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Analysis > Supernanny



There's a program on UK TV at the moment called 'Supernanny', where a child-behavior expert 'nanny' goes into a house where there is a real problem between parents and children.

This week

Mary-Ann is, it seems, an appalling child. She screams, pinches, hits, breaks furniture, throws things, swears, runs away. And she's only seven. Her single mother is driven to distraction and depression, and her two long-suffering sisters are frustrated and marginalized as she dominates the entire household.

Enter Supernanny.

Supernanny first watches the family, which is busily dysfunctioning, whilst the camera follows the appalling scenes.

The confrontation

Supernanny starts with Mum. They watch the video together. Then Supernanny confronts Mum, telling her how appalled she is with Mum's behavior. She points out how Mum's angry name-calling (albeit in return for nasty names from Mary-Ann) is totally unacceptable. Mum is reduced to tears as she realizes that she is a part of the problem.

Then Supernanny tells Mum that she, Supernanny, can help Mum turn the situation around, and that she believes Mum really can do it.

The reflection area

First fix is to set up a 'reflection area', a space where the child goes when she is naughty. This week it's a corner with a cushion. Other weeks it's been a small chair or even the bottom 'naughty step' of the main stairs.

When Mary-Ann misbehaves, she is first given a warning and a chance to change her behavior. If this is ignored, she is taken to the reflection area, where she spend seven minutes in reflection (one minute for each year of her life).

To get out of the area, she must apologize, sincerely. She will stay there for as long as is necessary (first time, this is 40 minutes). She gets a reward of a kiss and cuddle in return for the apology.

Before long, Mary-Ann is in the reflection area again, screaming, but Mum is outside, calm. Big win: Mum is now in control, not being controlled.

Building trust

Mary-Ann also has a habit of escaping from the house and running away. With Mum, of course, in tow, vainly calling for her daughter to come back.

Supernanny addresses this by putting a big 'stop' sign on doors and asking the children to stop and think before they go out. The real lesson she is giving everyone is clear: Think. Reflect on things you have done wrong. Think before you consider doing something that will hurt someone else.

The children are all let out for 15 minutes, with a request to be back on time. They are, and immediately are let out again for a longer period. Trust is rewarded by trust.

Staying in bed

Mary-Ann is not good at going to bed. It's a battle, with screaming hab-dabs and tantrums every night, repeatedly calling her mother 'You fat bitch'. Supernanny points out that it's an attentional game. The child wails and gets rewarded by attention from Mum.

Stay-in-bed technique

The stay-in-bed technique is based on setting a pattern where Mum gives progressively less attention.

Have a winding down period before going to bed, where there is relative calm.

The first time an attention-getting wail is used, Mum says 'bed time, darling'.

The second time, she just says 'bed time'.

After that, she says nothing, ignoring cries. Thus not giving the reward of attention that is being sought.

It works. For the first time in memory, all children are in bed and asleep at 8 pm.


There's a lack of real communication in the house. Communication means listening and understanding, so Supernanny brings in more techniques.

Talking to them

The first is how you talk with them. After misbehavior, get eye contact if you can (get down to their level), then use a calm, assertive, low-tone voice and say 'do not use that behavior'.

Never become aggressive in response to their aggression. This puts them in control. Also do not start being aggressive, as this teaches them how to behave and results in them responding in kind, which leads to a downward spiral.

See me-hear me technique

One room is set up with a sign on the door 'See me, hear me' and inside is a video camera. The kids are shown how to use it and given some practice to acclimatize. Then they use it as a kind of personal diary, talking about how they feel.

Mum watches the video with all her children 'to allow Mum to understand you girls'. She shows appreciation and understanding, accepting everything that is said. The two other girls say nice things about Mum and not so nice things about Mary-Ann. Mary-Ann is not so pleasant -- but she is honest, saying that Mum said she hated Mary-Ann (this had occurred in the middle of one of their slanging matches). Important now is that Mum response positively to Mary-Ann, reassuring that she really does love her.

One-to-one technique

Mary-Ann has been dominating Mum's attention. This is rectified by setting out sessions where each child gets 20 minutes alone with Mum, talking cuddling or whatever.

The other children are given something else to do, so they are less likely to try to butt in when it is not their turn.

Taking turns is also taught by playing games which require players to wait for their turn.

Mum is also shown as a person who they can have fun with, not just as disciplinarian. So they go to the funfair and splash about at the edge of the sea.

Involving them

To show that the children are respected and to give them the chance to show respect also, they are involved in activities, from doing housework to shopping at the supermarket.

Using the voice

Using the voice is important. Telling them off needs a firm voice that brooks no argument. Praise has a higher tone and includes enthusiasm and real pleasure.

After Supernanny

With things going much better, Supernanny leaves. Things rapidly slide as Mary-Ann tries to take over again. It's a physical battle to get her to the reflection area. She breaks furniture. Things are not so easy now.

Bedtimes get progressively worse as Mary-Ann fights for attention. Mum tries to maintain the method, but eventually gets dragged into debate.

Supernanny comes back. She watches video and shows Mum the key points at which to fix things. Mum listens and learns.

Supernanny leaves again. Now everyone has learned that Supernanny can leave and things continue. Smiles and hugs. Mary-Ann is a new person. So is her Mum.

See also

Super-duper nanny


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