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What can we do to stop our son’s post-nursery meltdowns?| Ask Annalisa Barbieri


I am a married mum of two boys, aged four and two. The oldest goes to nursery Monday-Friday, and the youngest is looked after at home by my mother.

My husband and I both work full-time, but flexible patterns mean we see our boys every day and offer them lots of love, cuddles and praise.

Our older son has always been more problematic – needy, stubborn and prone to tears when he doesn’t get his way. However, in the past few weeks his behaviour on returning from nursery has got much worse.

We believe it’s linked to his friend from nursery being away on holiday for a month and have explained the situation to him, encouraging him to play with other children. It’s been causing a huge deal of stress for both my husband and me, and our younger child gets unfairly marginalised.

We’ve tried to reason with him nicely. I’ve encouraged him (“you’re being very brave”); I’ve blamed and shamed him (“mummy doesn’t like these behaviours, our neighbours will call the police”); I’ve threatened him (“a monster will come if you don’t stop shouting”); and I’ve smacked him a few times. Yet the next day the same behaviour follows – unreasonable demands followed by complete meltdowns.

Can you provide any insights into what might be going on and how to help our son cope as well as us as a family? At what age do children get diagnosed with autism and ADHD?

It’s interesting you say your little boy is coming to you with unreasonable demands, because from his point of view you’re doing similar things. It’s hard to adjust when you first have a child, especially if you are used to things being done a certain way and people doing as you ask them.

I went to ACP-registered child psychotherapist Rachel Melville-Thomas. We were both impressed by your honesty, but shall we try to look at it from your son’s point of view?

He probably doesn’t understand why he has to go away to nursery while his younger brother stays at home with grandma (why can’t he, too?). If you and your husband are also at home, he probably feels he’s being sent away. When he tries to come to you with his concerns, he’s met with encouragement and praise but also threats, shame and physical abuse. That will feel confusing and devastating.

“You’ve tried to reason with him,” says Melville Thomas “but the part of the brain that deals with reasoning isn’t developed in him yet.” ” Next time, a calendar where he can cross off the days before his friend comes back, could help.

What else might be unsettling him? Whatever the reason, your little boy is challenging you and you may need to look to your own past to work out why. Maybe you were parented this way and in times of stress we revert to panic responses.

“Your son sounds like a very anxious little boy,” says Melville-Thomas. “He’s overwhelmed and doesn’t know what to do about change. When children get like this, they try to manage these transitions but get stuck and throw their feelings out. He’s saying ‘help me’ rather than being selfish or bad-tempered. You cannot leave the responsibility for change up to him: that’s just piling on the load”

You also sound stuck. Resorting to threats and smacking will make him more anxious and withdrawn. “It might make him look temporarily better,” says Melville-Thomas, “but he’s not learning anything other than to be afraid, which he is already.”

When he comes home give him a little space to just be and be understood. Melville-Thomas suggests saying things like” “‘I’m sorry I wasn’t there,” or “You sound really upset. That sounds like a very long day for you.”

It sounds simple, but it works. Other good phrases to use are: “Tell me more,” “Mummy missed you,” and “Draw it for me.” Asking children who are in a high emotional state to do something practical can really help, as long as you’re not doing it to distract them from what they are trying to tell you.

Your son may be neurodivergent. This can’t be diagnosed from a letter, but even if he is, listening to him and helping him deal with things would still be part of the answer. If in time you have ongoing worries you’d need to talk to your GP (by yourself first).

Could you take some time off work, even an hour, and spend it just with him? Don’t expect results overnight. This is going to take time, but it will be worth it. You may also want to listen to this podcast on toddlers, which goes into much more detail.

Every week Annalisa Barbieri addresses a personal problem sent in by a reader. If you would like advice from Annalisa, please send your problem to ask.annalisa@theguardian.com. Annalisa regrets she cannot enter into personal correspondence. Submissions are subject to our terms and conditions.

The latest series of Annalisa’s podcast is available here.



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