What do you do when your toddler or young child reacts badly to a new baby?
Some children seem to accept new siblings without problems, but others – no matter how well you have prepared them, and how much attention you give them – seem to become angry, even violent. Some jealous toddlers try to hit or bite the new baby. Parents, exhausted by the demands of a newborn, can be at their wits’ end knowing how to deal with their older child.
Toddlers need attention
It is perhaps not much comfort when you are going through this, but an angry or jealous toddler is reacting as many firstborn children do when a sibling arrives. He is ensuring that he has lots of attention in the way that’s easiest to him. He probably doesn’t enjoy hurting his baby brother or sister, but he gets his parents’ attention – if only in a negative way. And then he gets even more attention when he makes you angry. A child of two or three isn’t old enough to realise the irony of this.
The best book which covers this topic, in my opinion, is ‘How to Really Love your Angry Child’ by Ross Campbell. It looks at many reasons why children become angry, and ways that they deal with it – some good, some not so good. It’s about many causes of anger in a child, not just jealousy of a new baby, but the principles are similar whatever the cause.
It’s possible that you haven’t really ‘heard’ your child’s natural anger and jealousy at having his world disrupted, so he is reacting in ways that cause problems. He has gone from being (apparently) the centre of your world to the periphery. Perhaps he thinks that he wasn’t good enough for you, so you have found another baby to replace him. Or perhaps he simply doesn’t like the changes that have come over the household and needs time to adjust.
Children need unconditional love
Rather than any kind of discipline, the first thing to do is to ensure that your jealous toddler or child really knows that you still love him, and will never stop loving him, no matter what he does. This may seem obvious to you, but not all children understand it. So, make sure your child has lots of cuddles and special time without the baby. Tell him in words how much you love him. Thank him for times when he helps you in any way, no matter how small.
However, be careful in your use of language. Telling your jealous child that he is ‘big’ may only make the situation worse, if it seems to him that it’s much more fun being the baby. Try only to talk about him being big when it’s an obvious advantage. For instance, big children can eat chocolate, and babies can’t. Big boys can ride bikes… but don’t ever push the idea that ‘big children don’t fight’ (or cry, or throw tantrums) or any other issues which he might see as negative.
When your child knows for certain that he is special to you, his violent behaviour may simply stop. But if it has become too much of a habit, try sitting him down on your lap, and discussing with him what sort of rules you should have in your family. He will probably suggest some of his own – small children can be quite emphatic about what rules they think are important! – and it might be a good idea to talk about the many rules which a new baby needs, when she’s so young.
Bring the conversation gently around to things like ‘no hitting’, helping your child to see that the rules apply to the baby too, and to any other children in the home. Explain gently why it’s important to observe these family guidelines, and listen to whatever your child expresses, no matter how negative it may seem. Let him know you are on his side, and that you care about how he is feeling.
Talk about feelings
You could also ask your child how he feels when he wants to hit the baby. He might describe that his tummy hurts, or say that he just wants her to cry. Don’t show any shock – these are quite normal reactions – but help him name the emotions (‘jealousy’ or ‘hurt’ or whatever it is).
You may also be able to help him to become aware of when he’s feeling that way, before he reacts physically.
Perhaps he could use a phrase with you that nobody else understands – you could come up with something together like a secret code – so that you can remove him from the situation when he’s feeling this way. Or tell him that it’s fine to ask for an extra cuddle if he’s feeling jealous.
Your child needs to be aware that all his feelings are acceptable, but that he may need to learn appropriate ways of dealing with them. Once he knows that you don’t mind what he says about the baby, and that he’s not a horrible person if he feels anger or jealousy, he may be able to open up more and tell you when he is feeling angry.
In the meantime, you could go for walks in the park, and do things together when the baby is sleeping. Maybe you could get together with relatives or friends, who can spend extra time playing with your child, or hold the baby while you play with your older child.
Most of all, keep telling your child how precious he is to you, and how glad you are that you have him.