Advice Column, Parenting

When your older child acts out over new sibling

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The behavior of our 2 year old has changed drastically since we brought our new baby home a few months ago. He’s been hitting us and having enormous meltdowns. We’re afraid he’s going to eventually hit his baby sister. What do we do?!

Chances are real good that your 2 year old son may be suffering from what’s known as “dethronement.” For the last 2 years he’s been the center of your attention and the apple of your eye, but now you’ve brought home another child and he’s probably trying to let you know how he feels about this new addition to the family and he’s feeling “dethroned.”

Often times in my seminars I address the issue of dethronement by asking all the women in the audience to close their eyes for just a moment and make believe that their husband arrives home one day with another wife. She is younger and cuter than they are and he asks them to share their jewelry, kitchenware, and other items with the new wife. This immediately invokes laughter and growling from the audience. I then ask them what they would feel like doing to the new wife. As you can imagine, the responses I get are not very nice!

It’s not much different for a toddler or preschooler, or even an older child for that matter, who are suddenly asked to share their parents with a new child. It’s normal for them to have this feeling of fear that there is only so much of Mommy and/or Daddy to go around, so I had better get all that I can before my siblings do.

This can create many new behaviors in the first child, such as hitting, frustration meltdowns, anger, and revenge. Some children may even revert to becoming a baby once again to regain the attention they once had; with baby talk, wetting their pants, or even asking to wear a diaper.

A common behavior in young children is the one you brought up in your question; hitting the parent. First let me encourage you to not take it personally and simply see it as your child being mad at you. They have not yet grasped the ability to communicate their emotions effectively to others, and quite frankly, I know of many adults who haven’t mastered this either. Have you ever noticed how sometimes doors are slammed, dishes are placed on surfaces with greater force, and footsteps are heavier than normal, all for the benefit of someone nearby to let them know how mad we are at them.

A young child hitting a parent is their way of saying “I’m mad at you,” or “I don’t like how things are going right now!” The first step is to talk to the child when they are NOT hitting and set up the boundary. Get down to their eye level and remind them of the most recent hitting incident, and let them know that hitting is not OK.

Tell them that if they feel mad and feel like they want to hit, give them permission to hit an inanimate object such as a pillow. One mother I know even took her 3 year old on a special shopping trip just to buy a “hitting pillow”. They brought the pillow home and decorated it together with a bulls eye mark. Next, role play with the child when they are in a great mood so they will know what to do the next time they are feeling mad. The message you want to send is that it is OK to be mad but it is NOT OK to hit.

Now that you’ve done the setup for the situation, the next time the child acts out and begins to hit you, tell them that you can see that they are mad and are not allowed to hit you. Gently guide them to the hitting pillow or bring it to them and allow them to take their frustration out on the hitting object. This may take a few times for them to get the message and learn a new behavior, so be patient and loving all the while.

To truly heal your child from feeling dethroned, find some creative tasks or new responsibilities for them to feel more like a big brother or big sister to the new sibling. Look for possibilities for the older child to have special responsibilities that only they can do. Many years ago at a parenting workshop, I suggested to one young lady the idea of teaching her 3 year old son to become the “Diaper Bag King.” Within the first 3 months of bringing home the new baby, she noticed that his “meltdowns” of frustration began to grow and it seemed to occur most often when she was busy getting the baby ready to go somewhere. Following my suggestion, she took him shopping alone one day and allowed him to buy his own diaper bag. Then she stopped to have lunch with him at Burger King, for the main reason of getting that paper crown that is given out to children. When she arrived at home she explained to him that he would have a new job in the family and taught him how to pack the diaper bag with supplies for his baby sister. For the next several days she role played with him the new routine each day. They would pretend that it was time to go somewhere with the baby, she would call out loud for him to hear, “It’s time for the diaper bag king.” His instructions were to put on his shoes and coat, put on the crown, pack the diaper bag, and then wait by the door. All week long he dragged the bag around, begging to go somewhere with the paper crown on his head. The day arrived for a real trip across town and she told me he exploded with excitement. He became more cooperative and the meltdowns stopped!

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