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  Subject: 3-year-old boy is mean to 1-year-old sister

Question:

We have a 3-year-old boy and 1-year-old girl. The 3-year-old is high-need but generally pretty good-natured (although quite stubborn sometimes) and shares well with other children. The 1-year-old is a pretty easy baby, good-natured, and adores her brother. They sleep with us. The 3-year-old was nursed for 21 months. Our daughter is still nursing. I am a stay-at-home mom.

The older one is very mean to his little sister. I know this stuff is supposed to be "normal but it is quite distressing. We have never hit him, and we say "we don't hit in this house", give him quiet time alone and so on, but it doesn't seem to make any impression. I always bring one of them to the bathroom with me because I can't leave them alone for a second. Any suggestions? I'm going nuts!

Name withheld


Hi,

My heart goes out to you. It must be so hard to see conflict between your children, especially when you are conscientiously doing the very things that generally bring children closer.

One thought I have is that your son, being only two years older, may still have "baby needs". Many mental health professionals are recommending a minimum of three years between children, to help ensure that the older child's needs have been well met before having to share the parents' attention.

Another possibility is that if it was not entirely your son's idea to stop nursing, it would be only natural for him to feel some jealousy toward his nursing sister. Many mothers have found that tandem nursing is one way to prevent or minimize sibling problems. As it has been so long since your son stopped nursing, he probably wouldn't remember the technique; on the other hand, if he wants to try, or even "pretend", that might be helpful.

When he expresses a need to be a baby at certain times, this should be encouraged. Whenever he wishes to be cuddled, rocked, to crawl, or in any other way to be a baby again for a while, it can be very helpful to meet these residual needs. Unfortunately, our society urges parents to do just the opposite - to encourage older siblings to be responsible and mature. But if an older child believes that his younger sibling is receiving an unfair amount of attention and cuddling, he will quite naturally feel frustrated by this, and will present "baby" behavior in order to have those needs met. Unmet needs - for undivided attention, kindness, touching, and so on, will continue to be expressed in one way or another, until they are met. Meeting these needs is not only helpful in changing unwanted behavior, but it is fair and right. Every child deserves to have his/her needs taken seriously, whether they appear to be "age-appropriate" or not. All underlying needs are appropriate, in the sense that they would not be there without a reason.

In situations where jealousy and frustration have become pronounced, counseling may be the most helpful step.

Jan

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