Thursday, September 18, 2008

Three-year-old Love/Hate Relationship with Baby Brother


I have a 3-year-old daughter and 7-month-old son. Until now my daughter has been really gentle with the baby but in the last couple of weeks she has been "testing" out being a bit rougher with him (pinching his cheeks, hugging him a bit too tight, giving him a kiss but holding on until he cries.) I usually try to quietly remind her that if the baby is crying it means that he is feeling hurt and that she needs to loosen up her grip. I've asked her how she thinks it makes him feel and what else we could do to show him love. She kind of half listens with a grin and stays away for a little bit...until about 10 minutes later. I believe she is doing it to get my reaction, but I feel like I can't ignore it or say that they need to sort it out themselves. (Obviously the baby has no way to defend himself.)
Also, because he is starting to become mobile and grabbing for toys she is in the habit of grabbing the toys he is playing with away. I know that sharing is still a difficult thing for her age, but I just want to try and handle it in a way that helps out both children.
Any suggestions that you can provide would be great. I just finished your Positive Discipline book and have ordered the Positive Discipline for Preschoolers edition and can't wait to read it. I have already found the suggestions so helpful and a good reminder of the way I want to parent....from the heart but firmly.

Thanks so much, Christine


Hi Christine,
What you describe is so classic that I could have written this script for how a "dethroned" child might behave to display her love/hate relationship with the "usurper" in her world. You might want to re-read the chapter on Birth Order in Positive Discipline as a reminder of how children make decisions about themselves based on their decisions of how to find their place in the family when they compare themselves to their perceptions of their siblings.
The following candle demonstration may help you understand her thinking and a way to deal with the belief behind her behavior.

Using Candles to Deal with the Belief Behind the Behavior

There is a belief behind every behavior, but we usually only deal with the behavior. Dealing with the belief behind the behavior does not mean you don't deal with the behavior. You are most effective when you are aware of both the behavior and the belief behind it.
The following is a classic example of the belief behind a behavior. Suppose you have a four-year-old boy whose mother goes off to the hospital and brings home a brand-new baby. What does the four-year-old see going on between Mom and the baby? -- Time and attention. What does your son interpret that to mean? -- Mom loves the baby more than me. What does the four-year-old do in an attempt to get the love back? -- He may act like a baby himself and cry a lot, ask for a bottle, and soil his pants.
Wayne Freiden's and Marie Hartwell Walker have created songs (Family Songs, (Available at that help adults get into the world of children and understand the beliefs they could be dealing with based on their birth order. Their songs include seven different birth order positions. Following is one verse from the song, Number One:

Oh it's hard to be number one.
And lately it's just no fun at all.
Life was so nice, when there were three,
Mommy and Daddy and Me.
And now there's another.
And I don't like it one bit.
Send it back to the hospital
And let's just forget about it.

Four-year-old Becky, who could identify with this song. Becky was feeling dethroned by the birth of a baby brother, and was experiencing confusion about her feelings for the baby. Sometimes she loved him, and other times she wished he had never been born because Mom and Dad spend so much time with him. She didn't know how to get attention for herself, except to act like the baby.
One evening, when the baby was asleep, Becky's mom sat down at the kitchen table with her daughter and said, "Honey, I would like to tell you a story about our family." She had found four candles of varying lengths. "These candles represent our family." She picked up one long candle and said, "This is the mommy candle. This one is for me." She lit the candle as she said, "This flame represents my love." She picked up another long candle and said, "This candle is the daddy candle." She used the flame from the mommy candle to light the daddy candle and said, "When I married your daddy, I gave him all my love -- and I still have all my love left." Mom placed the daddy candle in a candle holder. She then picked up a smaller candle and said, "This candle is for you." She lit the smaller candle with the flame from her candle and said, "When you were born, I gave you all my love. And look. Daddy still has all my love, and I still have all my love left." Mom put that candle in a candle holder next to the daddy candle. Then she picked up the smallest candle and, while lighting it from the mommy candle, said, "This is a candle for your baby brother. When he was born I gave him all my love. And look -- you still have all my love. Daddy has all my love. And I still have all my love left because that is the way love Is. You can give it to everyone you love and still have all your love. Now look at all the light we have in our family with all this love." (To see a video of this demonstration, go to
Mom then asked Becky if she would like to use her candle to light the other candles, so she could see how she could give all her love away and still have all her love. Becky was excited to try this. Mom snuffed the flame on all the candles except Becky's, and then helped her pick up each candle and hold it over the flame of her candle until it was lit. Becky's eyes were shining almost as brightly as the flame of the candles.
Mom gave Becky a hug and said, "Does this help you understand that I love you just as much as I love your baby brother?"
Becky said, Yes, and I can love lots of people just the same.
What happens to us is never as important as the beliefs we create about what happens to us. Our behavior is based on those beliefs, and the behavior and beliefs are directly related to the primary goal of all people -- to feel that we belong and are important.
Mom had learned to deal with the belief behind Becky's misbehavior.
Once you understand the belief, you still need to know what to do. But first I want to tell you what not to do. Don't expect her to understand her feelings and her beliefs and her actions. Also, don't expect her to understand your explanations. When she is being too harsh with baby brother, try any of the following:

1) Use action, not words. Kindly and firmly distract her.
2) Give them both a hug at the same time. (Again, avoiding words and/or lectures.)
3) Try hugging just her when she "misbehaves." I know this sounds like rewarding the misbehavior. It is not. It is dealing with her faulty belief that she is not loved as much as her behavior. When her belief changes her behavior will change.
4) Show her how to "touch nicely," over and over.
5) Ask your daughter for her help with such things as finding another toy for her brother or for herself.
6) Supervise, supervise, supervise--so you can quickly intervene with any of the above.

Remember that there are millions of dethroned children in the world and children who did the dethroning. Most of us survive and grow up just fine.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

I See It, I Want It, I Take It.


My three year old started pre-school last year at age 2 and with that came the "take it" behavior. I see it, I want it, and I take it no matter who is playing with it. She will play tug of war with her friends over whatever it is until one of them wins. Push her way in to take a stroller from someone. If she loses the battle, she doesn't cry, fit or otherwise react, she just moves on to something else. How can I work with her to realize it isn't appropriate behavior to take toys from other people?



Dear Nissa,

What you describe is normal, age appropriate behavior. I know all children don't do it, but that has to do with temperament. You can not teach her that this is inappropriate. She does not have the brain development to understand appropriate and inappropriate. All you can do is kindly and firmly supervise. When she grabs something, intervene and distract. When I say kindly and firmly, this means to avoid saying a word. She won't understand your words anyway and the words most parents say at times like this sound like shame. This starts the long process of the development of doubt and shame in children at the time they could be developing a healthy sense of autonomy (according the child development specialist Erik Erikson). You are lucky that she doesn't have a temper tantrum when she doesn't get her way. (Brace yourself, because that too is a normal, age appropriate behavior that may be coming.) Just keep supervising, distracting, and redirecting. Eventually, she will catch on.

By the time she is 3 1/2 to 4 she will be able to understand reasoning. To avoid power struggles at this age, be sure you are prepared with lots of skills to get her involved in decision making. The books Positive Discipline the First Three Years and Positive Discipline for Preschoolers are filled with information on child development and age appropriate behavior as well as parenting skills you can use to help your child develop a sense of capability, self-discipline, responsibility, problem-solving skills.


Jane Nelsen, Ed.D