Head-butting toddler is...... jealous?

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  May 29, 2012 06:00 AM

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My grandson is 2 1/2 and his sister is 7 mos old. He will head butt her, pinch smack or whatever he can do to her. My daughter is going crazy. The worst is if we are out and he sees a baby in a stroller or in someones arms he will run to them like obsessed with them. He will gaze at them or pull them almost out of their moms hands. He will swing or headbutt all the above. Why is it that he is so mean to babies ?? My daughter won't take him to the park or anywhere lately she is frightened. Is something wrong with him ? Please we are searching for help.
Thank you

From: Teri, Lodi, NY


Dear Teri,

As unpleasant and worrisome as this may be, it most likely is a phase that will pass. This kind of behavior is typically triggered by jealousy of the baby (don't ever leave the two alone together!!) and, yeah, it is a little extreme.

But don't just take it from me. I put your question to child psychiatrist Stuart Goldman at Boston Children's Hospital. Here's his response:

"Aggressive behavior in toddlers is not uncommon, nor is sibling rivalry or jealousy. In this case you have more than is typical, but it is important to realize that 2 .5 year olds don't really have a good idea of the seriousness of the behavior. The issues are around keeping the infant safe and addressing the behavior and the feelings behind them....[I]ntervening without undue attention is key."

Goldman recommends reading children's books on sibling rivalry, especially, "A Baby Sister for Herry Monster," to which I would add, "I Love You Forever."

Goldman also suggests making one on one time with the toddler when he doesn't have to share mom or dad. Label it, "Mom and X's Time," and make sure the baby can be cared for by someone else, if need be, so that their time together really is sacred.
When family and friends visit, Goldman writes, "Try to insure equal attention is directed toward the toddler when they visit," not to the baby.

Finally, Goldman concludes, "The parent should reassured that this will pass..."

I would also add that when you are in public, take these three steps:

Before you go, remind him the rules of behavior: "When we go to a playground, the rule is, we keep our hands to ourselves." Show him what that means.Tell him, "I'll be there to help you."

Keep a close eye on him and be close enough to him that you can swoop in if you see something that might develop into a situation. Hold his hand or his arm or his whole body. Get down on his level, look in his eyes and repeat the rule. Distract him with something else.

Set low expectations. Leave the activity BEFORE anything negative happens, even if it's only been five minutes since you arrived. That way, you can praise him for his good behavior which will be reinforcing to him. Next time, stretch it out for seven minutes.

If his behavior gets out of control, stay calm. Don't scream or yell at him. Instead, pick him up, literally, and remove him from the action. Say simply, "It's time for us to go home now." He'll protest. Don't try to talk to him, he can't hear you. Later, after the meltdown, you can ask him, "What's the rule for the playground? Do you remember?" and, "We had to leave because you forgot the rule. Maybe next time, you'll remember."

Similarly, have conversations at home about how to talk and touch the baby: "The rule is, we touch the baby gently." Show him by holding his arm or hand while he makes nice to the baby's arm. Keep it positive. If you feel him tensing or winding up, remove him. If he does hurt the baby, show that this is not acceptable by quickly removing him from her proximity. Lift him up and put him down elsewhere: "You can't be with the baby if you can't use the Gentle Rule."

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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1 comments so far...
  1. Practise this at home before you go out to a public park.

    What works is IMMEDIATELY after he uses any hostile action towards his sister, you shout NO as loud as you can and pick up the smaller child and walk away from the older child--go into another room for 5 minutes alone with the smaller one. He already knows that he is doing something wrong. He will continue to do it until he sees that the rule is enforced consistently by both parents.

    And the idea that he is doing this for attention is right on the mark. So walking away with the smaller child sends the right message, that attention will be withdrawn for such hostility.

    Posted by Irene May 31, 12 09:38 PM
 
1 comments so far...
  1. Practise this at home before you go out to a public park.

    What works is IMMEDIATELY after he uses any hostile action towards his sister, you shout NO as loud as you can and pick up the smaller child and walk away from the older child--go into another room for 5 minutes alone with the smaller one. He already knows that he is doing something wrong. He will continue to do it until he sees that the rule is enforced consistently by both parents.

    And the idea that he is doing this for attention is right on the mark. So walking away with the smaller child sends the right message, that attention will be withdrawn for such hostility.

    Posted by Irene May 31, 12 09:38 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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