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When the Big Brother Becomes the Big Challenge

Apr18

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Advice Smackdown ArchivesI have two sons, one is 4 weeks old and the other 2 1/2. We did everything we could think of to prepare my older son for his little brother and boy howdy does he love his little brother, his parents … not so much. He is really great with the baby and so very proud to be the big boy.

When he turned 2 we were worried about the terrible twos but until his brother came along he was an angel. He was far from perfect and we’d get the whining and the tantrums but then he’d get over it. I’ve heard that the terrible twos don’t come until closer to 2 1/2.

Ever since the birth of #2 the whining and tantrums have escalated exponentially. He tantrums so hard that he throws up. Whole days are spent in time out because he keeps hitting and scratching us. I have all these great special things lined up to do with him but he behaves so badly that we don’t do them because I’ll be damned if I’m going to reward his bad behavior. For example, he had 2 OK days in a row so we took him out for ice-cream. He enjoyed the ice-cream but when it was time to go we had a mexican stand-off trying to get him in his car
seat. Eventually one of us had to pin his screaming writhing body down while the other strapped him in. It’s safe to say that the next time we take him out for ice-cream will be to celebrate his college graduation.

I have a friend who has a 2 1/2 year old girl and a new baby. She says she’s not having any trouble with her daughter. Either she’s lying or I’m a bad mother. What’s up with my crazy son? How much of this is because he’s 2 1/2 and how much is it because we ruined his life by having another child? Do you have any suggestions on how to get our good child back?

Please help!

Okay, three things I want you to read before I start yapping:

This entry from my personal blog, that I wrote very shortly after Ezra’s birth. And also this one. And finally, this entry from the postpartum Bounce Back column here at AlphaMom.

Any of that behavior sound familiar? I’m guessing “yes.”

Much like the toddler aggression/throwing things phase, your son’s behavior is COMPLETELY NORMAL. And it is temporary, I swear. Though…probably not as temporary as you’d like to hear right now. I know I would have preferred to hear “days” or maybe a couple “weeks.” For us, it lasted a few months. Three? I think? I have blissfully blocked it out, hence my getting into this mess ALL OVER AGAIN with a third baby just two-and-a-half years later. Noah was AWESOME with his baby brother. AWESOME. Thrilled with him!

He hated us. HATED.

What we found — and I also encourage you to wade through all the comments on those entries, because there is a BOUNTY of valuable been-there, done-that advice and words of encouragement — was that we essentially had to walk a very fine line between ignoring bad behavior that we typically would have disciplined and providing as much positive reinforcement and special-happy-fun-Noah-time as we dared WITHOUT dipping into the realm of “spoiling.”

So while your ice-cream outing ended in disaster, you should try again. Not even because it’s a reward or because he “earned” it, but…just because it’s a nice thing he gets to do and will give him a sense that maybe things haven’t changed as much as it seems they have. Try splitting up and tackling these special outings one-on-one, sans baby brother. If it ends in disaster, well, it ends in disaster but you wake up the next day with the slate wiped clean. Any time you catch him behaving well — and I mean ANY LITTLE PIDDLY THING — be sure to praise him. I realized that I was spending so much time focused on Noah’s not-great behavior that entire days were going by where everything I said to him was said in a scolding, negative, rebuking manner.

Not to say that he didn’t technically DESERVE all those scoldings — he was absolutely regressing to behaviors we thought we’d already dealt with and stuff he KNEW was unacceptable — but…we basically needed to cut him a break. His little world was knocked ass over teakettle and he didn’t have the verbal skills to articulate his feelings or the life experience to even understand what he was feeling. All he knew was how to push us, test us, challenge us to make sure we were still there and still loved him. At that point in time, we were both so fixated on adjusting to our new lives with a newborn that NEGATIVE ATTENTION was much easier for Noah to get from us. So darn it, he was going to get that negative attention. And he did. Over and over again, because it worked so well.

The advice we got was to IGNORE the bad behavior, whenever we could. It went against everything discipline-related we felt we’d worked so hard to perfect, but the post-new-sibling phase seems to be its own special circumstance. Just ignore the tantrums. Go silent. Pick him up. Put him in the car. Don’t look him in the eyes, don’t react when he kicks or hits, just buckle him up and get the hell out of there. Don’t spend the car ride berating him for how unacceptable that behavior was, or tell him how he’s going straight to bed when you get home because he’s naughty, just….nothing. And keep your own temper under control, no matter what. (Once you’re away from him, feel free to scream and bite things, of course.)

This, combined with a ton of positive reinforcement whenever he did anything good — from eating a good dinner to playing nicely with his toys or being cooperative while getting dressed — seemed to eventually curb the worst of it. Noah settled down and in, no longer angry with us or constantly testing the limits of just how far he could push us before we send HIM back to the hospital in favor or keeping Baby Brother Who Never Gets Yelled At.

Up the positive attention (even if they aren’t doing much to earn it), and withdraw the negative attention when we’re talking about non-life-and-death type behavior. (Running from us in parking lots, for example, was a form of acting-out that we did NOT ignore, but the public tantrums and/or general brattiness no longer earned the heaploads of our focus we’d previously been giving them.) It’s a PHASE, and unlike other phases where consistency with discipline is your only real way through it, this one is more about easing an anxiety and jealousy that your child simply doesn’t know any other way to express than through naughty behavior. The angrier you get, the more he senses his fears are justified and the more he acts out.

(Oh! And we also talked to the baby about Noah and his needs, i.e. “Hang on, Ezra, Mommy has to get Noah a drink of milk right now, I’ll be with you in a minute.” Noah probably heard the flipside of that sort of thing a dozen times a day, as I unconsciously prioritized the baby over him, so I tried to make sure I announced the times HE got first dibs on Mommy’s time.)

It’s not an easy time — I’m not going to pretend it isn’t, or that we saw a difference in Noah’s behavior overnight or anything, once we made a big push to stop “rewarding” bad behavior with our attention. But it did happen. We gritted our teeth and kept up the special Noah-centric outings — to the zoo, to movies, ice cream, etc. (Though I made my husband STOP trying to fix things with special toys and non-stop treats, those things did not involve our ATTENTION, and did not help.) Again, the outings weren’t contingent on good behavior — they were more to represent our unconditional love and his still extremely-solid position of Very Important Person in our family. Yes, kiddo, we still love you. We still love you when you’re behaving well, and when you’re behaving badly. You are a big boy AND you are still our baby.

Eventually, that message gets through. You’ll stop worrying that you ruined your son’s life or broke your first baby in the process of having another one. You’ll watch your boys bond and feel like a cohesive, functioning family of four.

__________________________________________________________________
If there is a question you would like answered by Amalah on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to amyadvice@gmail.com.

About the author

Amalah

http://www.amalah.com
Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy's daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it's pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to amyadvice@gmail.com.

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.


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26 Responses to “When the Big Brother Becomes the Big Challenge”

  1. Olivia Apr 18 at 11:06 am Reply Reply

    I only have one right now so I’m just bookmarking this for future reference.

    I have a general question about time-outs readers might like to chime in on. My daughter just turned 2 yrs old and developmentally she doesn’t seem at all ready for time-outs. I don’t think she would really understand what one is fore or sit still for one even for a minute. Am I just underestimating her ability, or is there a big difference from kid to kid.

    For now, she gets told no, removed from the situation, and I talk to her about what she was doing. So, in a way we take a time-out together, but I don’t call it that. Maybe I’m misunderstanding what a time-out really is.

  2. Kate Apr 18 at 11:09 am Reply Reply

    Amy is spot on with this one. In fact, as we were putting our son to bed the night we got the positive pregnancy test I said to my not yet two year old “You’re going to hate us, aren’t you.”

    In my experience kids have one of three reactions to the birth of a sibling. The least common one is that they don’t have much of an external reaction at all, which is what the letter writer’s friend seems to be experiencing. Although that’s easier on the parents when I’ve worked with these kids (as an early childhood educator) it usually turns out that they’re sublimating their feelings because they’re afraid of being rejected in favor of the new baby if they’re not perfect so emotionally it’s not terribly healthy for the child. The second reaction is clinging to the parents and rejecting the baby and the third is what the letter writer is experiencing.

    To be perfectly honest this rejection of the parents is what I’m hoping for when our second child is born this fall (just when our son turns 2 1/2). I feel like it’s the healthiest reaction because the child is almost daring you not to love them and requiring you to prove that you do love them even when they’re acting like a little sh*t; exactly as Amy said. Of course I’m 99% sure that my son is going reserve his anger primarily for me and that his daddy is going to get a pass on this one. Oh well, at least I’m prepared.

  3. Kate Apr 18 at 11:30 am Reply Reply

    Olivia – what you’re doing sounds fine. We started doing a sort of time out with my son when he was about a year old to curb his biting because nothing else was working (and it worked in about 3 days). What I do is say “We don’t ___” as I pick him up and then put him in our papasan chair and then ignore him. I don’t enforce a time limit because he’s little and also because he gets the point without it. On rare occasions he pops right out of the chair and repeats the behavior but when he gets put in the chair the second time he always gets the point. Now that he’s older (almost 2) it’s not unusual for him to be so upset by being put in the chair that he just sits there and cries or gets out of the chair but wanders around the room crying. It’s a little strange to see because now that we’ve moved the chair is in the playroom so he has free access to his toys and the door isn’t closed so he can leave but he doesn’t.

    We don’t have to “give him the chair” (as my husband says) very often these days. Usually it’s a result of him trying something new like pulling the cat’s tail after 18 months of gently petting the kitty. Responding with a time out immediately shows him the seriousness of the situation and as a result he frequently only needs to be put in time out once.

    Obviously not all kids respond to time outs this way. The most common suggestion I’ve seen is to hold the child in your lap facing away from you and not talk to them for the duration on the time out. If you have a child who gets very violent during time outs there are specific safe holds you can learn to protect yourself and them. I had take a class to be certified to use them as a special educator but the ones for little kids are very easy; the most common is the basket hold. Some people also use a pack and play or the crib for time out but that’s not recommended since it can interfere with sleep by making the crib a bad place. 

  4. Trish Apr 18 at 12:24 pm Reply Reply

    So my son (now 19 mos) will be closer to 2 when our second is born. Can I expect this sort of reaction, or something different because he’s not quite as old?

  5. Jennifer Apr 18 at 1:07 pm Reply Reply

    Hi, there. My two girls are 27 1/2 months apart – almost the same as the OP’s. I wanted to address her comment about her friend and “either she’s lying or I’m a bad mother” and urge her not to fall into that trap. I had my second around the same time that 3 or 4 of my friends had theirs. I can PROMISE you that none of them had as much trouble with their first-borns as we did and I, too, guessed about whether they were lying about the smoothness of their transition to two or if I just couldn’t hang as a mother. Your experience sounds pretty similar to ours. I just want to say that everything gets better (especially after the youngest turns 18 months) and, no, you are NOT a bad mother and please, just hang in there!

  6. bethany actually Apr 18 at 1:16 pm Reply Reply

    I am here to tell you this stuff is not limited to 2-year-olds. My older daughter was 6.5 when our second daughter was born, and she’s been nothing but gentle and loving towards the baby, and is UBER-excited and proud of being a big sister. Towards me and my husband, she has been mouthy and arrogant and has reverted to some behaviors (cutting inappropriate things like her clothes and her hair) that we thought were long-gone. My instinct has been to not get very mad at her about these behaviors because even she is distressed by them when we talk to her, and instead to just reassure her every chance I get, verbally and with actions, that we still love her very much and she’ll always be my baby. I’ve also been doing the thing Amalah mentioned on her blog and occasionally saying, “Hang on, Baby, I need to make a pb&j for your big sister, this will just take a minute,” so my older daughter can hear me prioritizing her over her sister once in a while. It seems to be helping. And of course with an older kid, we can actually talk to her about how things are different because the baby is little and we’re all adjusting but they won’t be this way forever and soon we won’t even be able to imagine our lives without the baby, etc.

  7. Grammy Apr 18 at 2:36 pm Reply Reply

    From this old woman, I’d just like to tell you mothers of young children (I almost said “young mothers” but I don’t know that all of you are) that I’m glad to see all of you handling this very common thing so well. Amalah’s wise counsel is a pleasure to read, but the rest of you have found that you instinctively know what to do and are doing it. Your kids will be fine because you obviously care so much.

    An anecdote: My daughter, who has a rambunctious little boy not quite two years old, is going through some of the testing and tantrums right now. She said to me, “I don’t know how anybody raised children before there was ‘Time Out’. How did you do it?” I told her we always had Time Out, we just didn’t call it that. When she and her brother were little, we just said “Put your butt in that chair and don’t get out till I tell you to.” I think someone in the mid-70s, after I had my children, wrote a book and called that age-old discipline method a Time Out.

    You ladies turned out fine, and so will your kids. Enjoy the ride — even the bumpy parts are fun to remember when enough time has passed.

  8. Grammy Apr 18 at 2:37 pm Reply Reply

    From this old woman, I’d just like to tell you mothers of young children (I almost said “young mothers” but I don’t know that all of you are) that I’m glad to see all of you handling this very common thing so well. Amalah’s wise counsel is a pleasure to read, but the rest of you have found that you instinctively know what to do and are doing it. Your kids will be fine because you obviously care so much.

    An anecdote: My daughter, who has a rambunctious little boy not quite two years old, is going through some of the testing and tantrums right now. She said to me, “I don’t know how anybody raised children before there was ‘Time Out’. How did you do it?” I told her we always had Time Out, we just didn’t call it that. When she and her brother were little, we just said “Put your butt in that chair and don’t get out till I tell you to.” I think someone in the mid-70s, after I had my children, wrote a book and called that age-old discipline method a Time Out.

    You ladies turned out fine, and so will your kids. Enjoy the ride — even the bumpy parts are fun to remember when enough time has passed.

  9. Jeannie Apr 18 at 2:57 pm Reply Reply

    FWIW, my son, who was 4 when his little sister was born, also had a period of being pretty badly behaved, probably because he was mad at mom. Sometimes he could verbalize it; sometimes not. It was rough. But normal, lots of kids go through it. It sucks. But reassurance and time just for him helped a lot.

    Also, I have heard from a couple friends (not that these are typical, but you never know) that their older daughters adjusted pretty well to younger siblings. Not all girls will I’m sure but maybe your friend is one of the lucky ones. I think, however, that behaviour like your son’s and mine is more typical.

  10. JCF Apr 18 at 3:41 pm Reply Reply

    I know this is so hard, but try to avoid falling into the trap of “either she’s lying or I’m a bad mother.” I’ve done it so many times myself, but this is one of those things that you have so little control over. When my third was born, we had no issues whatsoever with our almost 2-year-old daughter. She was so, so, so excited to have a baby in the house and adjusted just fine. Our almost 3-year-old was a totally different story–tantrums, potty training regressions, etc. I think some of it was age, and some of it was just personality. I think things got much better with my son when the new baby was around 3 months old, but it was definitely rough before then. Hang in there, and try to stay as positive as you can. I’m a big fan of taking a mommy time out. I walk into my bedroom, take a few deep breaths, pray/beg for the strength to get through the next 10 minutes, and return to the fray. It helps enormously.

  11. Wallydraigle Apr 18 at 6:02 pm Reply Reply

    I read this question, and thought, “Oh! Oh! I totally have this one!”
    .
    And then Amy wrote everything I would have said, and then some. As usual.
    .
    But I did think of one more thing: try to have him “help” with the baby in every stupid little way you can think of. My kids are 16 months apart, so it’s not exactly the same thing, but that was one of the best pieces of advice I ever got. I had my toddler fetch me things, I had her help burp the baby, I had her do things that were completely unnecessary, but that made her feel good about her role in her new sister’s life. You might even get him a doll and some scraps of towels or paper that can pass for diapers. My daughter is 2.5 now and she loves nothing more than changing diapers on, well, just about everything, even if it in no way resembles an actual human baby. For instance, her bath washcloth cut in the shape of a frog with a face stitched into it. She changed his diaper earlier today.
    .
    And the adjustment phase can take a few months. I know that sounds disheartening, but it was encouraging for me to find that out because I could relax a little and say, “Okay, just because it’s been two months doesn’t mean my child is going to be a monster or that I’m a bad mother.” It didn’t take her quite that long to adjust to her baby sister, but it did take her two months or better to adjust to our cross-country move. I was just on the verge of selling her to the nearest neighbor when one day she woke up sunny and chipper as she was the day before we moved.

  12. JayelleMo Apr 18 at 7:45 pm Reply Reply

    Oh man, am I there with you. Substitute daughters for sons and my life is exactly the same.  Thanks for the advice on this one, Amalah. Very timely. 

  13. Mary Lou Apr 18 at 9:36 pm Reply Reply

    Well, right now I only have one precious baby, so I can’t really contribute to the older sibling convo. per say but can I just say that my DOG is the biggest pain now that we have ruined her life and brought home a baby?! 

  14. Mary Lou Apr 18 at 9:38 pm Reply Reply

    i meant per se… oops! 

  15. crabbyappleseed Apr 18 at 10:10 pm Reply Reply

    I don’t really have advice, but wanted to send support to question-asker, because yes, that is EXACTLY where I am. My older daughter is 27 months and her sister is just shy of two months old. She adores her baby sister, and oh my, she hates us. Mostly me. She hits, she pinches, she kicks, she screams, and the potty-training we’d started? now she waits, every morning, for me to be nursing the baby, before she walks around the corner and drops a deuce. (TMI? Sorry, but seriously, EVERY DAY.) and forget about getting her to sit on the potty, she’ll be in kindergarten before we get her back on there. Glad to know I’m not the only one.

  16. maddie Apr 18 at 10:37 pm Reply Reply

    OH NO MY SON WILL BE THAT AGE AND I’M HAVING TWINSSSSSSSSSSSSS!

  17. Olivia Apr 19 at 8:25 am Reply Reply

    crabbyappleseed, this is probably not what you want to hear, but I just went to a potty training info session (am big nerd) and one thing I learned was if there is any kind of big change going on at home, i.e. new baby, don’t bother trying to potty train. The presenter (a early childhood specialist) said it’s perfectly find to go back to diapers and try again in a few weeks or months, but the last thing you want to do is push the issue. 

  18. Trish Apr 19 at 10:59 am Reply Reply

    Our pediatrician told us not to attempt to potty train with a new baby on the way, and not to change from crib to toddler bed.

  19. Jenny Apr 19 at 2:12 pm Reply Reply

    Hang in there, it does get easier. My daughter was 26 months when our second daughter was born, and she did not like the baby at all. She would act out and tell me to throw the baby away, etc. Eventually she went from acting out to ignoring the baby completely, to liking her a lot when the baby was 10 months old. Now they are 6 and 4 and play really nice together. I, too, blocked a lot of that time out. I just remember it being really hard and wishing someone would take my oldest until I could tolerate her being in the house. They were 3 1/2 and 51/2 when our third was born, and that spacing was so much easier. They had a little jealousy, but really loved the baby. Poor little guy has 3 mommies :).

  20. crabbyappleseed Apr 19 at 3:18 pm Reply Reply

    au contraire, Olivia, that is EXACTLY what I wanted to hear. I was worried I was dropping the ball on that one, it’s good to know I can just let it go.

  21. Marnie Apr 20 at 1:13 am Reply Reply

    I only have one, but I absolutely agree with everything Amy said about dealing with the behavior. We didn’t have the terrible two’s. We didn’t even have the threatening threes. We had the F*ING FOURS. Which started about 10 seconds after she turned four, and lasted several months. After dissolving into tears a few times (me, not her), I finally got the same advice Amy just gave: Praise, Praise, Praise the good behavior, and ignore to the extent possible the bad (except of course for dangerous behavior). We didn’t give in, we didn’t set special rules. The rules were the same, and in fact we may have gotten better about matter-of-factly sticking to the rules that were there. But the praise was what seemed to turn things around. It may have run its course on its own in the same amount of time, but I at least felt like I was actually doing something. And it saved my sanity.

    ______________________
    Isabel: love to hear this! You didn’t get caught in the “criticism trap” and praise saved the day.

  22. Jill Apr 20 at 2:19 pm Reply Reply

    Love Amy’s advice on this one. In our experience also, that period after a new sibling is indeed a “special circumstance”. Praise the good behavior whenever possible, ignore the bad more than you usually would. It’s hard. My daughter was 2 1/2 when our son was born and I am certain that her behavior was partly being 2 1/2, but very much so partly that she wasn’t the center of attention any more. I would say we battled for a good six months. Now she is almost 4 1/2 and a complete sweetheart. Our third is due this summer and she is so excited.

  23. Kira Apr 20 at 2:30 pm Reply Reply

    I’m the person that asked the question. I will do exactly as you said and keep my fingers crossed that this phase passes quickly.

    It is so comforting to hear that this is common. Just knowing that my child is not the only one acting out is a big relief. I really felt like I was doing something wrong because everyone else’s children seemed to have such a smooth transition.

    I love the internets.

  24. @adelas Apr 28 at 4:57 pm Reply Reply

    Whew, is this a timely reminder, and an encouragement that we’re doing things pretty well over here.
    .
    We don’t have a brand new sibling but… My son turned 3 at the end of Feb, and it was like the Terrible Threes timer went off. Then…. a couple weeks ago… my 1.5 year old daughter broke her arm and had to have surgery. In some ways, it was like having a newborn – a couple of nights, she only cat napped when held upright in my arms. For about another week, she woke 3 or 4 times each night and needed to be medicated and comforted. My mom flew across the country to come help, it was so rough.
    .
    Well – all this to set up that my son started being a complete HELLION. Shouting at us, refusing to cooperate, tantrums – all the things I swore I would never allow a child of mine to do.
    .
    On top of what Amalah said above, here’s what I have to add: (sorry if html hates me)
    .
    (1) Two books: Mommy Do You Love Me by Jeanne Willis & Jan Fearnley and I Love You All The Time by Jessica Elin Hirschman, Jennifer Elin Cole and Bonnie Bright. We read them constantly when we first bought them, and the quotes are SO helpful. “Sometimes you make me mad, and sometimes you make me sad, but no matter what you say or do, I will always love you, because I’m your Mommy.” “I love you when I tell you NO” “I love you when I can’t see you.”
    (2) As a more-common alternative to punishment time outs, we have a “Compose Yourself Corner”. We posted up a picture of my son screaming in frustration when he was a baby. When he is reacting in an unacceptable way to a situation, he is supposed to go sit in that corner and stay there until he has his emotions under control. In a nice voice, we say, “You can sit over there while you are mad/sad/frustrated/feeling mean/too wound up and want to play rough. When you are happy and nice, you can come get hugs/talk to us/play/eat dinner/etc.” And then enforce that (calmly); if the child is still upset, direct them back to the corner until they are calm to your satisfaction. Just remember it’s not punishment, it’s letting them get control just like you would do, as an adult.
    .
    Shocking as it is, this actually helps.. We did this when he was younger, and stopped, and pulled it back out in the past week, and today my son caught HIMSELF being too upset, and went in the corner until he was calm. Hang in there!

  25. Mel Oct 27 at 5:38 pm Reply Reply

    My sons are 14 months apart and when I was 2 months off having second I got a baby lookalike doll. Everyone thought I was stupid but I’d cuddle it and talk to it and pretend to feed it Etc in front of my baby son and then he would start doing those things too and I taught him how to ‘kiss’ and ‘be gentle’ with ‘the baby’. And now at 2 and 8 months to this day he still does those things with his brother, he loves him so much gives him milk and tries to give him food and is just amazing with him. I’ve never seen one sign of anger or jealousy between them and nor have I experienced any issues with us as parents. In fact if my baby cries and I don’t jump up to fix him immediately, my 2 year old gives me dirty looks and starts pointing, trying to tell me he’s crying, you know, just in case I couldn’t hear.

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