Ask Naomi: when your child hurts the baby

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question: Since the birth of our daughter a year ago, our son, who is three, has become aggressive and whiny. He snatches toys out of the baby's hands, pushes her by surprise, and he whines endlessly. I can't take my eyes off him in fear that he will hurt the baby. I am at my wit's end. What can I do to help my son be gentle with his sister?

naomi: The arrival of a new sibling can be an extremely heart wrenching experience for a young child. He may feel excited yet also shocked and heartbroken. A mother I counseled confided to me that the arrival of her sister, when she was three, was the most traumatic event in her life; happiness seemed to have come to a tragic end for her. She felt she lost her chance in life and was replaced by someone better. One child put it to his pregnant mother most poignantly when he asked, "Why do you want another Joey?"

When the baby is new, an older sibling may feel thrilled and loving, yet as soon as the reality of his own loss settles in, he may wish to return to the days of being the only child. He will then express his anguish in ways that bewilder us. If we get angry, she only sinks deeper in her doubt of herself and of our love, and consequently becomes more aggressive, whiny or otherwise out of inner balance.

When you understand that your child's aggression is driven by pain you would do anything to help him. Yet, like your son, your own reaction of anger is hard to control. To relieve your irritability, search inside yourself and find the expectations that do not fit reality. The voice in your head may be saying something like: "He should always love his baby sister," or, "He should understand that a baby has more needs than an older child," or, "He shouldn't hurt the baby." He really cannot live up to any of these expectations.

Instead of imagining what your child can and cannot do or listening to other people who don't even know him, take your cue from reality: In reality your child doesn't always love the baby; he doesn't understand that the baby has more urgent needs than he does (and it isn't true anyway); and, he is driven to hurt the baby (just as you are driven to tell him to stop.) Observing your child is the best place to seek information about him so that you can alleviate the cause of his stress. Without the pain he wouldn't need to bother the baby.

There is no need to feel guilty upon discovering that you have missed some of your child's cues. You are human and your son is meant to be raised by humans and can handle their errors. The time to learn and to move on is always the present moment.

The reality of the modern nuclear family is such that it is almost impossible to fully meet all the emotional needs of both a baby and a toddler or a young child. The good news is that humans are capable of living through such difficulties and being empowered by them, when their feelings are validated but not dramatized. We cannot eliminate jealousy and other related hurts; instead we need to acquire skills to help the child cope in a way that will expand his emotional capacity.

Your son has lost a lot of what he was counting on. He had you all for himself and most likely he tells himself that the baby "ruined his life." When you realize that this is probably how he is feeling, at least for now, you learn to see him as a kind and desperate child. From this point of view you can be his ally who understands his pain and who offers love and solutions to his unmet needs.

how to treat a jealous toddler

If your toddler/child displays signs of anxiety through aggression, avoid coming across like you are protecting the baby because he then sees himself as "the bad guy," believing that you don't love him. Seeing himself as the bad guy, he will live up to that image and be one, while feeling bad and undeserving of love. Instead, show him that you know what he is experiencing. Do stop him from hitting, but instead of telling him what's wrong with his actions, show your understanding of his feelings and needs and offer a loving solution for his need to feel secure and cared for. He learns from the way you treat him.

You can ask him a validating question like: "The baby takes so much of my time and is so much in my arms. Do you wish to have me all for yourself all the time?" Depending on how your son responds you can take it even farther and ask, "Do you sometimes wish that the baby would go away?" Listen to what your son says and allow him to find verbal and non-verbal avenues to express his anguish while you listen and validate without adding any drama or pathos.

You can show understanding by asking, "Do you like to make the baby scream?" This doesn't mean that you endorse his actions. You can stop him, but offer an alternative; maybe you can build a tower of blocks and he can destroy it while you shriek theatrically. Or find more time to be with him by getting help with the baby.

You need not be scared of the child's possible wish to rid himself of the baby or even his fantasies to do something about it. These normal fantasies, if not validated, fill him with guilt and with a bad self-image, which leads to aggression, tantrums, whining and other acts of despair. His greatest fear is that if you knew what he felt and thought, you won't love him. Validating his worst thoughts relieves him of this fear; "Mom knows my worst fantasies and she loves me."

Acting out his feelings can be very helpful. A doll can represent the baby and the child can act out his fantasies in the safety of your loving attention (when the baby is not present.) Reassure him of your love in an authentic way that validates his doubts: "Are you afraid that I don't love you when you wish to get rid of the baby? I love you no matter what you do or think. It is fine to have these thoughts, you can always tell me everything. I love to listen and to get to know you." And, "Are you worried that I don't care about you when I hold the baby?" You can express your love while holding the baby and while nursing, "While I nurse your baby sister, I love you. I love you no matter what or whom I hold. I love you all the time."

Your son's whining is his way of holding back crying. Once he feels safe to think what he thinks and feel what he feels, he may let it all out with crying instead of whining. He may use small and meaningless occurrences as reasons for crying. Welcome his act of release with loving arms and open heart. He wants to know that he can safely feel and sob and show you his inner dark places without losing your love.

It is when you are with the baby and he feels excluded, that his doubt in your love and in his self-worth grows. He can only believe that you love him and that he is worthy and important, when he is with you alone and has your undivided attention. To do so, your partner, relative, or friends can hold the baby (when not needy of mom) allowing you and your son to connect. In addition to these daily set times, find random breaks from the baby to create a loving connection with your older child. Daily activities like showering or eating can become opportunities for sharing love and appreciation.

There are times when you just can't meet your child's needs, as when you are nursing a tired baby and your son insists on jumping around and being noisy seeking your companionship. Validate his feeling and give a wider view: "You want to be with me and the baby is nursing to sleep." Then give him hope, "Once the baby is asleep, I will play with you." Be creative in finding ways to include him, but if there is absolutely no possibility, validate his feelings and express your joy in anticipating being with him soon. Although sensitive, when their emotional expression is unhindered and cherished, children can grow to be emotionally resilient and face reality with awareness, strength and wisdom.

Naomi Aldort is the author of, Raising Our Children, Raising Ourselves. Parents from around the globe seek Aldort's advice by phone, in person and by listening to her CDs and attending her workshops. Her advice columns appear in progressive parenting magazines in Canada, USA, AU, UK, and translated to German, Hebrew, Dutch, Japanese and Spanish.

Naomi Aldort is married and a mother of three. Two of her sons are professional teen musicians you can see and hear: fourteen-year-old cellist Oliver Aldort And pianist/composer Lennon Aldort For more information: or

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