I am an avid reader of your column and could use some guidance. I have a 3 1/2 year old girl who has always been easy-going and adaptive. She's seldom been trying or had tantrums. 8 weeks ago, we had a baby boy. She loves him. I'd read in your column to carve out 15 mins a day to spend with the older child when a baby arrives. Most days, she gets at least that. My son isn't taking long naps yet, though, so he still needs a lot of my attention during the day. My sweet girl has been throwing several tantrums a day, usually when she doesn't get her way and often over trivial things. It frustrates me since I am trying my best and upsets me because I am falling short and realize that this transition has been tough on her. By bedtime most nights, my body aches from holding in all of this tension and I feel harried.
Are there things I could be doing to ease this major transition for us? How should I handle the tantrum and let her know that she can't always get her way or have my undivided attention all of the time? Also, when can I expect things to get better? (They WILL get better, won't they?)
From: Worn out mom of 2, Wakefield, MA
Dear Worn Out,
Yes, it will get better! But this is a process that takes time and will have plenty of bumps along the way. My favorite anecdote (and I'm paraphrasing from my own book now) comes from a woman who hadn't seen any hostility from her 4-year-old toward the 3-month-old baby until one day, they were driving and the preschooler shouted, "Mom! Quick! Stop the car! I think I see a mailbox big enough to hold the baby!"
The mom nearly did pull over, but it was to keep from driving off the road because she had to work so hard to stifle her laughter.
So here are some tips for that next tantrum:
1. If you can see it coming, label her negative feelings even when they are not clearly related to the baby: "I bet you're wishing your brother hadn't been born." That will not plant ideas -- trust me, they're there, she just can't verbalize them.
2. Validate her feelings so she knows she doesn't have to keep them bottled up: "It's okay if you don't love the baby all the time." Period. Move on.
3. Acknowledge the truth. If she says, "She's always crying," tell her, "You know, it's true. Babies aren't much fun. All they do is sleep and eat and poop and pee and cry." And then remind her this isn't forever: "She won't always be a baby, though."
4. This is not the time to slack up on limit-setting and consistency; that will confuse and upset her even more -- she won't know which end is up -- and she'll act out even more to see what she has to do to get you to re-set the standard. Respond to tantrums exactly as you always would; don't give in to demands that you wouldn't have given in to six months ago. On the other hand, it's OK now and then to ease up if you establish that this is an exception: "You know what, let's do something different tonight!"
5. If some of the acting-out behavior is regressive, tolerate it but remind her gently, "It seems like it would be fun to be a baby again, doesn't it? But look at all the things you can do that the baby can't do!"
Some preschoolers feel left out of the new family, or even betrayed: "I must have done something wrong, so they went out and got this baby." That's why that 15 minutes of extra cuddle time can be so valuable, along with each parent spending time alone with her.
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