Inside: Understanding regression and misbehavior in your child after the birth of a baby sibling.
I’m having a very trying time with my three-year-old at the moment. He is a very bright, highly spirited and sensitive little boy. His baby brother was born just a month ago so I appreciate he has had a lot of change to deal with lately. But to be frank I am running out of ideas! He is very physical and often hurts me and the baby. I came under a lot of pressure from certain family members to take a firmer stand with him as they believed I was being too soft and rewarding bad behaviour. So reluctantly, I have started using time out even though it doesn’t fit with my ethos and I know it is not particularly effective either. I am simply at the end of my tether and do not know what else to do. I think he often behaves this way to get attention and it’s true if I am 100% focused on him, he will not act up. But with a 4-week-old baby to care for as well, this is simply not feasible. I would really appreciate any advice as I’m really not being the sort of mother I want to be right now.
Welcoming a new baby into the home is such a joy! When it’s the second baby or beyond, this wonderful time also comes with many challenges, including finding ways to connect and offer appropriate guidance to siblings.
Regression and Misbehavior When Baby is Born
Much like this mother has shared, for many children, the arrival of a new baby may bring with it a host of mistaken behaviors. Hitting, kicking, spitting, self-care regression like toilet refusal, bed wetting are very common. When a new baby arrives, children may also experience a sudden inability locate a tooth brush or pajamas alone, they may whine and demand instead of making clear requests.
Children may also decide they no longer like certain foods, can’t sleep with the light off, must have mom’s hand to do everything. To top it all off, when mom and dad make an effort to connect and play together, children may respond by throwing intense, long lasting tantrums. These steps “backwards” are all means for coping and expressing the mix of emotions that comes with a new baby “invading” their home.
Children that feel jealous of their siblings and act out are not bad, naughty or selfish.
Jealousy among siblings is normal. In fact, while it’s hard for us parents to hear it, it’s quite age appropriate and common for the older siblings, particularly those under the age of ten, to not only act out by pinching, poking and trying to hit, but to also say things like:
- “Send baby back to the hospital.”
- “I don’t want a brother.”
- “I’m the only baby”
- “I HATE that baby”
Many parents have this hope and vision of happy, loving, hand holding siblings. This is certainly possible, and it is not an effortless process. This is especially true when it comes to connecting and providing guidance based discipline to an older child when a new baby arrives and as they continue to grow together.
So what kind of connection and discipline does a child need when the baby arrives?
Knowing what and where sibling jealousy comes from can help us reframe our expectations. Mostly, sibling jealousy is just human nature at work. Every child has an inner protective instinct to want to keep parents to himself.
Children also tend to appreciate predictability and would rather not “rock the boat” of their otherwise normal, known routine with a newcomer. Part of sibling jealousy it is also fear of rejection or fear of no longer being unconditionally loved by mom and dad. “What if they love the baby more than me?” is a genuine concern for many children.
If your child says hurtful things, like they hate you, the baby and so on, listen with the intent to validate. I remember telling my oldest a few weeks into the birth of his sister (baby #3) something like “Gosh sometimes it must feel so unlucky to have to have two other siblings. Man, I know the feeling, I had two little sisters myself. Most days I loved having sisters, but yeah, some days, I really wished my mom would hug only me!” His face lit up, and he knew I really did understand him. Acceptance and validation has worked so well here with all three children, they genuinely love spending time together (save the occasional conflict!).
Don’t insist siblings love each other, this will come with time, as they interact and discover how fun it can be to play and be with each other. If a child says “I hate the baby” instead of making a big deal out of it, or insisting this cannot be true, take it as a clue that they may need some extra love, validation and comfort.
Many Moments of Connection
All children really need their love buckets or emotional well being cups filled often to feel well.
I know first hand it is one tough request from parents of a newborn to focus on meeting the individual needs of two, three, or more children, while being sleep deprived and juggling feedings, diaper changes and everything else. Children with new siblings deplete their connection reserves faster then you can imagine. Don’t save to connect only at the end of the day, as much as possible, pause and connect for short moments throughout the day.
In the Positive Discipline Series by Jane Nelsen D.Ed., there is a wonderful tool for helping with connection: Special Time.
Special Time is all about making time to connect with your child. For a young child, set aside 10 minutes a day (or a few times a day if you can manage) to play, listen or just be fully present with your child. This really makes a big difference to children with a new baby sibling!
What to Know about Punishment and Helping Children Cope With New Baby
Children that have a new sibling at home are already dealing with a lot of big feelings, routine changes and possibly wondering if they will be rejected or still loved. Punishment and consequently making a child feel badly about themselves will not help them feel accepted, loved and want to cooperate.
As the mother shared in her post, it’s not effective anyways. While as parents we may feel like by punishing we are “doing something” about the misbehavior, really it’s not giving the child what they really need. In turn this will lead to a cycle of more mistaken behaviors and more punishments. (If you find yourself under pressure from others, try to remind yourself, that you are the parent and that if you are confident with your decision, then your child will be more likely to follow your guidance.)
The Alternatives for punishment that will take care of immediate misbehavior
Set limits with kindness and follow through. For example, if an sibling is poking the baby simply say “I will not let you poke the baby.” Calmly, stand between your two children and make it physically clear you are setting a limit. If the older sibling cries, kicks, hits, screams, as a response, limit the behavior but stay present, listen, validate and wait for the storm to pass. If both children cry at the same time, take a deep breath.
This moment WILL pass. Sit on the floor, hold the baby and offer to hold your older child as well. (Use your best judgement here as to how best keep everyone safe!) If your older child refuses your comfort, calm the baby down and then reconnect with the older child when they are ready. Tears and tantrums are not things to be punished or bribed away. Sometimes children really just need to off load a whole lot of stored up feelings. Trust that your child is able to feel all this and come through on the other side just fine.
Being pro-active is also really important so supervise, supervise and supervise. If you are dealing with aggression, know where each child is at all times to keep everyone safe. If you have a toddler or preschooler that is getting “into trouble” when you are tending to baby have them stay close by with a box of toys and books for example. This box can be special and only given to the child when you must tend to the baby. Shut the door to one room so you are all together if you must make sure your toddler is not escaping into “trouble.” Setting these physical limits allows you to remain calm and focused on one task at a time.
Flexibility is KEY
Include flexibility into your parenting decisions in these early weeks, making exceptions is really OK if they are framed as such. Also keep your expectations realistic, while the baby is very small and needs you often, the older sibling needs you too. Toddlers and preschoolers make many immature and impulsive decisions, and it’s easy to forget this when they seem so much bigger and more capable then little baby!
Involve & Encourage
Let older siblings help, but not in a way that they feel obligated. Instead, welcome the child’s participation in the baby’s care and their own care. Invite children to cook with you, to read a story out loud to the baby, to fold their own socks plus baby socks etc…Say thank you and express appreciation for their assistance. If your older child is asking for extra help with their own care (more hungs, mommy dries my hair, pick me up, I’m the baby…) tend to the requests as best as possible, this phase WILL pass!
Talk about your love for your child – each and every day.
Explain that your heart has enough love to go around and that you will never stop loving your little one. Children really need to hear this a lot when a new sibling is born. “I love you sooo much, I am so happy I get to be your mom!!”
Take heart, this phase will pass. Expecting misbehavior and mistaken ways to gain attention in the first few months of the arrival of a new sibling makes it easier to navigate it when it happens.
Use your positive parenting tool box, like validation, listening, setting limits, offering second chances and so on. It’s precisely when children “misbehave” that they need us to use our tools to offer them connected guidance.
Peace & Be Well,
While you are here…
Would you like to understand your toddler and fill your parenting toolbox with effective, positive ways of dealing with misbehavior? Our online positive parenting course is self-paced and you can join today. I will personally walk you through many proven positive discipline tools, answer your questions and help you get back to feeling confident when any kind of misbehavior shows up. Come join me in our online classroom!