Sibling love, when your toddler hurts your baby.

Mum question: I have a three year old and an 8 month old. We recently started gentle parenting with my three year old. I’ve read a few books but nothing we do is helping. My three year old hits us and is constantly pushing, hitting, kicking, and scratching his little sister. He’s also taking things from her every chance he can. How can we address this with gentle parenting?

Pinky says – it’s really tough to see your toddler being rough with your baby Feeling jealous of the baby is often much worse as babies grow because they become so darned engaging.We also tend to see the older child as being ‘bigger’ than they really are, especially when it comes to managing big feelings.  For a moment, try putting yourself in your toddler’s shoes:

Imagine that your partner has just brought home a new lover and announced that you are all going to live together. It will be fun! You will be best friends! After hearing that your partner loves you and his new lover equally, you are asked to share all your things with this intruder. It also turns out that you won’t be getting as much attention as you used to because the new lover is a bit upset about something. Anyway, you are such a clever person, you can do lots of things by yourself now. Oh, and by the way, you must be gentle with the new lover! Wouldn’t go down too well, would it? Could this be how your toddler might be feeling right now?

To reduce ‘incidents’….

  • Try and pre-empt triggers – is your baby mobile? Is she getting into some of his things? Is he hungry/thirsty/tired? Have you been busy and not connected to your older child for a while(and his roughness is an attempt to get noticed or connect with you)?
  • Try giving your 3 year old some designated one on one time that he can count on every day – eg boy and mummy/ daddy time and encourage him to choose an activity you can do together (offer choices that are acceptable to you);
  • Help him learn to express his feelings (so he doesn’t have to get ‘physical” – check out the gorgeous ‘I Feel Jealous/sad/angry/loved etc’… books by Tracey Moroney);
  • Give your toddler space that is baby safe – eg a playpen for him to play in away from baby with his cars/blocks/ crayons.
  • Teach the 3 year old to ‘swap’ – when he takes a toy from the baby, give her another toy in exchange.
  • Teach him ‘gentle hands’ (show him what ‘gentle hands ‘ mean by taking his hand and stroking/patting your arm);.
  • Comment positively and acknowledge when your toddler is being helpful – “good sharing, that’s very kind.”

If your toddler is rough and hurts your baby, stay calm and pick up your baby. Settle your baby first, then you can try a “time out” at this age. Take your toddler to a space where he can see you – call it a quiet time (time in), and suggest. “I can see you are feeling sad/angry/annoyed (whatever, help him name the feeling), I would feel upset too if somebody knocked over my blocks (whatever), but I won’t let you hurt (the baby’s name). It looks like you need to have some quiet time.”

This space needs to be set up already as a quiet space – not as a ‘punishment/naughty corner’. You could put some cushions and a cuddle pillow/pillow pet in the quiet space and perhaps some squeezy toys – eg a hacky sack (I saw a great squeezy face in the Australian Geographic store – like a balloon filled with squishy stuff , some woolen ‘hair’ and eyes), to help him disperse some stress – it’s about calming down and reconnecting, rather than ‘punishing’. However, it’s also about making it clear that hurting people is unacceptable and you won’t let it happen. You can sit here with your child and help him calm down – you know your child best and what will work better, either space alone or with help.

Then, when he calms, distract and set him up with an activity in a space the baby can’t reach such as playdough at the table/ blocks inside his playpen or offer to read a story together with baby either playing nearby or all snuggling together on the big bed/sofa/floor.

Remember, when an incident is over, it’s over. Explaining and going over and over really is just giving added attention for behaviour that you don’t want to encourage. Also, because littlies tend to see things in pictures, when you say ‘don’t hurt the baby,’ they ‘see’/ hear ‘hurt the baby’.  Your child needs to be shown how much fun it can be when we all get along, so try and stay positive, plan ahead and encourage helpful behaviour.

 

14 Comments

  1. Isabel Says Reply

    Hello! We have a 3 year old and a 3 months old, both are boys. Before the baby was born, the way we “disciplined” or deal with negative behavior of my oldest son was exaclty how you described it here. He has a social story book , a squeeze ball, etc., It worked alright. Then the baby was born and things are very very bad here at home and at school. We are very loving parents, we are very involved with our son’ s life. I spend one on one time with him and my husband too. Still for my three year old that is not enough because instead of getting 100% of the attention, he is getting 98 %. The approach you describe here and the way we have been dealing with this is not workng, my son’s behavior is getting worst to the point that now he is physically hurting his little brother, which he has never done before. We don’t know what to do.

  2. Sally Says Reply

    Thanks Pinky,
    I came across this as I tried to find answers online for this exact behaviour. It’s everything I’ve found elsewhere all rolled in to one.
    What you said reaffirms that this is normal in my almost three year old. You remind me that I’m not the only one who feels freaked out about my own child hurting my baby deliberately.
    I really needed that!
    But my two biggest take homes from this are:
    1. Stay calm and put more energy into positives (not easy…but I’ve been getting too upset as its flared up again as baby has got more engaging & interactive).
    2. Empathising with my toddler is crucial to understanding this phenomenon. I’m kind of punishing him when he’s feeling pretty awful already. Great metaphor to help me understand how he’s feeling. I had not got that close to understanding before. Now, I get it! I would hate that and I would leave. Poor kid!

    Thanks, I really feel I can be a better parent now.

    Thank you so much Pinky!

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  6. Maureen Says Reply

    I have been doing all of this, but today my 3 yr old pushed over the highchair with my 1 yr old in it and she was hysterical and could have been very badly hurt. We truly give him so much attention and lots of one-on-one activities and time. If anything, it’s my little girl who is neglected due to his constant need for attention and meltdowns. How would you handle when it’s beyond hitting but doing something that could have seriously injured the younger child?

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  12. Beth Says Reply

    Sad to see questions are not being answered on here. I (and probably many others) would benefit from reading the answers as well. My question would be, what if the baby didn’t actually do anything before the toddler hurt her? How do you empathize before leading him to quiet time if nothing happened that caused him to lash out?

  13. Ellie Says Reply

    Hi Pinky
    I’ve been trying these suggestions and her behaviour is getting worse. Even her well meant head pats are more like punches and I am at my wits end! What else do you suggest?

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