Saturday 20 April 2019

Dear David Coleman: How can I get my toddler to accept his baby sister?

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David Coleman

David Coleman

Clinical psychologist David Coleman offers parenting advice in his weekly column.

Q. Can you give me some advice on how to cope with a three-year-old boy accepting his new baby sister into the family? She is nine months old now. He really does love her very much and misses her terribly when she is not there but when she is around he must be watched very carefully as he is likely to scratch her or hit her. We get cross, and his dad slapped him one time just so he'd know how unpleasant it is to be hit, but it has made no difference. I guess it's just jealousy but how can help him cope so that he doesn't hit her again!

David replies: As some parents will tell you, it can feel like some children never accept their new sibling, with sibling jealousy or rivalry continuing in some shape throughout their lives. That said, I do think there is a lot we can do to help older children with the transition to becoming older brothers or sisters.

Before I get too far into the response to you, however, I do want to counsel yourself and his dad not to slap him. Slapping children is never an acceptable, or helpful, way to guide their behaviour.

The irony is that by slapping him, you may in fact be reinforcing the notion that when we are unhappy about someone and something they do, that it is OK to hit them. Typically we slap when we are at the end of our tether, giving children the message that if you are unhappy or distressed that something isn't going your way, it is OK to hit out.

Slapping children normalises a view that aggression and violence are an acceptable means of trying to control others. Children will experience the slap as punitive and may even feel that it was unfair, leading to a sense of injustice that may then fuel further misbehaviour. Slapping your son will not get him to stop hitting his sister, it may even make it more likely that he will hit her.

Many parents will try to prepare their older child for the arrival of the baby, but this can be difficult, because, in truth, so many of us have no idea what it's going to be like to change the dynamic in the house from one child to two.

We too can be caught unawares by the massively increased workload, and the stresses of meeting the needs of a baby as well as a toddler or pre-schooler.

So, your son probably also had to actually experience having his little sister before he could work out how he felt about her and how he should respond to her. I could imagine that at age three, he has very mixed emotions about having a little sister.

On the one hand, as you describe, he loves her and may feel protective of her, missing her when she isn't around. On the other hand, we could anticipate that he has lost out quite a bit by her arrival.

He may have immediately experienced a reduction in the time and attention that you and his dad could give him, as your time naturally now has to be split between the two of them.

He may also have felt that his star shines a little less brightly, since uncles, aunts, grannies and granddads may have been much more focused on the new arrival, and they too may have been paying him less attention. All of this may have led him to feel jealous, hurt, angry, displaced, left out and more.

The fact that his sister is now probably crawling, may have also changed his view of her. As a tiny infant, she may have appeared harmless. Now as an active mover in the world, she can potentially disrupt his games, or come to you to be noticed.

His emotional response to these changes is probably quite complex. Since he is only three, he is unlikely to be able to explain that complexity to you, and so he could be just showing you how unhappy or frustrated he feels about the current family dynamic.

Hitting her might be his way of showing this to you. So, rather than getting hung up trying to discipline him, focus more on understanding him and his perspective. Show him that you might understand how potentially disruptive her addition to the family has been for him.

We often forget that the comparatively big boy in front of us was our recently our baby and that he still needs our minding and our presence to help him out.

Even if he doesn't engage in a conversation about it, using empathy and understanding with him will help him process any jealousy far more effectively than giving out or slapping him.


My husband died by suicide last year and I am really struggling to cope with my two small children

Q. I lost my husband, to suicide over a year ago and I've been left to rear two small children now aged four and almost three. It has been such a difficult time for me. I alternate between despair and fury. I just feel so overwhelmed a lot of the time. My big problem though is that the children are pretty much out of control. Their behaviour is appalling and I just don't seem to be able to get them to behave. I end up screaming at them a lot, which I know is bad. In fact, the whole atmosphere in their lives is so negative and full of conflicts. Have you any advice?

David replies: What a tragic situation to be in. I can only imagine the range of feelings you must have in relation to your husband's death. The despair and fury that you mention make good sense in terms of what has happened.

As I was reading, I wondered if another part of the picture might be that you resent the burden of caring that has been placed on your shoulders. Having young children can be a challenge in any family, but in the face of a bereavement and, possibly, feeling abandoned by your husband in the way he died, that challenge may be magnified for you. No wonder you feel overwhelmed a lot of the time! You have been placed in a very difficult situation.

You don't mention it, but I wonder also about what kind of emotional and social support you have? Have you any extended family or close friends that can help you, both as a shoulder to lean (or cry) on, or to help in practical ways with minding the children?

If so, then take full advantage of it. If you haven't up to now, then this may be the time to reach out.

I know you are writing to me to get help to deal with your children's behaviour, but in terms of help, I think you may need to prioritise your own needs first.

I am a steadfast believer that if we don't mind ourselves, as parents, we cannot mind our children.

For example, in order to be able to help our children to regulate their feelings or their behaviours, we have to feel on a even keel ourselves, such that we have the availability to be able to respond to their needs.

When parents are overwhelmed, physically or emotionally, they will often experience their children as being harder to manage. Toddlers and pre-schoolers, especially, rely on the adults around them to soothe and regulate their strong feelings.

At that age, children will often act out those strong feelings in misbehaviour, almost as if trying to show their parents that they are upset or distressed.

There will be things you can do, in due course, to be firm but kind in setting clear and consistent limits on their behaviour.

You can apply techniques of positive parenting, such as distraction, humour, and managing the environment to lessen their chances of making a mess, or getting things wrong, offering hurdle help to get them past some points of frustration with things they are struggling to achieve, and so on.

But, in truth, shifting to a different parenting style that is authoritative and takes account of their need for structure, rules and expectations of behaviour, while at the same time being warm, understanding and responsive to their needs, will take a huge amount of effort, both physically and emotionally.

I think you need to mind yourself to get yourself into the space where you can take on these kinds of changes. Beginning to process your grief (which will probably include your despair and your fury) about your husband's death, the manner of it, the loss of him and the complexity of perhaps feeling abandoned and burdened, needs to be your first priority.

This may be a good time to seek counselling or therapy for yourself. That might be the first step in minding yourself emotionally, creating greater freedom and space to be able to then look at the needs of your children.

Your whole world may feel turned upside down at present. You need some time and some help to reorient yourself, to be able to recreate that sense of stability in which you can become the best parent you can be.


If you have any parenting queries for David Coleman, please email Please note that David cannot enter into individual correspondence

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