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3 year old attitude, hitting little sister

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Hi Dr. Laura,

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 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?


Dear 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, even though he loves her, so he's full of anger he doesn't understand. On top of that, 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!

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 he needs to use his words instead of lashing out in violence. Of course, that does mean that at times his words may seem disrespectful, when he's furious. But that's a great deal better than hitting, and he will slowly gain more control over his words, as well.

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 DD? 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. Stay connected 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. Why do I say that? Because he is uncooperative with you, so that relationship needs some healing. During that time, focus solely on him. Read to him, play whatever game he wants. If possible, do lots of snuggling. 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 cooperate with you.

2. Give him as much control over his life as possible. For instance, 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 DH; 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 him 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 knows you understand, he won't need to attack his sister as much.

So he needs to be allowed to have and to show you all those 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.)

He'll do better expressing his feelings with his body than with words. 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. Tell him the story of how it was just him and you and DH, and then DD 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 all the world.

I also love the “story” with candles 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. Click here for a whole list of books for big brother.

5. Protect your daughter AND adjust your discipline methods. Never leave him 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 set the limit in no uncertain terms: “I see you're mad. I won't let you 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.”

6. Stop doing timeouts. 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. Click here for more info about 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. Click here for a whole section on how to put positive discipline into practice in your house.

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 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.

When DS 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."

7. 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," 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 is important in their own way and makes their own special contribution. The family needs each person for it to be whole.

8. This is not the time for asking DS 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. Encourage DS 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 about "the new baby" or discussed the baby. It's terrific if he can get through his anger to his sadness.

Three year olds haven't internalized happiness yet (which is what happens when kids finally are able to maintain an even keel even when things don't go their way), so they don't have a lot of tolerance to handle it when they're disappointed. And, when you think about it, things often don't go their way, since three year olds don't really have a lot of control over their worlds, so of course they're often terribly disappointed and unhappy. If parents can understand that and empathize, rather than expecting the child to just keep a stiff upper lip, kids gradually become more able to manage their "negative" feelings, and weather life's disappointments.

When three year olds are tired or stressed (from preschool, new siblings, changes in schedule, whatever), they just don't have enough internal resources to cope. So they crack, and all the frustration comes exploding out. Sometimes they just need to blow off steam, and your job is to give him a safe way to do that by letting him cry with you.

11. Start consciously cultivating your son's emotional intelligence so he can learn to manage his emotions. Empathize with your 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.”

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

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