The toddler tamer

Published by Emma Lee-Potter in on Saturday 9th March 2013

Childcare expert Tanya Byron tells Emma Lee-Potter how she brings order to family life.
Daily Express November 2005

Two-year-old Callum is having a strop. His young Liverpudlian mum Claire Carroll looks on helplessly as he yells fit to burst, then flings himself to the ground in tears of rage.
The only person who doesn’t bat an eyelid at Callum’s tantrum is Dr Tanya Byron. She kneels down to his level, calmly distracts him by pointing out the fish tank in the corner of the room and reassures Claire that he’s “a lovely little boy.”
Tanya is the resident clinical psychologist on the BBC’s hit parenting programme, The House of Tiny Tearaways, which has begun its second series. A cross between Big Brother and Little Angels, it features mums and dads at the end of their tether with children who scream, kick, won’t eat, won’t sleep and generally drive everyone up the wall.
After careful screening by experts, the families – three at a time – move into a specially-built rainbow-coloured house in rural Buckinghamshire for six days. They are filmed round the clock, with Tanya on hand to observe, set tasks and offer advice and support on how to tackle the children’s unruly behaviour. Unlike other TV parenting experts, Tanya has worked in the NHS for 16 years, specialising in child and adolescent mental health.
“Up until this series reality television had the reputation for getting the worst out of people – pushing them to the limit and seeing how they respond,” says Tanya, 38, who’s warm and down to earth, with a wide smile.
“But this is very different. There are two elements to what I do. One is the real nuts and bolts – here’s the problem, how do we fix it? But the bigger challenge is finding out why the child has this problem. Superficial change is easy but if you want the change to be meaningful you’ve got to understand what drives their behaviour. Otherwise they’ll all relapse when they go home to the real world.”
During the second series Tanya deals with a dizzying range of tiny tearaways, from a toddler who hits her parents and bangs her head against the wall when she doesn’t get her own way to a wilful four-year-old who’ll only eat sweets, crisps and Marmite on toast. She makes a point of following up the families’ progress after they leave the house and has also written a tie-in book, which is full of practical help for all parents of young children.
“I’m the least prescriptive of the parenting experts,” says Tanya. “I’m much more into the notion of relax, kick back, chill out – it’ll all be fine. But having worked in child and adolescent mental health for years I do think that children are under so much pressure these days.
“Children in some sections of society are pushed and pushed. There’s such a focus on kids who live on estates and nick cars and get Asbos but I really worry about all these middle class kids who are pushed and tutored. Right from the minute they leave the uterus they are a commodity that has to be put into the right school at the right time in the right way. Childhood doesn’t seem to be much of a factor in some children’s lives anymore.”
Tanya believes in letting her own children, Lily, 10, and Jack, seven, run off steam, climb trees and enjoy their childhood to the full. Every Friday, Tanya’s best friend Sam Richards – they were at school together and are now business partners – brings her two sons round to Tanya’s house in North London. While the children play, the two mums cook dinner, have a glass of wine and catch up.
“Friday afternoons are really important to us,” says Tanya. “The kids play hide and seek, run the dog up and down the lawn, eat their dinner and then collapse in front of some Disney film while we chat and laugh and tell stories. We’ve always been working mums and we’re very lucky, but parents these days are often very isolated. Communities are breaking down, marriages are breaking up and parents experience a lot of isolation, stress and depression.
“The pressure parents put on themselves is huge. Some come into The House of Tiny Tearaways and say ‘show me how to be a better parent’ when actually they are really good parents. They just don’t realise it because they’re so stressed.”
Tanya, whose actor husband Bruce Byron plays DC Terry Perkins in The Bill, is working flat out these days. She’s involved in Blue Peter’s Treasure Trail Appeal to raise money for ChildLine and will also be appearing in French and Saunders’ Christmas Special. She’s adamant that her work hasn’t made her a better mum, but reckons that being a mum has made her better at her job.
“I can empathise much more genuinely with parents because I know exactly what it’s like to be up in the night when your kid isn’t sleeping,” she says. “Lily wouldn’t sleep for a while and Jack went through an Oscar-winning tantrum phase but both of them are just normal kids. They love watching the programme. My daughter is very like me and she’ll sit there with a notepad and say ‘there’s a bit of positive parenting needed there, Mummy. That boy needs a cuddle.’”
In her view children’s behaviour is often “an indicator of parental mood or the state of the parents’ relationship” – a theory borne out over and over again by the families she helps.
“There was a little girl in the first series who wrote down the sort of things she didn’t want to happen at home,” says Tanya. “She said ‘please can I have more cuddles. Please can we have less shouting. Please can we turn off the TV and play more games and please can we not be smacked.’
“Another little girl said ‘if Mummy could be more loving and Daddy could be less cross I think we’d be a happier family.’ Children really do know what’s going on. Their behaviour is very much a barometer of the temperature of the family. It’s very easy for parents to pour all their unhappiness into a child and say they’re the problem rather than looking at their partner and saying ‘our marriage is the problem.’
“We had a young couple who came into the house saying they were splitting up. Their child was really badly behaved – punching other kids in the face and weeing all over the decking outside – but they hadn’t worked out in their minds that the reason he was badly behaved was because of the enormous tension in the house.
“Parenting isn’t rocket science. It’s about being patient and looking at your behaviour as a parent. I respect and admire the courage that people have to come into this house. Having worked in child protection, where parents do truly horrific things to their kids, I don’t judge a mum who sits there crying and saying she can’t cope with her child. She’s probably depressed and has very little support.”
Tanya’s very conscious that bringing up children and preparing them for life in the modern world is tough. She lets her children watch TV, use the internet and eat sweets – but in moderation and under strict supervision.
“You can’t do parenting by numbers,” she says. “Parenting is about finding what works for you and your child. Routine is important but you’ve got to be flexible too. I really worry about the amount of time parents have for kids. It’s so important to relax and spend time with them.”
In her book Tanya suggests using sticker charts to reward good behaviour. I tell her my own children refused pointblank to let me stick stars on a chart when they behaved well. How on earth did Tanya get Lily and Jack to go along with the idea?
“The big error in parenting is that we give too much attention to the behaviour we don’t want and not enough to the behaviour we do,” she explains. “Sticker charts are very good for getting parents to focus on specific activities for specific periods of time. But to be honest I don’t think I’ve ever done sticker charts with my kids. They once did a grumpy Mummy, nice Mummy sticker chart for me though – only I stole the stickers and stuck all the smiley ones on.”