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3 year old upset by new baby, refusing to go to school

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Dr. Laura,

B will be 3 in Dec. He's strong willed, smart and wonderful. We brought new baby home 3 weeks ago. We expected an adjustment period and some behavior issues but wow! New respect for moms everywhere that are dealing with this.

B loves his brother and is perfect with him..helps out, etc. He gets lots of praise for doing that and for doing anything else 'good'. I'm not making an issue out of anything that isn't important...he can pick out his own mismatched clothes for example.

There are some things (safety or health issues) that I have insisted on and he has taken to having tantrums. Big ones! He's throwing everything he can reach and hitting/biting/scratching me and sobbing/shaking. I've been 'hugging' him through it and talking to him gently until he calms down. It works for the most part and preschool has been doing that too.

I normally work full time and B is in daycare/preschool full time. My mom has been taking him there and picking him up for the past two weeks. Part of our problem is her 'parenting' style has been imposed on B for two weeks. Not great for consistency. She's back to her normal work hours now so it's just me, B and baby (my husband works long hours but spends time with him in evening and weekends).

I intended to keep him in preschool at least part time because he enjoys it and I had a csect and overdid it so i'm still recovering. This morning was the mother of all tantrums because he did not want to go to school. After hugging him through the tantrum for close to an hour (he'd settle and then go off again) I gave in (the baby was also crying for a bottle by this time) and told him he wasn't going to school today. We haven't had any problems again today but there hasn't been anything else to fight about. Because of the csect I couldn't physically make him go to school. I'm not sure I should have anyway when he was clearly so upset by it.

I'm sure it's hard on him knowing the baby and mommy are home all day. But I don't want to set a precedent by giving into a tantrum. I've been prepping him all day about going to school Monday...but what happens Monday when he has the same tantrum? I know it's only been 3 weeks but how long before we get adjusted already? I'm almost looking forward to going back to work and I don't even want to be a working mom, I have to for the income. I feel like a terrible mum who can't even get her own kid dressed and to school...and would rather him be there than at home. I feel like we're trying to do everything 'right'...i've read the articles here and listened to good advice from my pedi and other moms who I respect. I feel like our best just isn't good enough for our son. It makes me so sad to see him so upset. I really want my happy boy back. 



Dear Jaci,

I'm hearing that you just had a C section, you have a three week old baby, your son has been tantrumming like crazy, and you've been parenting him through all his tangled up emotions beautifully by holding him while he cries and staying calm yourself. And you think you're not good enough? You're a heroine!

I can understand why you would feel overwhelmed and wonder if it wouldn't be a lot easier if you were just back at work. That is a completely normal response to the situation. But you should know that things will get better, and that three weeks is a very short time. This is a big adjustment for everyone.

Which brings us to B. You really want your happy boy back. He will be back, but he needs your help to adjust to this new situation. While he loves his brother, he can't help but react to your being preoccupied with this new competitor. He is worried sick that he isn't good enough somehow, which is a huge blow to his normal toddler feelings of omnipotence. When things don't go his way, he feels "punctured" and blows up. What you are doing is perfect, and his tantrums will diminish over time, but for now he just needs to cry and rage in your accepting arms.

Don't feel like what you are doing isn't good enough because B is still upset. Be proud that he is willing to express these feelings with you rather than turning them against his brother, or inward on himself. All humans have feelings, and we certainly don't want to give our kids the message that the parts of ourselves that don't feel good aren't ok. By letting him cry and rage, you are helping him move past these feelings and allowing him to have a great relationship with his brother.

So what you are doing is perfect in helping your son handle his feelings. You can also give your son some help in processing this cognitively by reading books with him about "the new baby." There is a whole list on this website of books to help your toddler deal with becoming a big brother to a new baby. Get them from the library or order them used online. I guarantee you they will help B to cope by letting him know that his mixed feelings about his brother are completely normal.

So what about preschool? I agree that your son should continue at preschool part time, not only so you and the baby get time alone, but also because he needs a world of his own that is not dominated by the new baby. Of course, getting him out the door every morning when he knows that you will be home with the baby is tricky. It will take some concerted effort on your part to create this habit.

You are of course correct that giving in and letting him stay home when he tantrums is teaching him to tantrum to avoid school. If he tantrums tomorrow, it may be even harder than today, because he may expect that you will give in. My view is that you want to "hug" him through the tantrum and empathize "You wish you could stay with mom this morning, it makes you sad to leave," but then reinforce that he is going to school "But it's a school day, the rule is you go to school, your teacher and the other kids are waiting for you, they miss you." He may settle and then begin to cry again, but I would advise you to get him to school, even if he's two hours late. If you need to stop and give the baby a bottle, do it, with the warning that "The baby needs to eat, but then we will be leaving. Do you want to snuggle here beside us on the couch while he eats and then we'll put your shoes on to get in the car?" The important thing is that your son learns that you will always understand his feelings and love him, but he will still have to go to school.

So what happens if you are not physically able to get him to school in this kind of a situation? Then you need help from your husband. I realize he is back at work now, but maybe he can go in a bit later for a week so he can do the morning drop-off? If you can't lift your son, it will be hard to enforce his going.

If that is not an option, it may be that you want to give your son a little vacation for a week or so while you recover physically. Restarting school might be harder at that point, but it might also be easier, because B's panic about the baby will start to subside. Don't worry about making the compromise of letting B stay home for a week or two. As long as you let him know that it is a little vacation because you want him to be with you and that he will definitely be going back in a week, it won't hurt and could even be very reassuring to him. He might also get these tantrums out of his system and get past them by the time his "vacation" is up.

In any case, once B is going back to school, distract him at each step of the routine with little incentives. Maybe on his first day back, he gets to bring cupcakes. Maybe he has to be the big helper and carry the diaper bag. Maybe he gets a little treat once he gets in the car, something he likes such as a small cup of special breakfast cereal he doesn't usually get to eat. Maybe he has a special job in the car, like making sure the baby is entertained, or picking the music for everyone to listen to. Maybe he is allowed to introduce the baby to his teacher. You get the idea. This is where parents learn to be incredibly creative as they stay one step ahead. You will want to ask the teacher for help to immediately involve him in an activity he loves, so that he lets you and the baby leave easily.

And if he tantrums? You hug him through it, empathize and get him to school. Eventually, he will get the clear message that tantrumming doesn't work to avoid school. But I have a hunch that with the way you're handling his tantrums they will be diminishing soon anyway.

Finally, my book Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings has a whole section on helping your child adjust during "the first year with the new baby." I think you will find hundreds of helpful ideas to support you and your son in getting through this stage faster, to help him return to his pre-baby happiness, and to help your children bond. Here's one review: "Adding a child to the family creates a cascade of challenges. Dr. Laura Markham shows parents how to avoid common sibling difficulties, and how to convey their love, even in stressful situations, so children truly feel supported. Open this book, and you'll find clarity, wisdom, workable ideas, and generous helpings of respect for parents and children." --Patty Wipfler, founder, Hand in Hand Parenting 

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