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Preschooler jealous of baby, developing attitude

Hi Dr. Laura,
You have helped me with some other issues with my DS (potty training, changing preschools) and I again turn to you for advice.

My son will be 4 yrs old in July. Over the last few weeks he has really become difficult to handle. He fights me on almost all issues from what he is going to eat to what he wants to wear for the day. Usually I always give him choices on things so that he doesn't feel powerless but it doesn't seem to matter he seems to want to argue with everything I say these days. I started staying home with both my kids in Feb so that I could spend more time with them. He does go to a preschool for 2 hrs a day four days a week, but other than that I am with him all the time.

I will say he also is still VERY jealous of his baby sister. She is at the age now (16 mos) where she is really starting to talk and have a big personality and this seems to really bother him. He alternates between wanting to be nice to her to shoving her or yelling in her face for the littlest of things. He is also obsessed with taking away toys from her. We always tell him it isn't nice to take toys away from others and make him give them back to her-which only upsets him more but I don't want him to think it is ok to take from her, not to mention it sends a message to her about sharing (or rather how not to share). Is this right? Should we be doing this?

I give him one on one time with him every night after she goes to bed (a good hour with both myself and my husband) so that he still feels like he has time with just us...but nothing seems to be making a difference. It is to the point where I find myself VERY frustrated with him and I really don't know how to react to his mean behavior towards his sister and his talk back sassy attitude towards me. He has even lately begun to hit me when he has a tantrum and I try to put him in time out. Do I just ignore it or do you have some suggestions on how to handle it? I am afraid if I let it go he will think it is ok to be disrespectful to his family members, which I do not want. However I feel like all I do is tell him no. For instance the other day he shoved his sister down and she split her lip. He seems unconcerned whenever he is mean to her. Like I said, he is very jealous of her and I am worried he will really hurt her one day and not mean to.

He told me today he wanted a different mom, which broke my heart. I do lose my temper when he pushes or hurts his sister and I do yell even though I know I shouldn't....I just can't seem to make him understand otherwise what he did was wrong if I don't yell; which I do know isn't the answer--I just lose my patience. The last thing I want to be is a yelling mom, I just don't know how to handle it I guess. I need some help and insight if you have any. Does this sound like normal 4 yr struggles or do you think something else is going on? Thank you for listening,
Shell

I am not Dr. Laura, but I was struck by your post because my kids are almost the same age as yours, and (like you) I have a boy and a girl.

I don't know if this is something that you have tried, but my son relates to stories. So, I told him a story about our family--how it was before his sister was born, how things changed, how he felt a little bit sad/angry, and how he would always be special to me. The first time I told him, he was transfixed. He asked for the story every day for several months...so I think it helped him understand what he was feeling. It was also a good snuggle time for just the two of us.

Shell,
I am so sorry to hear your little guy is having such a tough time -- and giving you and his sister such a tough time! It is not unusual to have a difficult adjustment to a new sibling, and he’s also at a challenging age. But most worrisome is his anger at you. He is not telling you that he wants a new mom because he is testing you. He is furious at you, and doesn’t know what to do with those feelings.

Look at it this way. He was your only child. You were the center of his universe. Enter the interloper, your darling little girl. He feels mortally wounded, heart-broken. He is in mourning with no words to express what he’s lost. What’s worse, he feels hateful toward his sister, and every time he expresses it he loses your love. He’s trapped in his tangled up angry emotions, which cause him to lash out. He feels terrible about himself for being so “evil.” And he feels your anger at him, your giving up on him. So not only is he bereft, but his doting mom has disappeared and been replaced by someone who yells at him. He may be expressing anger, but underneath, he’s heart-broken at the loss of your love and respect.

It's difficult to be three. Kids are trying hard to master all kinds of developmental tasks. Parents often crack down with too many rules and expectations. Three year olds desperately need their parents and want to please them, and are acutely sensitive to any lack of parental approval. They really can't bear it when they think you're finding fault with them, which is why they might tell you to shut up!  Then, as they approach four years old, kids often hit a difficult stretch where they want more control and get angry when they are treated in what they feel is a less than respectful manner. Because he’s angry at you for jilting him, he’s extra-prone to fight with you and get into power struggles, but he might well be doing that anyway.

Four year olds also test the limits, so that if they are allowed to treat others disrespectfully, they do. That doesn’t mean they’ll grow up to be axe-murderers, it means they’re four, and they need us to teach them how to manage their feelings responsibly. The key with kids this age is teaching them that feeling mad is just part of being human, but there is zero-tolerance for violent or disrespectful acts.

Your son is still developing impulse control and empathy for others. He doesn't actually have a lot of empathy for his sister, and he doesn’t yet know how to appropriately handle his anger. That’s why it matters so much that you model calmness. I realize it’s hard to stay patient with him, particularly when you are worried about DD’s safety. But every time you get angry at him and yell, or force him physically into a timeout, you are modeling that might makes right.

How can you stay calm when he’s terrorizing your daughter? See it from his perspective. I don’t mean let him get away with hitting her, ever. You need to set limits on his behavior. But you can certainly remember that anger is always a defense against other, more threatening emotions: hurt, fear, sadness. Your son is lashing out at his sister – and at you, with his attitude -- rather than letting himself feel his devastation at having lost his place as your special only child. Every time you react in anger, the ugly cycle will escalate. Every time you react with compassionate understanding, you send him the message that maybe he hasn’t lost you after all.

So, what can you do to improve this situation?

1. Strengthen your connection with him. Right now your son feels disconnected from you because he is so angry at you, and because (naturally) you are often focused on his sister.  We'll talk about helping him with his anger in a moment, but start by working to connect with him. You are doing great with this by spending an hour with him each evening, so that he can count on that time without his sister around. Any other time you can spend with him during the day right now is also critical. I would suggest that he also needs time with each parent individually, possibly on weekends. During that time, focus solely on him. Read to him, play whatever game he wants. Do lots of snuggling. Call this "Special Time" with him by the most special name there is:  his name. Your goal is to reassure him that you haven’t ditched him despite the presence of a new sibling, and to build a strong relationship, which will make him want to behave for you.  I also recommend you play the "fix" game with him (the second game down at the link.)

2. Give him as much control over his life as possible.
There is no reason you need to fight with him about what he wears if you let him pick his own clothes every day. Have only healthy food choices on hand, and then let him be in charge of what he eats as much as possible (although at dinner, obviously, you don't want to make a whole separate meal). As for toys, be sure there are plenty of toys that are his, that he can feel are in his control. Those should not be available to his sister without his permission and he should not be forced to share them with her. He has to share you and his dad; he should at least be able to keep his toys for himself.

3. Don’t fight with him.
No one wins a power struggle. If he's looking to lock horns, your job is to sidestep. He may want to argue with everything you say, but it takes two to have an argument. If he disagrees with you, don’t worry about having the last word. Ask him to tell you more about why he thinks that. Keep a light touch and a sense of humor. Agree whenever possible. If all else fails, give him a hug!

You don't have to prove you're right. That will just make him feel worse about himself, which will make him act worse. Let him save face. I guarantee you that if you force him to do something your way, he'll become more defiant in other areas.

It's ok for kids to assert their preferences and express their feelings; it isn't a challenge to the parents' authority. That's what any self-respecting person needs to do. The trick is setting the limits you need to without getting into a power struggle.

How? Every way you can. Stretch your creativity! Use Parenting Aikido, which is to go with his need for control but still meet your need as the parent to keep things safe. Remove yourself from the authority position. Instead of "Because I said so" you say "The rule is" and express your empathy that you're sorry, you didn't make the rule. Wherever possible, make a chart showing what needs to be done (with pictures) so you aren’t barking orders. Even when it's your rule ("At bedtime everyone brushes their teeth. See? Mommy does it too. That's the rule"), distancing yourself from being the source of it removes the child's need to rebel against you. You become the empathizer instead of the heavy. DS feels you're on his side so he's more likely to cooperate rather than fight with you.

4. Help your little guy grieve and work out his feelings of loss. As I said above, he is miserable, and is defending against those feelings by directing rage at his sister. (The best defense is a good offense.) Once he grieves and feels understood, he won’t need to attack his sister as much.

So he needs to be allowed to have any and all feelings toward his sister. You’ll need to make clear that feelings are given to us, like our arms and legs, so it's ok to have any feeling he has -- but he is always responsible for what he does with his arms, legs and feelings. (One four year old I know said to his Dad, “I just hate her, Dad. I don’t know why.” But because he was able to say it he never hurt her.)
 

Let him show you how mad he is. "Draw me a picture and show me how mad you are" or "Can you bang on this drum and show me how mad you are?" Be sure to go past the anger whenever possible to the feelings underneath: Fear that you might not love him anymore, sadness that things are different.

But be aware that his fear is so big, and he's so little, that he'll do better expressing his feelings with is body than with words. Encourage him to cry, and hold him while he does. Don’t be surprised if he needs to sob in your arms sometimes after he has been angry, or when you have read a book or discussed the baby. It’s terrific if he can get through his anger to his sadness.

5. Help Him Understand.  I love the suggestion above to tell him the story of how it was just him and you and your husband, and then is sister was born and he was sad/angry, and how everything changed for him. End with how his mom always understood and how she was always there for him and he could tell her when he was upset, and how he would always be so special to his mom, because he is the only one of him in the world.

I also love the suggestion that you tell him a  “story” to help him understand.  You could even make a little book for him. Something simple is fine -- Glue photos on notebook paper and put the pages in a loose-leaf notebook. 

Or use candles to tell this story that you have probably heard: Light a candle, for you. Then light a candle for DH from your candle. Tell him that you gave DH all your love. Then light a candle for him from your and DH’s candles. Tell him that you gave him all your love but DH still has all your love because love is magic that way. Then light DD’s candle, and again say how you gave her all your love, but he and DH still have all your love because that’s how love is.

It will also help to read him lots of books about the new baby, from the big sibling’s perspective. There’s a whole list of great books for older sibs on my website here.

6. Protect your daughter but adjust your discipline methods. Never leave DS unsupervised with the baby. Little ones cannot be expected to control those jealous emotions and the stakes are just too high to take a chance. That split lip is a warning, supervise closely. Try to avoid admonishing him. If you notice him getting rough, quickly move the baby away from him, and distract him with a question, song or story. However, if he actually hits or pushes her, remove her and and shower her with attention. (If you focus your attention on him, he'll do this again just to get it, even if it's negative!) Then set the limit in no uncertain terms: “I see you're mad. We don’t hit. Use your words and tell me.”

You don’t need to punish him for hitting her, in fact, research shows that just makes him feel worse and act worse. Instead, empathize with the feelings and offer him another way of expressing them: “I guess you were pretty mad that she had your toy. If you need help to protect your toys, call me and I will help you.”

I know that "experts" often recommend timeouts, but they actually make kids feel worse about themselves and erode the parent-child relationship, which leads to more misbehavior. Most kids can't cope with their complex emotions about the new baby -- usually a combination of protectiveness and the desire to flush the baby down the toilet -- and feel guilty. If they act out because of the pressure of their tangled-up feelings, and parents react with timeouts, they are confirmed in their conclusion that they are a bad person for hating the baby, and the situation spirals down into further tantrumming and hitting. I won't go into more detail about timeouts here, but there's a whole article on this website explaining why Timeouts actually cause more misbehavior.

The only reason kids behave is because of their connection with us. When we punish, they feel bad about themselves and misbehave more. The worse they behave, the more they need our love and compassion.

What should you do instead? Set limits, but stay connected to him while you set those limits by offering empathy. Connection is what keeps kids cooperating. There's a whole section on how to put positive discipline into practice on this website.

It is not necessary to yell so that he knows what he did is wrong. He knows it is wrong, he just can't help himself in the press of all these hateful feelings. Yelling makes him feel worse, since it feels while you're yelling like you don't love him anymore. In that case, why not just beat his sister up? I know you’re yelling because you’re frustrated. Try to remind yourself to see it from his point of view.

7. When your son starts to lose it, empathize with him
"This is so hard for you, and you are feeling so bad right now. Let's go take some space until we feel better, ok?" Then, scoop him up (lovingly). Sit with him. If he'll let you hold him, great. If he’s too angry to be held, just say "I know you're really upset right now. Take however much time you need to calm down. I'm here if you need me." Whatever you do, don't try to reason with him when he's upset, he's in no condition to hear you or be reasonable back.

If you're too upset to stay calm, then don't try to stay with him. But be clear that he is in charge of coming back to the embrace of his family whenever he's ready. Just say "I'm upset too, so I'm going to go calm down a bit. Whenever you're ready, come find me and let's give each other a big hug."

8. This is not the time for asking him to be a big kid. Expect regression. Let him be a baby as much as he wants to be. Give him lots of extra love and attention. Pick a few really important rules to enforce, and relax about things that don't matter as much, at least for now. The important rules? No hitting. No hurting. No bullying. Again, your response to these things is to set the limit, not to punish him. If he's mouthy to you, I would just say "Wow. That hurts my feelings. I don't speak to you like that and I don't like it when you speak to me like that. You must be pretty mad. Can you tell me about it?"

9. Make sure he is getting enough sleep. You may want to move bedtime half an hour earlier, or even an hour earlier, just to see if it makes a difference.

10. Start consciously cultivating your son's emotional intelligence so he can learn to manage his emotions. Empathize with him, regardless of his feelings. "It makes you mad when it doesn't work out the way you wanted." "You're pretty disappointed." "I know you feel sad right now." “You wish you didn’t have to share with your sister.”

11. Make sure he knows he still has an important role in the family. Reinforce all the wonderful things about who he is and how he contributes to the family. "I love the way you help me like this," or "I love the way you make me laugh," which note specific contributions, help your child develop a sense of why he's still a valuable member of the family. Talk often about the fact that each member of the family makes their own special contribution. The family needs each person for it to be whole.

You want to give him the message that all of him is acceptable, including his sad and angry feelings. That way he begins to learn that he can't send his sister back, and he can't always get his way, but he gets something even better: someone who loves all of him, no matter what. That's what will gradually form the core of an unshakeable internal happiness that will allow him to handle whatever life throws at him – including, eventually, being a great big brother.
--Dr. Laura

Thank you so much, I really needed this today! I really appreciate you giving me all those suggestions and your insight.
I see what I have been doing wrong and where I can make big improvements. Thank you again so much
--Shellsure to go past the anger whenever possible to the feelings underneath: Fear that you might not love him anymore, sadness that things are different.

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Anonymous commented on 16-Nov-2010 09:18 AM
I'm sitting here crying my eyes out as I read this. This is exactly what I'm going through right now and I feel like the worst parent in the world for yelling at my 3-year-old and putting him in timeouts (or trying to) for being mean to his 9-month-old sister. I also get really frustrated with his non-stop tantrums. I just didn't know what to do!! Obviously, I can't let him continue to push her over and grab her and poke her and take toys from her. I've noticed things getting worse and worse, which I now know is totally my fault. I'm going to try your suggestions as much as I can. I'm going to need a little "cheat sheet" to carry around with me so I can remember them all and use them at the appropriate moments! Thank you!!
carolina commented on 05-Mar-2011 09:29 PM
same here,I just feel like the worst mother in the world....My four year old has been really driving me crazy with her repulsive behavior towards me and towards the 5 month old baby sister...Things just keep getting worse and worse to the point that,me as a stay home mom, mother of two, with a father who is always traveling on business and NEVER around,also being in the States by myself, no family or close friends to help out, feeling extremely overwhelmed and depressed...I just get to a point that I can't stand my daughter anymore...and whose fault is it???MINE...oh well, I will also try hard to change lots of what I have been doing and hope all I have just read help get my family back on track,and get my sweet and loving little girl back....that is all I want right now, thank you all and good luck to all of us....
Anonymous commented on 21-Apr-2011 04:12 AM
Yes, thank you - this is great advice. Now I get where my 4 year old has been at (and still is) for the past 9-months. And we too have been doing it all around the wrong way. Thank you too to the Mum who asked the question.
Anonymous commented on 12-Oct-2011 03:57 PM
great advise. i hope i can follow through. we really have been struggling with our 3 1/2 yr old. we just had twins 4 months ago & he is out of control. i just feel like i want to give up on him & at time feel like my blood is boiling I am so mad. But on
the other hand feel guilty for turning his perfect little world with just daddy & I upsidedown.
Anonymous commented on 24-Jan-2012 09:56 AM
I am there too. Have 5 month old twin girls and a 4 year old boy. Thought he would get better once he knew they were here to stay . . . things are NOT getting better. We both work full time and barely have time to feed and bathe all 3 kids at night (we
alternate bath nights for boy then girls)let alone implement new behaviors. Hard to get Hubby on board with new approaches that don't involve yelling "I AM THE BOSS AND YOU WILL DO WHAT I SAY!" I am tired of doing things that don't work. I MISS the fun story
times we used to have . . . when will I get my loveable son back??? Will try this advice.
Anonymous commented on 23-Feb-2012 03:53 AM
My 3 yr old son has always been a sweet and obedient boy. He has a 7 mth old sister. But lately he just starts to ignore me and whine and cries at the slightest possible thing. Gets me so upset that I lose my temper frequently too. I am guilty of the scolding,
time-outs, and forcing him to be the big kid. Few days ago I spoke to his teacher from the childcare centre about his behavior and she had a talk with him, found out that he was upset with me because he feels that 'mummy dont play with him anymore, only plays
with his sister. only Daddy will play with him.' Broke my heart to hear this. I feel terrible when his teacher told me this. Had been trying my best to take care of the 2 of them, and I thought I did a good job. As I am a stay-at-home mom since he was born,
he was very close to me and I always bring him everywhere, until his sister was born. I know it was difficult transition for him, and it was such a relevation and relief to know that I can make things better now.

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