Lisa and Dave Blitt of New Providence, NJ, and their children, Alex, 7, Rebecca, 5, and Jeffrey, 2
Lisa admits the "meltdown before dinner" is her toughest challenge of the day, especially when the weather isn't good enough for the older kids to be outside. During the hour or so before the meal, she's trying to keep all three of her children entertained and also get dinner on the table by the time her husband, Dave, who works in industrial real estate, comes home. "They can't all play together because Jeffrey is too little," she says. "And the two oldest ones sometimes fight. I really hate to put them in front of a video, but I'll do it when I have to."
The expert: Patricia B. Dobrydnio, a family therapist in private practice in Summit, NJ, and a clinical member of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy.
What happened: Jeffrey was so interested in Dobrydnio that he forgot what he was upset about. Soon afterward, Dave came home from work. He spread out his paperwork on the dining room table and announced that he had to prepare for an upcoming conference and needed to concentrate. The kids wandered in and out of the dining room, while Lisa and Dave kept reminding them that "Daddy needs to work."
Dave's arrival did have the effect of drawing Alex out of his room. He asked several times if he could watch TV. When Lisa said no, he asked if he could play with his Game Boy. After making sure he hadn't been playing with it upstairs, she acquiesced. Rebecca continued to quietly work on a kindergarten project.
Jeffrey, on the other hand, needed attention. He had spent the day with his maternal grandmother and was more clingy than usual. Lisa took lots of opportunities to pick him up and give him hugs. She also let Jeffrey "help" with dinner, asking him to open a bag of snow peas. "There were peas all over the floor, but that's how a 2-year-old opens a package of vegetables," says Dobrydnio.
The analysis: The therapist took a sanguine view of the hectic atmosphere. "Sure it was chaotic, but any home with three kids is going to be when the mother is busy making dinner," she says. Dobrydnio also approved of the way Lisa dealt with Alex's anger: "What she did was appropriate. Sometimes kids need space to work things out on their own."
Nevertheless, Dobrydnio had some concrete tips for the Blitts. First, she suggested that when Dave brings work home, he do it away from the rest of the family. "I recognize that he probably wanted to be around everyone after being at work all day," she says. "But it was distracting for him and the kids."
Even though the children got along when Dobrydnio was there, she realized that isn't always the case. So she recommended that when the kids are squabbling, Lisa send them each to a separate location with age-appropriate activities. "It's good that she doesn't usually allow TV at that time of day," Dobrydnio says. "It would be difficult to find a show to keep all the kids interested." If the 2-year-old was enjoying something, the 5- and 7-year-olds would be bored. But if the older children were watching something they liked, it would probably go over the head of the toddler, who might get frustrated and have a tantrum.
Finally, Dobrydnio proposed that if her presence made such a dramatic difference in the afternoon dynamics, perhaps the Blitts should consider hiring a local teenager occasionally to play with the children while Lisa cooks dinner. It would be especially helpful for those evenings when Dave has to bring work home and can't help distract the kids.
Two months later: Lisa and Dave have incorporated some of the therapist's strategies and report that they seem to be working. For one thing, Dave no longer brings his work home. Now he stays at the office until he's finished and comes home a little later, when he's able to devote his full attention to his family. "On those evenings," says Lisa, "I give the kids an early dinner. Then I make a nice meal for us later, after the kids have eaten and everyone is calm. We don't have family togetherness on those nights, but I don't think that's so bad once in a while."
Lisa hasn't hired any babysitters. But she has been inviting more company for dinner and says that having other people in the house helps keep the children in line. "We do sometimes get a meltdown before bedtime," she says, "but it's shorter. And we've had a great time with our guests."