Dealing With Sibling Rivalry: When A Toddler Bashes Baby (or Preschooler Bashes Toddler)

Shawn poses as this unassuming urban Dad who backpacks around with his two young kids while his wife toils away at a high-powered job.

But in reality, he's scary-smart, this close to getting his PhD at Stanford, in philosophy -- of all things. He can write (and backpack) circles around me, and in the couple of years we've both been blogging he's built up a massive following and hob-nobbed with all the big online names. All while I'm toiling away in obscurity, 2500 miles away from the action. (Don't feel too bad, though, since I'm in Hawaii.)

So I was happy to oblige him when he asked for a guest post -- that is, until he suggested a topic that has been argued and written about for thousands of years -- sibling rivalry. Typical philosopher. I reminded him that HE'S the one who still needs to finish his dissertation, not me. But last I heard, he had bailed out of the library and was headed down to the Happiest Place on Earth, so it looks like that PhD will be claimed another day.

But I hope you come check out my advice to him over at Backpacking Dad, because I gave him some ideas that should help you smooth out the relationship between your young kids, too. Toddlers bash on babies, preschoolers bash on toddlers, but there ARE things that we, as parents, can do to minimize the bashing (and maintain some semblance of our own sanity.) And thanks for the guest spot, Shawn. (Now -- get back to work!)

Aloha, Dr. Heather The BabyShrink

Child Discipline: Discipline Tips & Techniques for a 3-Year-Old

Dear Dr. Heather, When my 3-year-old son hits, pushes, or bites me, my husband, or his 6-month old sister, or is throwing things or generally being threatening (he likes to act like a mad dinosaur), our response is to tell him he needs to calm down and spend some time playing quietly in his room. Theoretically, this gives him a chance to calm down, plus teaches him that the consequence of misbehaving is that he doesn't get to be around the rest of us. He gets to come back downstairs whenever he feels he's ready to be nice.

In the last week, though, he has started really testing how much he can pinch, slap and otherwise hurt his sister. This culminated in him biting her thumb - HARD. He had missed his nap and it was late afternoon, but otherwise things were calm, we were relaxing in the bedroom, and he had climbed up on the bed to give her a hug. While hugging, he apparently decided to bite her. Thankfully it didn't break skin, but it was close. Our response was to make him spend the last few hours of the day in his room playing quietly, although we let him come out whenever he had to use the restroom and to join us for dinner. We tried not to be overly dramatic about it, and talked about how he needed to stay in his room because he isn't allowed to bite or hurt his sister.

What are your thoughts on our discipline approach? Is it ineffective because he gets to play in his room (i.e. is a "naughty chair" a better approach?). I like the idea of having a consequence that is related to the crime - removal from the family area and time alone if you are not behaving as expected toward family members - but only if it works. And the recent biting and acting out makes me wonder, but maybe that's typical behavior toward a sibling. Also, he is really focused on talking about how I love him even when I'm mad, which of course I confirm and say I love him no matter what, all the time. But I worry we might be messing with his psyche in some unknown way. Okay, so I'm worried about that a lot! Your thoughts are appreciated.

Thanks,

Cherise

Hi Cherise,

I must say that you sound very thoughtful in your approach; your thinking is right on. You seem to have developed a way of thinking through these situations that makes sense, based on your kid. Bravo!

I do think, though, that he's too young to spend an afternoon in his room; it's simply too long, at his age. The usual rule of thumb is about one minute of time-out per year of age, so he shouldn't have more than about 3 minutes in his room. Any more than that is overkill.

His biting should be met by immediate attention to the "bite-ee", plus an unemotional reminder to him about the rule against "no biting". He can then be removed for a time out, and when he returns, have him check on the "bite-ee's" condition. "Check and see if your sister is OK. She us how you can apologize." Don't over-react to biting, but make sure your approach is consistent. Overreacting is likely to INCREASE the behavior, so respond unemotionally, but firmly.

His asking about "Do you love me even when I'm mad?" is fine....as long as he's not using it to distract you from doling out some kind of consequence. I think it's great to introduce him to the concept that even though you may or may not like his behavior, or even if YOU'RE having a grumpy day (Moms are allowed!)...you love him, no matter what. And that people can get mad at each other, but then get over it; and still love each other the whole time. "Anger" doesn't equal "loss of love". That's a difficult -- but important -- concept to start conveying to your kids, even in their early years.

In terms of "naughty chair" vs. "time out"...I think it totally depends on your own preferences, the layout of your house, and last but not least....WHAT WORKS BEST for YOUR PARTICULAR KID. For some, a quick trip to the end of a hallway met by a closed door is enough to turn around the behavior. Other kids need longer time outs, or more specific locations that work best. Experiment. GO BY WHAT WORKS.....that's a BabyShrink theme.

There are also some relevant tips to look over in my "Biting Babies" post; click here to check it out.

Aloha,

Dr. Heather The BabyShrink Mom of Four, Parenting Expert

Parenting Tips: Do We Overprotect Our Kids?

Dear Dr. Heather, I have a daycare question about my 7-year-old twins; they go there on school breaks. My question is whether we are overprotecting them. How do you balance between teaching kids to stand up for themselves -- and protecting them?

Their provider's eight-year-old son is very big and plays rough. Without tormenting or actually bullying them, he sometimes holds them longer than they would like, or accidentally hits them. They say it's not on purpose, and trust me, my son is a tattle-tale, so I'd know. They don't seem at all afraid of him, but they get angry (understandably). His mother's response is to spank the boy after the fact. I would rather have it prevented than punished. On the other hand, I want them to learn to say no if they don't want to play with him, or if he gets rough. We could take them out of this daycare, role- play standing up for themselves and talk with the provider, or leave things as they are if we are over reacting. Both my husband and I were teased and I was bullied as a child, so I can't tell if I'm over or under-reacting to this situation.

I also wonder about playing alone outside. They need to be able to play outside sometimes without close supervision at this age, I feel. Is this wrong, and I'm expecting too much for their maturity level? It seems like in the 70s I was riding my bike around the neighborhood and playing unsupervised at their age.

I would love your advice! Mary H, Grand Rapids MI

Hi Mary,

It's a very complex question you ask: How much do we push our children to stand up for themselves -- and when is the right moment to jump in and protect them?

And you're right -- it is a different time we're in now. Most of us (of a certain age...ahem) remember riding bikes until dark (without helmets, of course), exploring uncharted neighborhood territories with only our pals along with us, and riding without seat belts, in the front seat of the car (in my case, I remember riding in the front-seat FOOTWELL of our VW Bug!)

Our parents think we're nuts about all this safety stuff. We all somehow lived...isn't it good enough for OUR kids? And to a certain degree, they're right. Our society does place an inordinate amount of scrutiny on the moment-to-moment activities of our children. They're not able to run free and just PLAY, and have unstructured "down-time". Free play, just for the sake of PLAY, is really important to the development of children. We schedule them like mad, and then wonder why they have ever-increasing rates of emotional and academic problems. There's just too much pressure to perform, every minute of the day. So you're right to wonder about letting them tackle their own problems, and having some room to grow.

But it is a different time -- we're more sophisticated today about safety issues, and we also understand that bullying can be really damaging to kids. So there is more than a kernel of truth in the approach that says we'd better watch our kids carefully, and intervene when necessary.

So how do you strike that balance?

That depends on your unique kids. Each one will have different needs for supervision, at different ages. Some may need a lot of coaching for how to negotiate complex social situations, like the one you describe. Other kids will have more of a knack for handling themselves. Similarly, their need for constant supervision will vary from kid to kid.

So this means you need to KNOW YOUR KID. What are their strengths and weaknesses, in social situations? What is their judgment like? Are they likely to cave in to peer pressure, or can they hold their ground? Are they leaders, or followers? Impulsive, or analytic? Constantly evaluating your kids in this way will help you know what they CAN handle, and what they still need your help in tackling. And don't worry if they DO still need your oversight; social situations are one of the most complicated things our brains process, and they are mostly handled in the outer cortex of the brain; the last to develop in humans. In fact, it looks like these brain areas are still a work-in-progress until the early 20's. So don't hesitate to step in and help your kids think through these things.

The other issue for you, Mary, is that your kids are in a daycare. Your daycare provider is being paid to keep your kids safe -- and so she'd better be watching them closely. Just for the sake of liability, she must provide them with an inordinate amount of structured, safe care. So SHE may be overreacting to her son's acting out. But I certainly think it would be fine to approach her with your observations about your kids, and let her know that you're fine with letting the kids hammer it out themselves in most cases.

And your idea about role-playing with your kids is terrific. I think that's something every parent should do, starting at about the age of 4 or 5; play-act tricky social situations with your kids. Take examples from scenes you have witnessed with them. Wait until everyone is feeling good and you all have some time. Then talk to them about how they might handle a tricky situation. "Let's play pretend. I want us all to practice what happens when a friend wants to play tag, but you'd rather go on the swings. What can you say to them?" I find kids really get into it, and even start suggesting wrinkles in the scenario. I think you'll be pleasantly surprised to hear them echo the lessons they've learned with you -- when they're out on the playground.

As for so many of the issues we struggle with here at BabyShrink, this is not a "One Size Fits All" solution. But by following your own knowledge about your own kids, you'll find that balance over time.

Aloha,

Dr. Heather The BabyShrink

PS If you're interested in learning more about the importance of PLAY in childhood development, read this great article in the New York Times.

Toddler Behavior: Help! How Can I Stop My Toddler from Hitting our Pets?!

Dear Dr. Heather, My 15 -month-old terrorizes animals. We have a small dog and a few cats, and any time the child sees one of them she goes running over with her arm cranked back to whack it. If she has anything in her hands she will use it as a club. If the animal is on the ground she will grab it by the back and try to crush it into the floor and sit on it. After this greeting she will say "gentle" and pet the animal nicely, evidently to make sure it appreciates the difference.

We don't smack her, we don't smack the pets, so why is she so violent? How do I get her to stop before she gets bitten? Luckily we have very complacent pets but I'm sure even the most patient animal will defend itself eventually.

Thanks for your advice, Christine

Hi Christine,

I know it's hard to see your baby so aggressive with animals. Now that your toddler is big enough to move around and check out her environment, she wants to feel, grab, and test everything out. We're all born with aggressive instincts; it comes from evolution and our animal roots. But she has no way to understand that aggressive handling of things will negatively affect them permanently. She can't yet understand that crushing the kitty will HURT it. (And she won't understand it yet, even if you explain it to her a million times.)

She's not yet cognitively able to understand the impact of her actions on others. She's just exploring, and using her own natural (and normal) aggressive instincts. But it's not really "violence", in the sense of really intending to hurt someone. So don't jump to conclusions about your toddler's personality or temperament. She's just doing the usual toddler thing. And she's clearly also trying out the "gentle" actions she has seen you model.

So, what to do? Your daughter is at what I consider to be the most difficult age of childhood; the 10-20 month window is when babies become toddlers, physically, but they haven't yet fully transitioned into their non-baby minds. So what you get is a big, mobile baby, not fully in control of her body, with all this pent up energy and interest in the world, and not a lot of coping strategies to manage the unavoidable frustration that comes along with it. My shoulders still tense up when I recall my own kids' passage through that very tricky time.

Johnny Depp said that having a toddler is like constantly being on suicide and homicide watch. You always have to be prepared to prevent your toddler from killing herself, or someone else. It's a dangerous time! All you can really do is provide as much safety and structure as possible -- and this usually means a 1-1 parent-kid ratio at all times, until she gets into a slightly more predictable (and manageable) stage.

But with all that parent-toddler time, you do have the opportunity to model good behavior, demonstrate how to touch others (including animals) appropriately, and generally navigate around the great big world. Many of your lessons won't bear fruit for quite some time, so pace yourself. But feel confident that eventually, your daughter and your kitties will be the best of friends!

Aloha, Dr. Heather The BabyShrink

Parenting Tips: What Should I Do If My Baby Is Difficult To Console?

Is my baby just "difficult", or is there something wrong? And if I do have a "difficult" baby, is there anything I can do about it? BabyShrink reader Tina is struggling with this issue. She writes: Dear Dr. Heather,

I need some good advice on how to stop my 2-year-old from screaming for everything she wants. She doesn't yell just for fun; it is always out of anger. I hate to sound negative, but she really has seemed like a miserable soul from day one. She was a very hard baby to console as an infant, she is strong willed, and throws huge tantrums. I have tried telling her to ask mommy quietly, and that works a little, but she keeps doing it. The tantrums we pretty much ignore as much as possible until she calms down and then we talk to her, but is that doing much good? She also screams out in the middle of the night.

Another problem is that she won't go to anyone but me, not even her daddy! This really bothers me and I don't know how to handle it because it makes me feel very trapped. She is OK after a bit of crying if I leave her with someone, but if I'm there, she wants nothing to do with anyone else. Is that normal?

Thank you for whatever advice you can offer, because I don't know where else to turn.

Tina

Dear Tina,

Like many parents out there, you are having a tough time with your little one's behavior. You wonder whether there is something "wrong", per se, or if this is simply her personality and temperament? And if so...what then?

You ask about your daughter preferring you to all other adults. It is common for a toddler to show a strong parental preference for one parent over the other. And this changes over time; when she's three or so, she'll likely start becoming more interested in her Daddy.

I'm worried that you feel she has been "miserable" since she was born. First, find out if there's a medical or developmental problem. Start with her pediatrician, and share your concerns. Are there digestive problems? Some other medical concern? Get treatment for that first. Some pediatricians have a good "take" on infant temperament, and might have something helpful to suggest in that regard as well. You can also ask for a referral to a pediatrician who specializes in Developmental/Behavioral pediatrics. These are specialists who are trained to evaluate child behavior and temperament more fully. They may also be "plugged in" to a larger group of Early Intervention specialists who can help too.

In the process, it would be worthwhile for you to look into the Early Childhood Intervention programs in your area to see if there is someone who can help you with this. All communities in the United States have a free program that will evaluate the development of any referred child, from ages 0-3. They will look at all domains of your baby's development (including social and emotional development), and offer intervention services, if needed. Ask your pediatrician's office for the name of your local agency. It's important to know that your baby's development doesn't just refer to rolling over, walking, and talking. Her emotional and social skills are a crucial part of her development as well.

If this is not a medical or developmental problem, it could be a problem in the parent/infant relationship itself. All babies are different, and some have truly challenging personalities. Some parents are lucky enough to have a complementary temperament; they can "roll with" their challenging baby's antics. But most of us struggle with frustration as our challenging babies "push our buttons".

What strikes me about your question is the fact that you feel "trapped" and helpless. This isn't so unusual, and I don't want you to feel guilty about it. But it does show that you need help and support in dealing with your daughter.

There are a few well-trained therapists out there who specialize in Parent/Infant Therapy; they work with the parent(s) and baby together. They seek to understand the unique personalities of the parents and the baby involved, and help everyone cope and adjust better. One of my Child Development Heroes, Dr. Donald Winnicott, wrote that "there is no such thing as a baby". A baby cannot exist alone. There is only a parent AND a baby, together. Therefore therapy can't be focused on only the infant; the main caregivers need to be involved as well.

This kind of therapy is extremely effective. Please don't hesitate to try it if you need it. I also suggest that you reach out to other friends, family and community resources to help you feel more supported in what sounds like a lonely struggle for you.

You can also read Stanley Greenspan's The Challenging Child. Dr. Greenspan is an excellent resource on child development, and the book is in paperback.

I'd also like to hear from other readers out there who have struggled with the temperaments of their babies. What tips can you share with Trina?

Aloha,

Dr. Heather The BabyShrink

Parenting Tips: BabyShrink's Hubby Referees Playground Battles

Mr. Dr. BabyShrink, introduced here, is the playground expert. So I'm letting him handle the following question, sent in by reader Ben: Dear BabyShrink, I have a 3-year-old son who gets pushed around on the playground. He is active but friendly. At the playground, my wife gets involved and tries to work out the disagreements that occur between our son and other children. She becomes too protective, and I think I can be the same way. When do we let our son take care of his own battles, and when do we step in?

Ben in LA

Dear Ben,

Here's What Not To Do When our daughter was about the same age, she was pushed flat on the ground by a little girl on the playground. I immediately went into “kick ass mode”, and yelled “Hey you, little girl” at the top of my lungs. I immediately saw that I had scared both girls. I tried to collect myself as the other parents gawked, and I realized I was over-reacting. I walked up to the girl who did the pushing and said, “Honey, we do not push at the playground. We wait our turn. When she's done, it will be your turn”. I could see that both girls didn't hear one word I said. My daughter was still startled and frightened by my tone, and the other little girl was just staring at this big man who had yelled at her.

After talking with our daughter later, she was able to say that she was most upset about me, and not the altercation with the other girl. I had to apologize for my over-the-top reaction, instead of helping her figure out how to handle other kids' pushing on the playground.

Here's What I Should Have Done In the future I will let my BabyShrink wife handle playground skirmishes. But in all seriousness, it would have been better to have stayed quiet, and allowed my daughter to handle it herself first. She was not in any real danger, and I was right there if she needed help. I think it’s natural for parents to over-protect and over-react in these kinds of situations. However, reacting this way, we are conveying the message that the little one cannot handle their own affairs. Parents get in the way and become the focus of the problem, instead of allowing the child to learn to resolve the situation on their own. Children develop incredible social skills by handling difficult situations on their own, as long as safety is not an issue.

Help Them Think It Through, For The Next Time After a parent witnesses “a situation”, it is helpful to talk to your child about the way she handled it, and help to brainstorm other ways of dealing with it in the future. We need to put our Neanderthal instincts in check as much as possible. Our kids will stop bringing these situations to us if they know we will over-react. Children will lie to please their parents, instead of discussing the difficult situation.

When parents become too emotionally charged, it usually does not lead to a good outcome. This is one of the most difficult aspects of being a parent: keeping your emotions in check. How do you do that? Take a deep breath and think about how your response will be heard by your child. "Good enough parenting" takes thought and sensitivity. Show understanding, and confirm the facts. Don’t make a scene. Children do get bruises on the playground - don’t have a coniption about it. Calmly teach your child how to verbally defend herself. And if that doesn't work, have her ask a parent or teacher for help.

I want to thank my friend Jeff for helping me edit this post. Jeff is the stay-at-home Dad to four kids, ages six and under!

Child Discipline: How To Give "Time Out" to a Toddler

When your baby becomes a toddler, it's very exciting. But with all his new skills comes the need to set firm and consistent limits; both for his safety, and for your sanity! Lots of you wonder how, and when, to give a Time Out to a toddler. And is it OK to do it, even if he doesn't "understand" the concept? Reader Kelly has this dilemma: Dr. Heather,

My 14-month-old son has developed a scratching habit. It started with him scratching me for a reaction. I would firmly say, "NO, scratching hurts mommy." This led to more scratching. He does it if he's angry, or just because. I tried Time-Out, but I'm not sure he's understanding the concept. We're trying Dr. Harvey Karp's "toddlerese" which doesn't seem to work with the scratching, because most of the time he seems to do it out of the blue, and I don't know what he's feeling in order to show I understand his needs. Any ideas on ways to prevent this?

Kelly From Maryland

Time Out for a Toddler

Dear Kelly,

A 14-month-old is just starting to get the idea that using his new-found skills in controlling his body can lead to some interesting results. Your baby was used to being the passive recipient of action all day; people picking him up, putting him down, giving (or taking away) food, toys, or arms of comfort.

Now that he can walk and better control his body, it's a whole new ballgame. HE gets to be in control! HE gets to experiment with ways of getting (and keeping) your attention. He's also not quite sure how to modulate the force of his touch, either. He's experimenting with what's OK; how hard (or soft) to touch others. So, your approach should be to model nice, gentle touching, and to provide consistent, firm limits when he's aggressive.

Focus on how to touch others nicely. Point out how well he touches others, when he's in the act. "I see you petting the kitty so gently. What a nice job!" Demonstrate with his peers. "Can you show your cousin how you touch nicely? I like how you patted her back so softly." Do lots of positive reinforcement of the behavior you want him to repeat.

Other times, he will need limits. When you say you're not sure he understands the concept of Time Out; I'm sure you're right. A 14-month-old certainly won't "understand" it, at least until he’s experienced it many, many times, consistently, for the same offenses. But Time Outs have a cumulative effect, and soon, he’ll get the message.

Try this three-part approach:

  1. Immediately (and briefly) explain the infraction, and the consequence. “No scratching. Time Out.” Use a firm, but low voice; you want to get his attention, but not let him think he’s got you really upset. (You don’t want to reward him if he’s just doing it to get your attention.)
  2. Find a convenient corner or other area that’s removed from the usual action. Sit with him, and have him face the corner. At 14 months, you’ll probably have to gently hold him there for the duration of the time out. At this age, I would suggest 30-60 seconds, depending on your child’s temperament. (Some get the message more quickly than others!) When he protests, simply repeat, in the same, low voice, “No scratching. Time Out.” Don’t get into explaining or yelling. He won’t understand it anyway. You just want him to realize that scratching immediately results in Time Out.
  3. And when Time Out is over; it’s OVER. Say, “Time Out’s all done.” And then move on; don’t lecture or rehash the event, or ask him to apologize. At this age, all you can hope for is that he’ll internalize some control over his aggression.

It’s also a good age to start showing him there’s a time and place for everything. Make sure he has ample opportunity to get physical; throwing, kicking, climbing, and yelling during playtime, every day. Toddlers need a solid, physical playtime of at least 45 minutes each day, as long as there are no health issues. Let him know that he is allowed to express his aggressive feelings, at the appropriate time and place. A toddler who is run into the ground at the park is far less likely to scratch, bite and yell at home! WEAR HIM OUT. Play chase, jump up and down, yell and holler, climb and roll. Then give him the opportunity to destroy things, when allowed; tearing paper, dumping items out of bins, and making (allowed) messes like finger painting are all good ways to positively channel a toddler’s aggression and energy. Then when he’s with you, he’s more likely to be calm and gentle.

As your little guy develops, soon he'll learn that he can avoid Time-Outs by paying attention to the behaviors you're reinforcing. "Catch" him behaving nicely, and give him a lot of praise when he does. That way, you'll be able to use Time Outs infrequently.

Hope that helps. And check out more on my strategies with other Annoying Toddler Behaviors!

Aloha,

Dr. Heather

The BabyShrink

Child Discipline: How Do I Get My Toddler To Stop Screaming?

Hi Dr. Heather,

 

My 19-month-old screams at the top of his lungs, "MYYYYYYY" for everything! Yes, we know it comes from not getting his way - most of the time. Quite often, though, we can be happily watching The Backyardigans and he starts screeching out of control for no reason. We've tried ignoring, we've tried yelling, we've even tried bottom-swatting. Help, please!

 

Landlocked in Louisville,

Amy

 Hi Amy,

Little kids need to be able to make noise, and we need to be able to hear ourselves think (once in awhile). With these conflicting needs in mind, you can let them make noise, but only within certain parameters. At 19 months, he is loving the fact that he can consciously control his body and his actions, to a greater degree now. So you have to respect that, and give him an appropriate outlet for for his gleeful screaming. You don't want to use punishment for something like this; you'll just risk an escalation of the behavior as part of his naturally being oppositional at this age.

In our house, the kids are allowed to make as much noise as they can possibly create, but only in their bedrooms, the playroom, or outside. The living room and other common areas require "inside voices".

Explain the new rules to him, once all the adults are on the same page. You want everyone to be consistent if you want the new rules to stick. At 19 months, your little guy will require reminding, but you can make it a game. "You feel like screaming? Let's go to the screaming room!" and then start screaming your head off, once you're there. Have him try to scream louder than you. THEN, make a big deal out of using "inside voices" in other rooms. Tiptoe around, talk quietly, have him follow suit; but make it fun. Soon he'll get the picture!

And check out my Toddlers section for more tips.

Aloha,

Dr. Heather

The BabyShrink

 

Parenting Tips: Dealing With Sibling Rivalry That's Alive And Well

Of the tons of emailed questions you’ve sent me, one main theme is coming through loud and clear: SIBLING RIVALRY. Dear BabyShrink,

I thought our five-year-old daughter Emma was doing great with her baby brother, but she has hit him twice. His cries of distress alerted me to what was going on. I want to stop this behavior, but frankly I am stunned by it and don't know how to help the situation. Both times I had a discussion with her about how the baby is so little and how she could really hurt him even if she didn't mean to. She replied that she hated him and hated all little babies. I told her that she still should never hit a baby. BTW, she loves little babies, I just think it's her own flesh and blood she's having the problem with. Needless to say, I am not leaving her alone with him after the second incident.

What really breaks my heart is when Emma tells me, "I need you, Mommy".  She misses me and I miss our time together; I just returned from a visit with the baby to my aunt in Florida. I did tell her that her baby brother is getting bigger and bigger and will be more fun and take less of my time.

Emma has a sister who is 17 months younger, who has accepted her little brother it seems without problems.

Help ~~ Dara

Hi, Dara,

I think Emma should be given a medal for her great verbalization of her feelings. Yes, it's true! I wish ALL 5-year-olds could tell us so clearly how they're feeling. Probably not what you wanted to hear. But I am MUCH more worried about the kids who look like little angels all the time...but have secret plans up their sleeves. The kids who keep it all bottled up often have more trouble later on.

Little ones have incredibly powerful emotions, ones that are still unchecked. As they get older, they learn more “socially appropriate” expressions of them. A great deal of development comes along to mute and contain those feelings as they get older. But for now…watch out, and don’t be surprised.

But of course, you can't allow hitting. Never. Give her the opportunity, regularly, to explain how hard it is to be a big sister, to not one, but TWO siblings! I mean, I bet she did great with the first, but this one is really too much for her! ;) Empathize with her feelings; how the younger ones mess up her things, take away your attention, and get to go on trips. Sometimes it really stinks! Letting her have the space to verbalize her aggressive feelings will lessen her need to act it out physically.

Help her control herself by not letting her alone with the baby, as you've already done, but don't make her feel like a criminal for it. "I know sometimes you get mad at Baby, and the feeling to hit is so strong, but we don't allow hitting in our family, so I will keep you with me so that I can help you use your words about it, instead of hitting."

You can also talk to her about how you know she needs you, and you will always be there for her, even if you have to take care of the babies. Try to plan something special with her now – nothing fancy, like a regular weekly trip to the grocery store, even just 30 minutes, while the other kids are with Dad or someone else. Say, "I need you to come with me on our special weekly trip to find some good fruit for the house for the week! You are getting so good at picking fruit!"  or something.  It does not need to involve anything "special", beyond regular, predictable time with you.

The other thing: when the baby gets bigger, in many ways he will be MORE of a pain to her, since he will be mobile, getting into her stuff, and requiring even more from you. So don't set her up too much to be loving that! I think in many ways, the 10-20 month age is the hardest; they require so much direct supervision, since they are mobile, but not really trustworthy yet!

I promise, a fierce and wonderful love will grow between them, despite all of this, especially if you can help them manage their aggressive feelings towards each other.

I love Dr. Brazelton's approach to these issues, so for more see his book on sibling rivalry.

Aloha,

Dr. Heather The BabyShrink

Toddler Behavior: How To Deal With Biting Babies

Dear BabyShrink, My 16-month-old son just got kicked out of daycare for biting, a habit he picked up there! I’ve heard many different ways to stop the biting habit. Do you have any suggestions on what you’ve found that works best?

Amy in Louisville

Hi, Amy,

I'm so sorry that your son's daycare hasn't found a better way of addressing this COMMON toddler behavior -- one that needn't be made into such a big deal.

Now, yes, I know that it is very upsetting to be on the receiving end of a bite, and even more so to be the parent of the "bite-ee", but we have to look at this as normal toddler exploratory behavior. Babies at this age still get a lot of their information about the world through their mouths. Plus, they’re often teething, and they’re not the greatest at explaining their wants and needs. So a bite now and then is really understandable. Some toddlers even bite to convey their love and affection for someone! Modifying the environment usually does the trick in minimizing biting.

First, give care and attention to the "bite-ee" IF he/she is upset, and certainly if the skin is broken. But if the child isn't upset, don't make a big deal out of it (you don't want to unnecessarily reinforce the biting). DO show the biter what to do instead. "We don't bite people, but you CAN bite this special toy! This is YOURS to bite!"  (Click HERE to see a photo of the kind of chewie things that Early Intervention specialists use for toddlers; we have one at home.  It's a little different than what you get at the regular baby store. They're nearly indestructible, and they're fun to chew.)

Analyze what came before the bite. Was the child tired? Overstimulated? Teething? Take care of THOSE issues first, and you should see a reduction in biting.

At home, be unemotional about biting, but firm. "No biting. If you want to bite, bite this instead." If he bites you, say, without reacting TOO strongly, "Ouch. That hurt. No biting.  Here's your bite toy." And then move on. If you have to be a broken record, do so -- you might have to for awhile. But he will eventually stop.

Maybe moving to a new daycare is not for the worst thing in the long run. Toddlers need and deserve daycare settings that know how to handle this, and other annoying (but normal!!) toddler behaviors, without making the kids look like little monsters. Try to find a new daycare that has established approaches that work with biting; you don't want a place that is scared off by a little chomping.

Aloha,

Dr. Heather The BabyShrink