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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]

Published April 18, 2011. Last updated April 30, 2018.
About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


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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