When Your 3 Year Old Hits the Baby

Henry, age 3, is playing with Sophie, 15 months, by grabbing a toy away from her.   Sophie loves his attention and giggles at this interesting game, especially because he restores the toy to her every time. But Henry is getting rougher each time, and Sophie is clinging harder to the toy. He wrenches it away from her.  Sophie bursts into tears.  Henry, feeling guilty, says “You act like a baby!” and reaches out and shoves her down, hard.  Now Sophie is wailing.

If dad had noticed the game getting rougher, he could have intervened by getting between the kids and engaging in the game: “Hey, what about me? Take the toy from someone your own size, why don’t you?  Waaaaaa… You took my toy!”   There would have been giggling all around, giving Henry the opportunity to discharge some tension around having to “share” everything in his life with his sister and his guilt about wanting to take things back from her. Dad could even have built some sibling solidarity by having the kids team up against him.

Prevention is always the best policy, when we notice feelings brewing.  But Dad, being human and a parent, was trying to do three other things and simply glad for a moment of quiet.   What should he do now?  

Should he send Henry to a timeout?

There are better ways to stop this kind of behavior. Timeouts confirm the child's fear that he’s a bad kid for being angry at his sibling. But does he spend the timeout resolving to be nicer?  No, like any normal human, he reviews why he’s right, his parents are unfair and never understand, it's all his sibling's fault, and everything was so much better before his rotten sibling was born. That’s why timeouts don’t usually stop kids from hitting and they increase sibling rivalry. Click here for more info about why Timeouts actually cause more misbehavior.

Punishment of any kind will make Henry feel worse and act worse.

But that doesn’t mean we don’t set a firm limit against violence.   First, Dad scoops up Sophie, who is howling.  He resists the urge to yell at Henry. In fact, he resists interacting with Henry at all until he can get himself a bit calmer. So he summons up his nurturing and focuses on Sophie, which helps shift him from his murderous-don’t-you-mess-with-my-baby-self to his nurturing-parent-self.

“Ouch, that hurt. Getting pushed hurts your body, and your feelings, too!… Tell me about it, Sophie.”

Sophie cries even louder for a moment, as we all do when we’re hurt and receive loving attention.  Soon, though, she recovers and reaches for the toy, which is abandoned on the floor. Dad puts her down with the toy, takes a deep breath to calm himself, and turns to Henry.

He knows Henry is feeling frightened, and no learning will happen in that state, so he tries to be warm and matter-of-fact, not accusatory.

Dad: “That hurt your sister, didn’t it?”

Henry: “I guess. She's a cry-baby.”

Dad doesn't take the bait.  He gets down on the floor next to Henry, making strong eye contact.   He’s breathing deep, working to stay calm and kind.  Naturally, his face is serious.

Dad: “Well, everybody cries sometimes. Sophie certainly cries when she gets hurt, like the rest of us. What happened, Henry?”

Henry: “She wouldn’t give me my toy.” (Henry looks blank. Is he remorseless? No. He feels ashamed, and afraid of what Dad is about to say. He's in "fight, flight or freeze" - in this case, freeze. So it looks on the surface as if he doesn't feel anything.)

Dad: “That was your toy, and you wanted it.” (empathizing).  Henry nods but doesn’t say anything.

Dad“You must have been really upset to hurt her... I'm sorry I wasn't here to help."

Is Dad blaming himself? No. He's modeling taking responsibility. That opens the door a bit for Henry to feel less defensive. He shoots a quick look at Dad—Is it possible that he might understand?—and then looks away again.

Dad: "I hear you were frustrated with her. But hitting hurts. I won’t let you hit your sister.” Henry glazes over and looks away. Dad knows Henry's trying to push away some big feelings that he needs help with. Dad moves in close, pulling Henry gently against him.

Dad: “Sometimes you get REALLY mad at your sister, don’t you?”

Henry looks at him, testing. “I hate her.”

Dad: (Ignoring the "hate" bomb.)“Sometimes you get so mad it feels like you hate her.(Trying to go under the anger to the more vulnerable feelings that drive it.)I know you tell me it isn’t fair that she always gets to sleep with us. Maybe you think she gets everything, and you get left out?”

Henry: (shouting) “I am left out! Why did you have to get a baby, anyway?! You never have time for me anymore! Why can’t you send her back?! She ruins everything!”

Dad: “You miss the way it used to be.”

Henry bursts into tears and buries his head in Dad’s neck.  He sobs and sobs. Dad doesn't trying to stop Henry from crying. Instead, he helps Henry feel safe enough to show him all that pain: "You can cry as much as you need to. I am right here. I am ALWAYS here for you, no matter what, baby or no baby."

At one point, Henry struggles away from dad and hides behind the couch, shouting "Go away!"  Dad answers respectfully "I'm stepping back. Is this far enough?"  He knows that Henry needs to feel that Dad is there for him, but not intruding, so Henry is able to control how upset he gets. (Being closer to Dad feels safer, but that makes the feelings come up with more force.)

Sophie is initially distressed by Henry's crying, so Dad does the hardest part of this process—reassuring her and keeping her out of reach of Henry's flailing feet at the same time as he tends to Henry. He has one arm around each child.

Dad: "It's ok, Sophie. Henry's just sad right now." 

Finally, Henry is done crying, and snuggles on Dad’s lap.

Sophie has wandered to the train track across the room and is happily chugging the trains around, no longer listening. 

Dad: "I know you worry sometimes that we love Sophie more. But that is never true. No matter how much love we give your sister, there is always more than enough for you. You can always tell me if you’re feeling left out, or angry, you know that."

Henry nods.

Dad: "What about hitting?"

Dad:"Well, what happens when you hit?”

Henry: “I get in trouble.”

Dad: “What else?”

Henry: “Sophie cries.”

Dad: “Why does she cry?”

Henry: “Because it hurts.”

Dad: “And how do you feel inside?”

Henry:(Looking away)“Bad.”

Dad: “Yes, Henry. You feel bad, because when we hit it hurts the other person, and it also hurts our own heart. People are NOT for hitting. People are for loving. Just like your mom and I love and hug you. So what can you do instead of hitting your sister when you feel like hitting?"

Henry: "Get you?"

Dad: "Yes, use your words and tell me. If you need help with your feelings, or to protect your toys, call me and I will always help you. What else?"

Henry: "Give her a different toy?"

Dad: "Yes, what a great idea! And if you’re really mad, could you turn around and hit the couch?"

Henry"I guess so. But what I really want is one of those punching bags. It falls over."

Dad: “You mean instead of your sister?” Both Dad and Henry start laughing. (Is this mean? I don’t think so. It defuses the tension. Sophie isn’t listening. And Dad quickly restates the limit.)

Dad: “That’s a good idea. Punching bags are made for falling down. Little sisters are made to love. Let’s consider a punching bag. But for now, I think you have a little repair work to do with your sister. What could you do to help her feel safe with you again?”

Henry: "I could hug her."

Dad: “I know she would like that, if you were gentle. Would you like that?”

Henry: “Yeah. Sometimes she’s ok. For a baby.”

Is it necessary to make Henry feel bad about what he did? 

Is it necessary to make Henry feel bad about what he did? No. He knows it was hurtful, he just couldn't help himself in the press of all these hateful feelings. Yelling, punishing, timeouts, and giving him the cold shoulder would all make him feel worse, convincing him that his parents don't love him anymore, no matter what they say. In that case, why not just make his sister's life miserable?

Instead, what does Dad do?

  • Gives Henry the message that while actions must be limited -- hitting hurts and is not allowed—all feelings are acceptable. 

  • Helps Henry “express” the emotions that have been eating at him and driving his aggressive behavior, so those feelings can begin to evaporate. This melts the armor that's been collecting around Henry's heart, so he feels less angry at his sister, and more cooperative in general.

  • Reconnects with him, so Henry knows he's valued, not displaced. 

  • Reassures Henry that he can tell his parents how he feels and get help, so he isn't left on his own in his struggle to control himself so he doesn't hurt his sister.

  • Helps Henry notice that hitting not only hurts his sister—it hurts his own heart, too.

  • Builds Henry’s capacity for self-reflection, which will help him to manage himself in the future.

  • Builds Henry’s empathy for his sister by focusing on hitting being a hurtful way to interact with another person, rather than simply labeling it as a bad act.


Henry 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.

***

This article is adapted from Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings: How to Stop the Fighting and Raise Friends for Life, by Dr. Laura Markham.

Looking for help with older kids fighting? How To Intervene In a Sibling Fight »


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