This 2-year-old pushes, pinches, bites and hits his baby sister

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  August 11, 2009 06:00 AM

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Dear Barbara,

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

Hi GS,

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.


I answer a question from a reader every weekday. If you want help with
some aspect of child-rearing, just write to me here.



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2 comments so far...
  1. I dealt with this same thing when my second was born. In addition to limit setting, I instituted "special mommy time." It was highly effective. My kids each get one on one outings every so often while the others stay home with dad. The outings can be as simple or a grand as you like. In my family, swimming at the YMCA, the library or dinner a friendly's are the most popular outings. When number 2 or 3 or 4 etc... arrive the older ones just want to feel like they are the apple of mommy's eye. If we don't give them a positive way to make that happen, then they will engage in negative attention seeking behavior.

    Posted by tracy August 12, 09 04:44 PM
  1. I remember this stage. My son was just a little older when my daughter learned how to crawl. Up until then, he handled the new addition to our family pretty well. But once she started getting into his toys, it was every child for themselves, and 2-year-olds (especially boys) are very physical when they lack words. I felt awful for the baby, who couldn't defend herself. I felt awful for my son, who was suddenly always at odds and getting in trouble. It was hard. One thing I tried, which seemed to help, is I created places for my son to play with his toys where his sister couldn't reach. This made him feel like his things were "safe" and that he could play without constantly defending his territory. By the time she was big enough to reach these places, she was also more able to defend herself, and he was better with using words not violence. Now, my kids will fight on and off, but they also love to play together and it's great having them be interested in similar things. It gets better, hang in there!

    Posted by anne February 24, 12 02:27 PM
 
2 comments so far...
  1. I dealt with this same thing when my second was born. In addition to limit setting, I instituted "special mommy time." It was highly effective. My kids each get one on one outings every so often while the others stay home with dad. The outings can be as simple or a grand as you like. In my family, swimming at the YMCA, the library or dinner a friendly's are the most popular outings. When number 2 or 3 or 4 etc... arrive the older ones just want to feel like they are the apple of mommy's eye. If we don't give them a positive way to make that happen, then they will engage in negative attention seeking behavior.

    Posted by tracy August 12, 09 04:44 PM
  1. I remember this stage. My son was just a little older when my daughter learned how to crawl. Up until then, he handled the new addition to our family pretty well. But once she started getting into his toys, it was every child for themselves, and 2-year-olds (especially boys) are very physical when they lack words. I felt awful for the baby, who couldn't defend herself. I felt awful for my son, who was suddenly always at odds and getting in trouble. It was hard. One thing I tried, which seemed to help, is I created places for my son to play with his toys where his sister couldn't reach. This made him feel like his things were "safe" and that he could play without constantly defending his territory. By the time she was big enough to reach these places, she was also more able to defend herself, and he was better with using words not violence. Now, my kids will fight on and off, but they also love to play together and it's great having them be interested in similar things. It gets better, hang in there!

    Posted by anne February 24, 12 02:27 PM
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About the author

Barbara F. Meltz is a freelance writer, parenting consultant, and author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes: Understanding How Your Children See the World." She won several awards for her weekly "Child Caring" column in the Globe, including the 2008 American Psychological Association Print Excellence award. Barbara is available as a speaker for parent groups.

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