Encouraging Communication, but Not Raising a Brat

Michael has recently had a ‘communication revolution’. He is letting us know his needs more than ever before. But he’s getting his needs met so quickly now he’s becoming a bit of a brat!

I have had a dilemma lately. It’s not a bad dilemma. It’s a pretty good one, for a change. You see Michael has made a quantum leap in his communication lately. It has been building for a couple of months now, and a few weeks ago it just came out. He is trying to communicate with us all the time now, to let us know what his needs are, and it is glorious.

He is still non-verbal of course. What he usually does is takes us by the hand and takes us where he wants to go. And he wants something all the time. I can’t sit down for a minute (not that I mind!).

He might want his lunch (he is always hungry). Or he might want to go play outside. And then come back inside. And go outside again. Or go in the shed (I have no idea why). Another favourite thing to do is to be picked up by his daddy and carried while he points in the right direction.

He has a favourite footbridge about four hundred metres away that he goes to all the time, and then goes up and down the stairs or in the lifts. Lately he has also been exploring other people’s driveways and loves going into random office buildings and testing their echo. This last one we do try to discourage (obviously office workers don’t appreciate his vocalisations) but it is a favourite activity. He particularly likes the local branch of ANZ Bank.

Michael’s communication leap

We have, it is possible, loved it a little TOO much. You see we are completely starved of communication from Michael. All we ever wanted was to see what is going on in that little head, and now we’re getting a glimpse (at least of the ‘I want’ category of things). It’s everything we ever wanted it to be and more. Michael smiles, he is happy, he isn’t standing in the corner with his balls or his iPad all the time anymore. He can ask to go to the park (by getting into his pram) or he can start a game of chases with us.

We are like people that have been without water for days and suddenly there’s a big bucket of it in front of us, clear and cool and delicious.

But the problem is that I think we’ve been drinking too deeply of that water. That it’s making us sick a little bit.

Where two adults let a two year old boss them around

Now that Michael has a way to ask for his needs, he is also getting very used to having them met immediately. No matter what we are doing, we will drop everything and run to fulfil his every wish the minute he vaguely expresses it. Prince George probably doesn’t get what he wants with the frequency that Prince Michael does.

Our other problem is that Michael’s face is too cute. He has these gorgeous big blue eyes and his eyelashes are way longer than they should be. Basically he’s cuter than any little boy has a right to be. So since he’s started grinning at us and taking our hand, he’s pretty much had us wrapped around his little finger.

And it’s starting to backfire a bit. Last night, he requested his milk in the middle of the night. I dared to say no (because in the middle of the night we sleep). And he treated it roughly like a peasants’ revolt. ‘How dare slave mummy refuse one of my requests?’ he thought. ‘I had better nip this in the bud.’

Prince Michael tries to repress the slave revolt

So he screamed the house down, at roughly 2:30 am. Please note it was not a meltdown. It was a very conscious temper tantrum, complete with following me down the hallway while stamping his little feet. It would have been funny except it was very loud, very high pitched, and woke up his dad.

I waited it out. Once he calmed himself down (in about ten minutes) I distracted him for a bit and eventually he started yawning, and I put him to bed. In the morning however he woke up screaming for his milk again. He did get it eventually but those couple of tantrums have scared me. It only took a few days of us responding to every request with an immediate ‘yes’ before he got this ridiculously spoilt and started throwing tantrums at any ‘no’ that dared to approach within his hearing.

Our communication vs ‘brat’ dilemma

Now we are stuck with a real dilemma. On the one hand, these fledgling little communication attempts are unutterably precious. They should be encouraged until they become more firm, and established.

On the other hand, the Michael Monster is coming out! It doesn’t take long for an almost-three-year-old to get drunk on his power over his parents. And unfortunately being a human living in the real world, there are many times when I have a good reason for not giving him what he wants.

It might be milk in the middle of the night. I can’t give it to him because he still wants it during the day, and if I give him too much he gets constipated. Also the night is for sleeping.

It might be the desire to be at the playground on the swing, for twenty-four hours a day. And unfortunately Australian weather is very unfriendly to this wish. Lately especially it’s constantly been either really hot (like frying an egg in the sun kid of hot) or raining all the time. Their Majesty does not like it when their face is exposed to sunlight or rain like the faces of common folk.

A week of doing what he wants = monster Michael

It is always amazing to me how much Michael’s behaviour is in my control. Now I know that there are more and less ‘difficult’ children – a lot of it just has to do with their personality. And that being ‘difficult’ is not always a bad thing. But so often I can see in Michael, and in other children, the results of bad parenting choices!

It only takes a week. In general he is extremely well behaved – no meltdowns, very few tantrums, since we started ABA therapy. Of course that’s partially because we know him better, and give him regular time outs on the swing or with an iPad. But mostly it’s that our behaviour and parenting choices have changed since we became ABA therapists. And when we stop doing it for whatever reason the results show up immediately!

This time we had our reasons in addition to the communication leaps. Michael had a really bad cold and because he was so miserable and so sick, I pretty much gave him whatever he wanted for a week. Anything. If he wanted to watch the iPad, he did that. Park – he got that. I never let him cry, because of how bad his asthma and his cough was at the time, and his sore throat.

Parenting is saying no sometimes

But once the cold was over the behaviour that we have taught him continued. The first time I told him no he can’t have his iPad after he got better, I got another ten minute temper tantrum. Which is ok. That is parenting. And in some ways there is always going to be tension between the need to teach him to communicate or to look after him when he is unwell, and our need to teach him discipline. Basically not raise a brat.

At the moment my plan is to keep mostly doing what he wants, as long as I physically can, and as long as he communicates it correctly. By correctly I mean no screaming, maybe pointing, PECS, etc. For those things that I can’t give him, I use ‘no’ and I have a visual that I pair it with, although visuals do very little for him unfortunately.

But for now I’m going to quietly enjoy this beautiful new stage in my son’s life. It is such an amazing thing when he makes one of these leaps I just…oops, I have to go, he wants to go to the park again!

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