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, shouts “You act like a baby!” and shoves her down, hard. Now Sophie is wailing.
If dad had noticed the game getting rougher, he could have intervened to prevent this upset 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 hard feelings brewing. But Dad, being human and a parent, was trying to do three other things and simply glad for a moment of quiet. With little kids, the mood can change so quickly. So what should Dad do now?
Should he send Henry to a timeout? That's what many experts still recommend, and it's certainly a better choice than smacking, but that will just make the child feel more disconnected from his parents, which is already part of the problem causing this aggressive behavior. There are better ways to help Henry treat his sister well.
Most children have a hard time with their complex emotions about the new baby -- usually a combination of protectiveness and a desire to flush the baby down the toilet -- and feel guilty. Over time, they develop a relationship with their sibling, but resentment often lurks below the surface, looking for expression. When the pressure of their tangled-up feelings pushes them to lash out, and parents react with timeouts, the child is confirmed in his conclusion that he’s a bad kid for being jealous of his sibling -- and in his fear that his parents prefer the sibling!
So 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 everything was so much better before his rotten sibling was born. The chip on his shoulder solidifies. That’s why timeouts don’t usually stop kids from hitting. Here's a whole article on why Timeouts and other punishments actually cause more misbehavior.
So what can the parent do to prevent aggression? Smacking and spanking teach children to hit, so that's the worst parental intervention (as substantiated by thirty years of research). And a "consequence" like taking away a privilege will just increase his resentment of his sister, which isn't a good foundation for a loving relationship. I know, it's frustrating, but punishment of any kind will just make the child feel worse and act worse. If we're serious about stopping the hitting, we need to model non-aggressive problem-solving, and help the child with the feelings that are driving the aggression.
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 all 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.
Dad: “Ouch! Looks like that hurt." Sophie nods, crying hard."Getting pushed can hurt 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 create safety by being warm and matter-of-fact, not accusatory.
Dad: “Ouch! 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 eye contact. He’s breathing deeply, working to stay calm and kind. Naturally, his face is serious. He starts by acknowledging Henry's experience.
Dad: “She certainly cries when she gets hurt, like the rest of us. I guess you must have been upset too, to push her. Sounds like that was hard for both of you. Tell me about it, 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. That looks on the surface like he doesn't feel anything.)
Dad: “That was your toy and you wanted it?” (Dad is 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. It's never okay to hit another person.”
Henry glazes over and looks away. Dad knows Henry's trying to push down 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 hate. (Trying to go under the anger to connect with 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: "I hate everything!" He bursts into tears and buries his head in Dad’s shoulder. As he sobs, Dad says“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." He isn't trying to stop Henry from crying. He's helping Henry feel safe enough to show him all that pain.
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. I'm helping Henry with his feelings."
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: "You know that I couldn’t love anyone more than you, right? You are the only Henry I have and you have the only Henry place in my heart. You are my boy and I am your dad and I will always love you, no matter what.”
Dad: "No matter how much Sophie gets, there is always more than enough for you. Maybe you worry sometimes that we love the baby more. But that is never true. You can always tell me if you’re feeling left out, or angry; you know that. I will always understand and try to help."
Dad: "What about hitting?"
Henry: "It’s bad."
Dad: "Well, it certainly hurts. But what happens when you hit Sophie?”
Henry: “I get in trouble.”
Dad: “Yes, that's what happens to you. And what happens to Sophie?”
Henry: “Sophie cries.”
Dad: “Why does she cry?”
Henry: “She doesn't like it.”
Dad: “That's right. And how do you feel inside when you hurt her?”
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?"