages have different interests and capabilities that open up opportunities to do stuff with them. And I know that friends who have twins and an older child manage to incorporate time with separate kids, or at least with one or two of the family’s children. However, as first-time parents of twins it had eluded us (and I do know that other first-time twin parents do manage it far earlier than us, so we’re not necessarily indicative of all twin parents in this respect).
I think there were a few things that made us not get into this earlier. One was undoubtedly the length of time I breastfed, which influenced two things in two ways: it kept the babies tied to me physically for longer; and it also made feeding them solely my ‘job’, which meant that I was very bonded to them and Tristan didn’t have much involvement in feeding (he never did lactate, despite all of the lactation cookies he scoffed in the early days). He has always been hugely hands on with the kids, which is just as well as I would have been completely unable to cope as a solo mother, but I think it’s been easier for him to deal with the kids without me in the past year or so, as they’ve transitioned out of the baby phase and into the little kid phase.
A bigger issue has been our great fondness of spending time together as a family in the weekends, which Tristan was particularly reluctant to see eroded by us going out separate ways (and it’s not as if I was itching for us to not spend time all together – it’s more that I could possibly appreciate the benefits of one on one time a bit more, and so was keener to try to incorporate it into our routine.
Another block for us was how we’d actually split up the kids, considering that they’ve spent virtually every waking moment together since birth, and keeping in mind that they adore each other. But, again, I was mindful of the need to figure out a way for Hattie’s sake, since Joe wakes up from their nap earlier than her every day, and therefore gets daily one on one time with an adult (me, Tristan, or our au pair). Hattie always wakes up second, and misses out on that time: she’s never awake without Joe being around.
The biggest issue for me was figuring how to split them up without upsetting them, as I couldn’t quite work out the idea of, say, taking one child out and leaving the other one at home. But the fundamental block was that whole ‘they get on so well and I don’t want to upset them’ issue. And I say that as the kind of twin mum who definitely isn’t obsessed with her twins’ relationship, as some people are: I know that they get on well and will probably remain close to each other as they get older, but they’re very different people who will certainly make their own friends and pursue their own interests as they start school.
The psychologist could understand our attitude, but she said something that totally changed my thinking: “So, you’re prioritising their relationship with each other ahead of your relationships with each of them”. And when she put it that way it made perfect sense, especially as she then pointed out that the kids wouldn’t be turning to each other for support and advice as they grew up: they’d need to have strong relationships with us as their parents, so they’d feel confident about talking to us when it really mattered.
Despite knowing that one on one time really was important, it’s still taken us ages to do it. Our strategy was to just find opportunities to split the kids up as they arose naturally, but we kept failing to recognise those opportunities. And after beating the brunt of another horrific tantrum from Hattie recently I lost my temper a bit with Tristan regarding it all, pointing out that he wasn’t helping me in trying to prioritise it (which wasn’t an unfounded accusation: he’d said that he didn’t think it was a big deal), and letting him know that it WAS important to me, seeing as how I was the one who had to cope with the misbehaviour. He seemed to take that on board, and I also made sure that I started actively looking for times when I could have time with just one kid.
The first chance came at a local country show a couple of weeks ago, when I took Hattie for a walk to look at some of the attractions while everybody else (Tristan, Joe, and two grandmothers) watched the competitive wood-chopping (because that’s how we roll at Kiwi country shows). Hattie spent most of the time obsessed with finding a stall giving away balloons, so it wasn’t hugely exciting, and the crowds and mayhem left her fairly overwhelmed (which tends to be converted into naughtiness), but at least it was a start. I took Joe for a walk through an antiques market the following day, but his main concern was about ‘matching’ what Hattie had done the day before: she’d chosen him and her a little treat each from a stall at the show, so he wanted to buy the two of them something as well (and he doing two very cute silver-plated 1960s ice cream bowls, for $5 each, which was pretty cool).
Over Easter we had more time to have one on one sessions. Joe wanted to go to a bike park and practise on his balance bike, and Hattie wanted to play football at the park, so I took Hattie and Tristan took Joe. Another day, we were at a cafe and Hattie wasn’t hungry, so she and I went for a walk while the others ate, and then Joe and I went for a walk afterwards (during which he mainly wanted to know where I’d taken Hattie).
Hattie seems to love to have me to herself: she is so chirpy and happy during our excursions. And her behaviour overall has definitely improved: she’s more relaxed, more affectionate, and less melodramatic – we haven’t had a tantrum from her for well over a week, which is a huge improvement! She’s consistently missed out on dedicated time with me, primarily because Joe has always woken up before her, so she’s never been awake without him also being around. Without realising it I think she was really wanting some extra attention, so it’s great to finally give it to her. Joe needs to relax a bit about his one on one time and focus more on what he’d like to do, rather than just fretting about what he’s missing out on when he’s not with Hattie, but I’m sure that we’ll get that sorted as these sessions become more commonplace.
I’m also really enjoying spending separate time with the kids. It’s such a different parenting experience to be able to cater exclusively to the whims of one child, albeit for an hour at a time. When Hattie and I went to the park we ended up under a big tree with a fallen branch, which she used as a balance beam… 20 or 30 times in a row. If Joe had been there too she would have had to wait her turn, and odds are he would have got bored before her and agitated to go and do something else. It was so nice to just hold her hand while she practised balancing, and to be able to truly ‘be in the moment’ with her and not have my attention diverted.