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When Big Brother Becomes a Bigger Challenge

When the Big Brother Becomes the Big Challenge

By Amalah

I 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.

Advice Smackdown ArchivesWhen 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 [email protected]

Amalah
About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch

Amalah

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 Ama...

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 [email protected].

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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Olivia
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Olivia

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.… Read more »

Kate
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Kate

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)… Read more »

Kate
Guest
Kate

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… Read more »

Trish
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Trish

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?

Jennifer
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Jennifer

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… Read more »

bethany actually
Guest

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… Read more »

Grammy
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Grammy

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… Read more »

Grammy
Guest
Grammy

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… Read more »

Jeannie
Guest
Jeannie

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… Read more »

JCF
Guest
JCF

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… Read more »

Wallydraigle
Guest

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… Read more »

JayelleMo
Guest

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. 

Mary Lou
Guest

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?! 

Mary Lou
Guest

i meant per se… oops! 

crabbyappleseed
Guest

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,… Read more »

maddie
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maddie

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

Olivia
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Olivia

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. 

Trish
Guest
Trish

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.

Jenny
Guest
Jenny

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… Read more »

crabbyappleseed
Guest

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.

Marnie
Guest
Marnie

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… Read more »

Jill
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Jill

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… Read more »

Kira
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Kira

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.

@adelas
Guest
@adelas

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… Read more »

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[…] it a case of acting out because of the arrival of a new kid on her turf? 18-month sleep regression? Two new molars coming in at the bottom? Toddler tantrums? All the […]

Mel
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Mel

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… Read more »

Amy
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Amy

My baby is 8 weeks old, my eldest is almost 4. He loves the baby and is extremely proud to have a little sister. However for the last 6 weeks we have had a constant (and I mean every other minute pf every single day) battle with his raging moods (slamming doors, , talking through teeth, , shouting from the back of his throat at us, stomping his feet) the more I tell him off the more he does it, , sometimes its almost midnight and hes still raging, daddy” works nights so doesn’t see most of this he just… Read more »

Carina
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Carina

You don’t know how much I needed to read all this. I have hope now.

Sarah
Guest
Sarah

I’ve read Amalah’s columns for years and this one is just so, so on the mark for us right now – I have a son who is almost three and another baby boy who is two months old, and we are in tantrum hell. I thought we’d missed it because the first couple of weeks were ok but wow, was I wrong…great advice as always and commenters, it’s so nice to know I’m not alone. @adelas, I love the book suggestions! I’m going to add a case of wine to that Amazon order and try to ride out the next… Read more »

Alana
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Alana

I almost cried when I read this. We have a very smart, beautiful, amazing 2.5 almost 3 year old daughter and a new baby boy. Since his birth I feel like she has become damaged in some way. She is a stranger to us. I watch old videos of her to remind myself of who she really is and who I hope she will be again. I need the reminder because I am not sure how much longer I can do this. I have tried the “upset” approach and the “all love” approach now I am going to try this… Read more »

Lee
Guest
Lee

Thank you thank you thank you. We are in the thick of it over here and knowing that you all have experienced (and survived) this awful phase gives me a lot of hope and makes my family feel normal again.

trackback

[…] So I did what any exhausted, exasperated mother does: I Googled for help. There were lots of women out there dealing with the same thing I was, but their kids were usually older. I guess few people choose to have their kids spaced 1 year, 10 days apart. There was talk of potty training regression, toddler-on-baby violence, talking back, etc. Things I was thankful not to deal with, but then I found one piece of advice that has seen me through the worst of Monkey’s adjustment period: your child is daring you not to love them. […]

winter
Guest
winter

this has really helped me. I just had a baby girl and ever since my 3 year old she has been acting out so bad I tell people that i miss my sweet little girl. Thank you for this. I am going to try this every day it does feel like I have been doing nothing but fussing at my little girl, and I dont like

Rowan
Guest
Rowan

Thank you so much for this. I have an almost 3 yr old and a one month old baby. My 3 yr old had been acting out since day one with the new baby and while the newborn slept I followed the doctors advice and spent more one on one time with the 3 yr old. But as the baby got older and more fussy and I got more sleep-deprived. I had to spend more time holding her and couldn’t get the one on one time so the toddlers behavior totally regressed and became worse than ever. He’s started ignoring… Read more »

Ginger
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Ginger

I have 6 children. Their age differences differ from 2-5 years in between. I’ve never had an issue with this until the last one. I know that each child is different but the first 4 were very accepting of the new siblings. Until #6 came. #5 was about 2 1/2 and all Hell has broken lose. He screams, hits, kicks, pinches. She is now 5 months old and he is still a terror. I’m a single mom and this is a nightmare. I hope some of this advice helps.

Amanda
Guest
Amanda

I have a 6yr old and it seems like has lost all common sense. I think I need my psychology degree for this one. anyone knows where those are distributed?

Christina Mclaughlin
Guest
Christina Mclaughlin

Thank you for this! It was just the kick in the butt I needed to be the mommy I need to be for my little boy right now. Thank you!