When Your Older Child Hits the Baby

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Your six-month-old is happily gurgling in his bouncy seat on the floor of the family room, mouthing his rattle. Your two-year-old is playing with his cars nearby. You've just entered the kitchen to get dinner started, when the baby's wails signal that once again, your two-year-old has grabbed the baby's rattle and whacked him with it. You race back into the room, furious. You race right by the baby, intent on getting your hands on that mean kid to teach him a lesson.

All of us respond like mama lions when our babies are threatened, even by our other children. But what's really accomplished when we grab our older child and smack him? Could it actually be possible that hitting a child can teach him not to hit? Kids learn from what we do, not what we say. When we hit, we show them that it must be ok -- at least under certain circumstances -- since mommy and daddy do it. The fine details of the circumstances, of course, are lost on little ones.

The question, of course, is this: If we spank him, will he be less likely to hit his little brother? Kids who aren't spanked won't necessarily be little angels. They will still have to learn to control their angry feelings. But there is more chance of his learning that sooner if he isn't spanked. Hundreds of studies now show that spanking always makes kids' hitting worse.

So what can we do in this all too familiar situation?

First, let's consider your son's perspective. He is not a monster, although when we hear he has attacked a defenseless infant we feel monstrously towards him. He's acting this way because he's too young to verbalize perfectly normal feelings that we would all have in his situation.

He's had a mother and father all to himself. Then, suddenly, he has to share them with a competitor. What's more, mom and dad don't seem to get it. They expect him to be happy, to "love" the new baby. Naturally he feels devastated. He doesn't have the words or self-awareness to express his fear, sadness, and anger. So he strikes out.

Our first intervention, of course, needs to be protecting the baby. Two-year-olds need fairly constant monitoring, and infants need constant protection from two-year-olds. MOST two-year-olds will pinch a baby sibling if no adult is around. That doesn't make them "terrors," it just makes them two! A four-year-old might have the same impulses, but much better impulse control.

Our second intervention, if somehow the baby's been hurt, is to comfort the baby. When we race back into the room, our best course of action is to pick up the baby and comfort him, completely ignoring the toddler. In other words, shower attention on the one who has been hurt, but don't give any reinforcement, either positive or negative, to the aggressor.

After the baby is calm and ok, look the toddler in the eye and say "People are not for pushing. Pushing hurts. We don't hurt each other. My job is to keep everyone in this family safe. Until it is safe here, I will need to hold the baby. That means I can't read to you right now. When it is safe to put the baby down, I can spend time with you." (Some people go into another room, but that triggers the toddler's abandonment panic, so I don't generally recommend it.)

Third, how can we keep this from happening again? The answer is to focus more on our relationship with our older child. It's easy to forget how important this is in the press of sleepless nights and colic. But connecting with our older child by showering him with unsolicited love and snuggling helps keep him from feeling abandoned. All kids need attention. Two-year-olds with a younger sibling need lots of it.

If we wait until they do something wrong and then shower them with attention, we give precisely the wrong message. (And it doesn't fill that empty place, as anyone who has ever asked her husband if he loves her knows.) If we give attention pre-emptively, with generous amounts of "snuggle time" with both parents, our child feels "full" and has less need to torment his brother. Spending "special" time with each child invariably calms them down and makes them happier.

Your empathy also helps your toddler understand his tangled up angry feelings, so that he feels less ugly inside. "Sometimes you get angry at your brother. Sometimes you feel so angry it makes you want to be mean, and hurt him. I wonder if you worry that mommy and daddy spend too much time with the baby and you want us to yourself. Lots of kids feel that way when they have a new baby in the house. But I love you and I will always be there for you. Whenever you need me, you tell me, and I will find a way to take care of you."

If your son isn't verbal enough to understand that kind of talk yet, then get down on his level and use the same words he's using, so he knows you understand. Then give him words for his feelings. "Baby's rattle hit your tower, you're mad!" Just knowing that his parents understand his hurt and fear will relieve a lot of his frustration, increase his ability to manage his feelings, and reduce his acting out.

Note that I'm not recommending that you admonish him to love his sibling, which cannot, of course, be mandated, and does not grow from guilt. But it's great to include the baby's point of view, some observations designed to start developing empathy: "It really hurt the baby when you knocked him over this morning. Did you hear him cry? Poor baby. Remember when you fell on the playground, and cried, how much that hurt? The baby hurts, too, when he falls."

Finally, this kind of talk by itself is ineffective if not also accompanied by firm limits. Most self-respecting two-year-olds are somewhat in a panic about their new competitor and would like to eliminate them from the planet. They have to work hard for their developing compassion to trump their murderous impulses. Parents need to help them by setting very firm limits. That means a loud, clear, "We don't hit" rather than a sweet taking onto the lap. In fact, the sweet taking onto the lap functions as a reward for hitting if it follows too closely in time. If he wants attention, all he needs to do is knock his brother over!

Some parents think if they understand their older child's jealousy, they can't set firm limits. But we always need to communicate to our children that feelings are given to us like arms and legs, and we are always responsible for what we do with them. We name the behavior and reinforce repeatedly that it is off limits. "We don't push. Pushing hurt" Of course, those limits need to be enforced with empathy, not anger, because our child will only obey those limits to the degree that he feels connected to us, and anger erodes the connection.

Redirecting your child is an excellent way of enforcing limits. If your toddler can't yet control his impulse to hit, maybe he can redirect it. You might say "People are not for hitting. This pillow is for hitting. I know you feel angry right now. You can hit the pillow as much as you want."

Another way to help a toddler redirect angry feelings is into fantasy. Sometimes playing a game with his trains, in which the big brother train engine gets the mommy train to himself, helps. The parent simply observes, noticing the storyline and supplying narration as the child initiates the action. The parent can set up the story by saying "How about this is the mommy engine, and the boy engine, and this is the new baby engine." The point is not to create fratricidal plays, but to let the child express his feelings and acknowledge them with empathy.

Art is also therapeutic. You might ask a child to draw a family picture, and when they leave out the baby, suggest that sometimes they wish the baby had never been born so they could keep mom and dad all to themselves. Reading books about toddlers with a new sibling can also help your child feel understood.

Again, we respect kids' feelings at the same time that we strongly enforce limits on what kids do with those feelings. Kids need the reassurance that we will always keep them safe, and that we will help them to control their anger and not hurt others.

One last point about two-year-olds. Developmentally, they need a lot of control over their lives. This stage is often a challenge for parents even before a new baby is born. So one of the best ways to help toddlers feel less threatened by a new baby is to help them to flourish on their own terms, by treating them in ways that encourage feelings of competence and cooperation.

Two other resources:

  • Siblings without Rivalry, by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish, is the single best book on sibling rivalry
  • YourParentingSolutions.com ( my website) has an elaborate section on toddlers

Dr. Laura Markham
Aha! Parenting.com