Virginia Ironside's Dilemmas: Should toddlers be sent to the naughty step?

My half-sister is too strict on her children. But I don’t know whether to speak up.

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The Independent Online

Dear Virginia,

I’m a loving aunt to my younger half-sister’s children. I see a great deal of them and my only problem is that I feel she’s too hard on them. They seem permanently to be on the “naughty step” and often when I go round there I find one or other of them sitting unhappily on the stairs, choking back their sobs and waiting for permission to return to the playroom. They’re only two and three years old, and my heart bleeds for them. Can I say anything?  I feel so powerless.

Virginia says...

I share your anxiety about the naughty step. As a brief punishment for doing something really bad, a few minutes on your own as a punishment can’t do any harm. But some parents use it for longer periods, and not as a punishment but as a result of a tantrum or a crying fit.

The truth is that tiny people have emotions raging through them and they haven’t got the skills to work out how to deal with them. I always think that tantrums consist half of the original emotion – despair, anger, etc – but at least half of the explosion is fear about their raging emotions. Children just feel they’re going mad and they don’t know how to handle themselves. To chuck them  out of the room and say, in so many words: “You deal with it!” isn’t an answer. We are, after all, the adults. We should be present through a child’s tantrums or tears, a strong, solid and, assuring presence, giving the message that there is nothing to worry about, and that though they may be frightened, we aren’t.

As an adult, I’ve very occasionally been reduced to a state of utter terror, panic, confusion and powerlessness  – when a computer goes wrong, for instance. If my partner were to insist I go and sit on the stairs, the feelings of frustration would rise – particularly against him. The feeling that I was an uncontrollable monster would be confirmed and put me in a constant state of anxiety afterwards, and the feeling of abandonment would be something I could never forgive. What we need is a cuddle, or simply a calm presence saying: “It’s fine. We’ll sort this out.”

As a child grows up he can incorporate this calm figure into his own repertoire and say it to himself. But sitting himself on a stair, doing nothing, will only exacerbate the feelings of self-loathing and fear.

I am astonished that anyone can think that a withdrawal of love,  to be abandoned and put in solitary confinement, can be of any help at all. I well remember the misery of being sent to my room, for the most minor expressions of emotion.

Next time your half-sister sends her child to the naughty step, insist you join him on the stairs, and try to deal with the situation in a kindly and patient way. When he calms down, you can both come back, and you might make an effort to be particularly kind and loving to your sister, too, because in order to put her child on the naughty step she’s had to get into a state of uncontrollable fury, and the last thing she needs, just like her own child, is an atmosphere of disapproval and exclusion. 


Readers say... Set an example

Your sister may be feeling anxious and need reassurance that she is being a good parent. If you show her that you cherish her children by praising them and her, she may copy your behaviour. This is called modelling, and by being set an example she may change her parenting style, and as she begins to feel more confident her anxiety may abate. 

Certainly learning to play with one’s children is a skill to develop and  something that doesn’t necessarily come naturally. 

Shirley Strowbridge, by email

Give her a break

Your heart bleeds for the children, but do tread softly – and don’t nag.  Try showing more compassion for your half-sister because she’s obviously stressed. Caring for two toddlers is an exhausting business. If she’s feeling trapped at home, your frequent calls may be adding to the pressure on her.  Offer to take the kids off her hands whenever possible. Go out with them on your own for an hour or two, while their mother gets some valuable time to herself. Have them round to your place on a regular basis. Bring more variety and fun into their lives – that’s the best gift any aunt can provide.

Bella Turner, by email


Next week’s dilemma

Dear Virginia,

My daughter is at university with a troubled school friend, who has self-harmed, seen therapists and so on. She is currently on anti-depressants. Now my daughter tells me her friend has been taking all kinds of drugs – ketamine, ecstasy and cocaine. I feel this must be particularly harmful to this girl. My daughter says her attitude is, “Well, I’m already on antidepressants so I may as well take some more drugs.” My daughter has sworn me to secrecy but I feel if the positions were reversed, as a parent, I’d want to be told. What should I do?

Yours sincerely,



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