I need help with how to discipline my 2.5-year-old son; specifically, in relation to his 9-month-old sister. He will hit and push, take toys right from her hands. I try to be consistent with a firm no, removing him from the situation but nothing seems to work. I do spend a lot of one-on-one time with him and he does often show affection towards her. I'm just at a loss for how to handle the jealousy and physical possessiveness when it happens. Thank you!
From: GS, Sudbury
You’re doing a great job handling this as it is, so let me start by shedding a little light on what’s going on developmentally for your son. Actually, there are a bunch of things:
1. He’s at the height of the “no” years, where he’s asserting his independence by refusing to do things.
2. He’s testing out cause & effect.
3. He’s at a transitional stage where words alone aren’t enough for him to feel connected to you or to the baby. For instance, in another six months, you’ll be able to sing to your son or play a silly word game with him while you change the baby’s diaper and he’ll feel that you’ve paid attention to him. But right now, he only gets that message from concrete, literal attention: touching, hugging.
4. He has a limited repertoire for knowing how to interact with other people.
5. He has limited impulse control.
6. He is not able to hold two emotions at a time or to remember the feelings he had ten minutes ago. Plus, whatever he is feeling at a given moment is incredibly intense; in fact, some research indicates that the strength of emotion in a 2-year-old is as intense as it will be at any time in life. So when he says he loves the baby, he means it with all his heart. Ten minutes later, when he hates the baby, he means that with all his heart, too.
These developmental achievements can fuel a variety of behaviors toward the baby, says child psychologist and parent educator Debbie Weinstock-Savoy, who leads parent workshops at WarmLines.
When he’s testing out cause & effect, for instance, it’s as if he’s saying to himself, “If I do this (pinch the baby), will mom get upset? Will she get upset this time? What about this time?” Which is one reason why a consistent, firm response (“Pinching is no!”) is so important.
Maybe he wants the baby to play with him (#4), but all he knows is how to grab or hit. Which is why you need to label his wants/needs (go with your best guess, you’ll almost always be right) – “I bet you were wanting to play with the baby” -- . and model appropriate interaction: “If you want her attention, you can gently pat her like this.”
Or maybe he grabbed what’s in her hand because he wants to be part of the action when you’re taking care of her: “I bet you’d like to help! She loves it when you sing! Maybe if you sing to her, she’ll stop crying.”
Of course, at 9 months, the baby’s is no longer an immobile blob. She’s probably crawling and getting into his things, which can be a big cause of conflict since he’s still in the “Mine!” stage. Help him to set aside toys he doesn’t want the baby to play with (that boosts your credibility and shows respect for what’s his); make sure he knows he doesn’t have to “share” everything (he’s way too young to understand the concept) and stress turn-taking instead.
Weinstock-Savoy says, “I think what’s hardest for parents who have a toddler and a baby is that, were it not for the birth of the baby, the toddler would still be a baby. But because now there is an infant, the toddler looks bigger and older and – the truth is – we need them to be bigger and older. But the fact is, at 2 ˝ , he’s still a baby himself.”
Here are her tips for how to deal with his hitting etc.:
Never leave him unsupervised with the baby, not even for a minute.
If possible, catch his arm before he actually hits or pinches. Say firmly and consistently, “No hitting.” Or redirect, “Remember? No hitting. We have to be gentle with a baby,” and take his hand and model what gentle is like.
Make a stab at identifying what was going on and give him words for his feeling: “You were mad! You were mad at the baby. She took your toy and you were mad! But you can’t push!”
Give him an alternative behavior: “If she touches your toy and you don’t want her to, say, “No,” really loud. Call for help: “Mommy, help me!” OR: “You cannot pinch your sister, but you can squish your PlayDoh.”
Here's one last thought: We all imagine/hope/yearn for our children to love each other. What's happening now between them does not predict what their relationship will be next month or next year or next decade.
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