What To Do When Your Toddler Hurts The Baby

The arrival of a baby can be an extremely heart wrenching experience for a young child. She may feel excited yet also shocked and heartbroken. A mother I counselled confided to me that the arrival of her sister, when she was three, was the most traumatic event in her life; happiness seemed to have come to a tragic end for her. She felt she lost the “battle” and was replaced by someone better. One child put it to his pregnant mum most poignantly when he asked, “Why do you want another Joey?” To understand your child’s possible feelings, you may want to imagine that your spouse brings home a new partner saying, “You are so wonderful, I decided to have another one.”

Jealousy is a learned concept that has been reinforced for generations in our society, and has generated much suffering. Young children often lose their full time mum while still needing her, and they observe their spot being taken by another. When the baby is born, a toddler or a young child may feel thrilled, yet as soon as the reality of her own loss settles in, she may wish to return to the days of being the baby.

In the modern nuclear family it is very difficult and often impossible to fully meet all the emotional needs of both, a baby and a toddler or a young child. Therefore, we are unlikely to eliminate jealousy from the lives of closely spaced wee ones; but we can empower the child in the face of reality, so that she can expand her emotional capacity.

Your Toddler’s Expressions
If your child displays signs of anxiety through aggression, avoid coming across like you are protecting the baby from her. No matter how gently done, such parental response leaves the child thinking that she is “the bad one,” and that you are protecting the one you love, which is not her. Instead, show her that you know what she is experiencing. Ask her a validating question like: “The baby takes so much of my time. Do you sometimes wish to have me all for yourself?” Depending on how the child responds, you can take it even farther and ask, “Do you sometimes wish that the baby would go away?” Listen to her and make it safe for her to express herself (non-verbally or verbally) freely, so she will release the stress and will feel loved exactly the way she is. With such a vote of confidence she can see herself as powerful, rather than as a victim.

You need not be scared of your childs possible wish to rid herself of the baby and of her fantasies about it. These thoughts don’t vanish by not talking about them. On the contrary, when not acknowledged, such normal fantasies fill her with guilt and with self doubt, which she is likely to express through aggression or other disturbances. Her greatest fear is that if you knew what she felt and thought, you wont love her. Validating her worst thoughts relieves her of this fear; “Mum / Dad know what I am imagining, and s/he loves me. I am fine.”

Drawing out her fantasies or acting out her feelings can be very helpful. Hand her the doll and say, “Show me what you want to do to the baby.” Or, hand her a crayon and ask her to draw it (which doesn’t have to look like anything). One of my children said he wanted to throw his brother to the garbage, so we went together and trashed an imaginary baby. He was satisfied, because mum understood and loved him while knowing his worst fantasies. Then he went over and played with his little brother peacefully; his love was not obstructed by painful thoughts for the time being.

Make sure not to give your toddler stressful new thoughts. Stay calm and don’t dramatise. Go with her on her direction of self expression: Aggression can be stopped without negating the child’s intent. If she needs to hit, provide a doll; if she has a tantrum listen, validate and hug; if she whines or plays baby go ahead and play with her; then give her opportunities to enjoy the advantages of being older. Only she can ride her tricycle, sing, jump, help etc.

Reassure your toddler of your love in an authentic way that shows your understanding: “Do you say to yourself that I dont love you when I hold the baby? I love you so much and I am looking forward to his nap when I can play with you and hold you.” You can express your love while holding the baby and while breastfeeding him or both of them, “While I nurse him (and you), I love you. I love you no matter what or who I hold. I love you all the time.”

One on One Time
Watching the amazing bond between you and the baby, your toddler or young child may have doubts about her place in your heart. She may have lost her place at the breast, or, if tandem nursing, she now has to share this exclusive experience. She loves to have special time with dad, but she also wants mum time. She can only believe you that you love her and that she is worthy and important when she is with you alone, and has your undivided attention. Elicit your spouse’s or friends’ help to give you some time without the baby, when he is not needy of you.

In addition to these daily set times, find random moments to create a loving connection with your child. Daily activities like showering, dressing or eating can become opportunities for sharing love and appreciation. With baby in arms, you can make eye contact with your child, listen, play, read or sing to her; even a few minutes of focused connection make a huge difference.

When the Toddler Wakes the Baby
There are times when you just cant meet your toddler’s needs, as when the baby is falling asleep on the breast, and your child jumps and whines while pulling on you (with no other adult to be with her). Acknowledge her experience and give a wider view: “You want to play with me and the baby is nursing to sleep. I will play with you as soon as he is asleep. What will you want to do?” Empowering a child in the face of reality is not about sympathy, but about a vote of confidence in her ability. Your validation in a benign attitude tells her that you know she can handle it. You can ask if there is something she wants to do while she waits.

“But she doesn’t listen,” Says one mother, “she keeps jumping and the baby wakes up and screams and I am beside myself with frustration.” Yes, sometimes children give us the opportunity to hone our ability to flow with them. The toddler learns from us to either argue with reality or to flow with it. If we think that this messing of the sleep cycle will be so bad, we will find evidence to support this view and end up suffering. Amazingly, the evidence is directly shaped by our thoughts. Indeed, the thought about how terrible it would be if the baby didn’t nap is the cause of the stress. Without this stressful thought we are a lot more powerful than we realise.

I used to fret over missed or untimely baby naps until I had to speak in a conference after a sleepless night. I spoke just fine. Life was flowing unhindered by anything but my thought that I will fall apart soon. I noticed that without the thought I was able to function very well. Thereafter, when my three year old woke the baby up just as he was falling asleep, I just said to myself, “I guess he is not supposed to nap now.” And if he fell asleep later and then was up till the wee hours, I enjoyed the ride. It never turned out as bad as I predicted. Reality is always kinder than our fears. Without the war inside my head, my lack of sleep didn’t really get in the way.

Flow with your Toddler’s Direction
Expecting your toddler to be who she isn’t, distances you from her and sends a message of disproval. She needs you to affirm her experience of herself and to be guided by the way she is. Imagine yourself without the expectation that she should be considerate toward the baby, and try to see inside of you how you would then feel and act as the following example demonstrates:

A father called me to discuss a recurring difficulty between his children. “My toddler pulls the baby’s hair. I stop her and give her a gentle lesson in consideration; she sulks, stops for a day or two, and then she will do it again or replace it with something else that is equally disturbing.”

  • “Do you have the thought that your toddler shouldn’t pull the baby’s hair?” I asked.
  • “Yes, she should learn that it hurts,” he responded.
  • “Has she learned yet?”
  • “Kind of, but no. Not really. She only tries to please me.”
  • “When she wasn’t walking yet, did you say that she should walk?”
  • He laughed, “Oh. I get it. She is not ready yet.”
  • “Exactly,” I said, “and when you want her to learn now what she is not learning, how do you feel, and how do you treat her?
  • “I am upset and I treat her like she is wrong. Oh my. She must feel lousy when I do that and wonder if I even love her, or if she is worthy.”
  • “Yes, I love that you can see her pain. So imagine the same hair pulling but without the thought that she shouldn’t do it. How would you be then?”
  • He pondered, “I am not sure. I think I would feel calm and maybe sad that she is insecure.”
  • “That’s a good place to start,” I said. “When you were sure that she should learn, you didn’t see your daughter at all. I hear that without that expectation you can be present and connected to her. When you flow with her, you will know what to do or say.”
  • After a short silence he said, “I could say, ‘I see that you love pulling the baby’s hair and hearing him scream,’ while removing her hand and hugging her.”
  • “Yes. That’s unconditional love. When you are not busy wishing for your daughter not to be how she is, you can actually love her and guide her peacefully; you become a teacher of love and consideration.”
  • “I can see that,” he said.
  • “ What we expect of another is often advice we need for ourselves. Can you hear your own lesson? You expect her not to hurt her brother and to understand how he feels.”
  • “You mean I am the one who can learn to understand my daughter’s emotions and avoid hurting her?” he asked.
  • “Yes, loving her the way she is, you stay connected. No war inside of yourself or with your child. And, she learns about love, compassion and consideration directly from you. If the baby cries, hold him and validate his feelings. Without anxiety, your daughter can notice your kindness toward him.”

Indeed, no words can convey the lesson of love as does love itself. No matter how gently spoken, judgments create a feeling of failure and guilt, resulting in aggression, self-doubt and other manifestations of stress. Without your judgment, your child is free to take in the way you treat her which she will pass on when she is ready and not a minute before.

Some parents blame themselves for not being able to be so focused and wise, or for spacing their children too close together. Yet, there are no errors and nothing to regret. Children are meant to be growing up alongside human beings just like themselves. They gain emotional resilience not by avoiding difficulties, but by knowing themselves as loved and capable as they go through them.

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March 24, 2013

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