Eighteen-Month-Old's Reaction to New Baby

Laura Markham's picture

QUESTION

Hi Dr. Laura,
I have an adorable eighteen-month-old boy. A month ago I had my second little boy. My eighteen-month-old has always had the sweetest most easy going temperament. He was so fun loving and easy to take care of. After the baby was born he had no negative reactions.

Now, a month later, he has undergone a complete personality change. He is cranky most of the day and just spends a lot of time whining and crying.

Interestingly enough, he seems to like the baby. He likes to look at him and hold him.

If this is a manifestation of his jealousy, he definitely has not shown any of it through his interaction with the baby. He also started waking up in middle of the night screaming and screaming. He doesn't allow himself to be calmed down. Eventually, after about an hour or so, he cries himself back to sleep.

It hurts me to see him so different from the child he used to be. I try to spend time with him and give him all the attention I can, but it doesn't seem to be helping much. I would really appreciate some insight and advice on how to deal with this situation.

ANSWER

Your 18-month-old is grieving. He may well like his little brother, but he feels displaced. It really does feel to him like the story about the husband who brings home the second wife. No matter how much we might like that second wife, seeing her in our husband's arms feels like a mortal wound. Even if he can't put it into words, your son is thinking: "I wasn't enough for you?"

Your son is still a baby, which means he doesn't have a lot of internal resources to deal with this very demanding life transition. He is cranky most of the day and spends a lot of time whining and crying because he is in pain.I would guess that you or I would respond much the same way to the second wife. He wakes up at night screaming and crying because he is (almost certainly) doing what we all do in our dreams: Attacking the source of our problem. Because he is in fact a sweet and loving boy who actually likes his brother, these dreams are horrifying to him.

You are doing exactly the right thing to give him as much attention and time as you can. Even though you think it doesn't help much, it actually helps a great deal, because what your son is mourning is partly the loss of his exclusive relationship with you. Cherishing that relationship is ultimately the most effective thing you can do to help him heal.

I suspect, though, that your little guy is also tormented by his negative feelings about his little brother. He knows that he needs to be nice to him, and he actually feels affection. But he also feels rage, toward both you and the baby. He has a hard time admitting that, even to himself. He needs an escape valve for those feelings, and he needs your permission. You can give your son a tremendous gift here.

Instead of expecting him to repress his feelings -- which will make him feel like part of him is unacceptable and unlovable -- let him know that our feelings are just given to us, like our arms and legs, and that there are no unacceptable feelings. He can be as angry and sad as he wants. What he is responsible for is what he chooses to DO with those feelings. Putting them into words and drawings is totally acceptable. Being mean or hitting is not.

To help him with this, I suggest:

1. Reframe the way you see his whining, crying and crankiness. Your son is in pain. He is mourning. This is equivalent for him to having suffered a death. He can't put into words what he is unhappy about, and he isn't upset for the reason he thinks. But he needs your help to heal. So when he acts like this, hold him and empathize: "Seems like you feel so sad right now. Seems like you hurt inside. You know Mommy loves you soooo much. Mommy is always here for a hug if you feel sad. Come snuggle with me while I feed the baby. Let's read your favorite books." Allow him to cry in your arms as much as he wants. Then help him find a way to feel better. Let him see that while he can't always have what he wants, he can get something that is in some ways even better: A mother who understands and sympathizes, who accepts all of him, and who helps him to feel better.

2. Read (with your son) every book you can find on siblings with new babies. Use these as a springboard to make observations about your son's feelings. Your goal is to give your little guy words for his feelings, because that helps him accept and manage them rather than having to act them out. Be direct: "I know it's hard to have me busy with the baby when you want me." Commiserate: "Babies sure take a lot of time, don't they!" He probably can't talk much yet, but he understands a lot, and the books will help. Here's a list of great books for big sibs to help with adjusting to life with the new baby: http://ahaparenting.com/ages-stages/pregnancy/books-about-new-baby-for-o...

3. Encourage his bonding with his brother, but let him express negativity as well. Make mildly disparaging jokes about the baby: "He's pretty messy, huh?.... He's a lot of work."

4. Make sure your son feels valued for his specific contributions to the family. Once, he was valued because he was the only kid. Now, he needs to feel valued because he is uniquely himself. Find those qualities about him that you want to nurture and tell him how much you love them: "I love your colorful drawings...You are so patient when you build with the blocks...You notice everything in the pictures when we read...When I see your face in the morning it makes me so happy...I love to hear you sing."

There is also a whole article on my website about helping kids adjust to the new baby that will be helpful to you: http://www.ahaparenting.com/ages-stages/newborns/Help-Sibling-Child-Adju...

With some understanding help from you, your son will adjust and gradually return to his sweet, happy self. Good luck, and enjoy your boys!

--Dr. Laura