Writer and broadcaster

How can I help my adult son cope better with chaotic meal and bedtimes? The Guardian.

Dear Annalisa

I am writing after returning from a week’s holiday with my son, his partner and their two children, who are both under five.

I have been concerned for several years that their management of their children’s sleep and meals is chaotic, causing all four of them a great deal of distress. Having recently seen it under the same roof, I am at my wit’s end to know how to help them or how best to cope myself. I know holidays are stressful but their daily routines were already very fragile.

There was a scene on holiday when both children refused to eat their high tea, my son exploded with rage, some china smashed on the floor, the children howled and their mother took them away to bed where they all immediately fell asleep. It was disturbing to witness and afterwards I absented myself from earshot of their mealtimes. I get very tense just watching their mother offer them large pieces of chocolate shortbread and/or large quantities of milk within an hour or less of their high tea.

Both children still drink large quantities of milk first thing in the morning before breakfast, before bedtime and mid-afternoon. They have to be coaxed to eat solid food at breakfast, are given snacks all morning, pick at lunch, and then there are further crisps, chocolate, cake and milk in the afternoon. They are given their main meal at 5pm, which is mostly thrown away.

I am wary of trying to talk to my son – he has been dismissive of mild comments I have made in the past, and I have a polite but distant relationship with his partner. I do not know how to help without provoking a breakdown in my relationship with them but feel I ought to do something more constructive than arranging to absent myself from mealtimes. I love my grandchildren dearly and get on well with them.

Both adults are very sleep-deprived and my son has a demanding job. He is irritable, surly and subject to temper outbursts when frustrated with the children. His partner is more placid but also falls asleep at odd times, leaving my son to cope. They seem stuck.

The children are clean and healthy and their parents intelligent and otherwise competent.

How can I help my son handle his frustrations and negotiate small changes (not the enormous task of reforming their whole regime) and how should I accomplish this for myself?

It’s immensely frustrating seeing people making life more difficult for themselves, especially when they do the same thing over and over again. I agree that giving unhealthy snacks before a meal every day seems like insanity. But sometimes people do that when they are seeking short-term solutions to problems they are too exhausted to deal with.

I’m sure you remember how tiring being a parent is, especially in those early years when sleep deprivation can be really acute and you’re finding your feet. You often can’t see the wood for the trees and lose perspective: you simply don’t see that changes to the way you handle things might change outcomes. It does take a brave person to say “maybe you need to do this differently” and the advice, though well meant, is hardly ever well received when from a family member.

So, even if you were bold and said “don’t give the children huge snacks before dinner”, it wouldn’t make it happen. Being on holiday is a weird set up anyway – is it indicative of how it is in their everyday life, do you think?

Deirdre Dowling, a child and adult psychotherapist who has worked extensively with children (childpsychotherapy.org.uk), says: “Under-fives are full of difficult, powerful feelings – we can almost forget what it was like.” She feels the key may be if you can give practical support. “Lower your expectations and offer [your son and his wife] practical support.

“No one can think when they’re emotional and no one can survive without sleep. Could you offer to look after the children for a weekend, say, to give your son and daughter-in-law a break? Are you worried about your son?”

If you are – beyond the children’s routines – could you spend a bit of one on one time with him? It doesn’t have to be for very long, and you shouldn’t try to prise open how he feels. But if he feels connected with you – safer – he may open up a bit more. Does your daughter-in-law have her mother around? I agree that your son seems highly strung but your daughter-in-law may well be depressed.

I think the way forward is to support the parents as best you can to enable them to parent to the best of their ability. Concentrate not on the children’s routines or lack of bedtimes, but on your son and his wife.

If things get heated and frantic, don’t sit there in silence, don’t absent yourself from the room – these responses can come across as judgmental and uncaring. Instead, say, “How can I help?” That is a great phrase: kind, empowering, helpful and it puts the parent in charge with you as ancillary. You may also be really surprised at the response.


This article first appeared in The Guardian Family section on 5 March 2016.