Q. We have four children, a 10-year-old girl and triplets (two boys and one girl). I look after them full-time at home and their father works full-time. I have just spent a weekend from hell with them. Their father went away for the weekend to visit his family. They were acting up all weekend and I had no support. I live in Dublin away from my family and dont know my neighbours. By the end of it I wanted to run away, I even packed a bag, passport, the whole lot. When my husband got home, he got me to calm down and we agreed we needed support.
The children are good children but the three of them bounce off each other. They can start squabbling and then all hell breaks out. They don’t listen to a word that we say. They often gang up on me and when one won’t do something or when one throws a tantrum then they can all join in. Our discipline system has little or no effect. We basically spend a lot of time warning them, then it escalates to shouting, then time out.
This weekend I even smacked them on their bottoms. I’m sure that this has an effect on their mental and emotional health. I no longer know how to proceed. Should I walk away and remove myself from the situation? We/I really need some help in finding effective ways to parent our boys. I want to feel in control, not at their mercy. I also want to enjoy parenting.
A. It sounds like you have had a very difficult weekend and I am glad that you are taking steps to seek support. At the best of times, managing three preschoolers is very challenging and when you are doing it by yourself for a weekend, it is much more so.
Further, managing triplets brings special challenges and can certainly lead to an increased intensity of misbehaviour. As they are the same age, triplets can spark off each other much more and things can escalate more quickly.
Given how close they are, they can ally together in a conflict against their parents and you can easily feel that they are ganging up on you.
This does not happen to the same degree with children of different ages where there is a more inherent hierarchy and different agendas meaning they are more likely to be in conflict with each other than with you.
In managing the situation, the first step is to recognise that you do need support and to prioritise actively seeking this.
It is good that you are self-aware of your own stress levels and you are right to be concerned that you got to a point of slapping them, as this does not solve the problem and can become damaging if it becomes a pattern.
See the fact that you got to the point of slapping them as an alarm bell or a wake-up call that you need more support.
Try to build a daily routine for your family that includes plenty of structure and some breaks for you. This can include having someone come in daily to mind the kids for an hour, visiting a supportive playgroup at certain times, having a shared routine with your husband when he comes in from work and involving supportive friends and family.
If your husband needs to visit his family at the weekend, perhaps he could take one, two or even the three children with him (especially if his family are supportive at the other end), or arrange for supportive family members to visit and give you a break.
If you have not done so already, contact your local services such as your public health nurse or a local family centre and get advice about what resources are in your area. There is also the Irish Multiple Births Association, imba.ie, which provides great support and information.
In managing the children’s behaviour, the key is to plan for and anticipate situations in advance.
Try to have several ways of de-escalating high conflict situations, whether this is by distracting the children with a new activity or by turning on relaxing music or by taking them out in the garden for a few minutes.
Whatever happens, the key is to remain as calm as possible yourself so you are not contributing to the problem.
To break the pattern of the triplets ganging up on you, it can help to try to split them up before things escalate. Take one of them away for a chat to talk him down if he is getting upset and try to recruit the others to help, by asking them to do something while you are gone (making sure they get plenty of attention and praise for this).
Certainly, if you need to employ a time out (and do keep this tactic as a last resort), try to have different places where each of them can go to calm down.
Finally, it is important to make sure that each of the triplets gets frequent individual time and attention from you and your husband when you can appreciate their uniqueness and enjoy them differently.
Even in a busy household you might be able to build in short bouts of one-to-one time with each of them during the day. This might include an individual bedtime story or chat with each of them before they sleep while your husband attends to the other two.
Even if this is not always practical you can also ensure that there are relaxed times during the day when you can sit with all three of them and give them alternate individual attention.
For example, you can sit with them when they are playing, taking time to comment on one making a jigsaw, then noticing the second build a tower, and then listening to the third tell some news.
Having time like this to enjoy your children is not only one of the nicest aspects of parenting, but also helps the children relax and reduces the likelihood of acting out.
Dr. John Sharry, Irish Times Newspaper, May 2012. John writes in the Irish Times Health+Family every Tuesday.