My two and a half year old son has been hitting and biting my husband and me as well as his younger brother. We've tried time-outs as well as trying to give him extra attention if it seems like he is jealous of little brother. We've also tried redirecting him such as asking if he wants to go outside or telling him he can bite a pillow or kick a ball if he feels aggressive. Sometimes these efforts stop him temporarily, but eventually he goes back to these behaviors.
Thanks for your help,
Thanks for your question to the website. My name is Penny Davis and I am a member of the panel of people who answers questions sent to us. I have been a parent educator for almost 30 years and have two children of my own, both now adults. You are certainly not alone in the problem you have written about….many others, including myself, have had these issues with siblings, especially firstborns. In fact, if you can get inside the life of your first-born with me for a few minutes, you may be able to see how his behavior even makes sense.
First, let’s look at what life is like for first born children before the second comes along. At that time, in his/her world there are just parents and them. They do not have to share parents with anyone. All of the love and attention belonged to them. They are happy – parents are happy. Then suddenly, along comes child #2. No matter how well we may have prepared child #1 for this event, no matter how excited they seem before the actual appearance of this new baby, when the reality of a new sibling sinks in, from the first-born’s perspective (especially if they are under about 3 or 4 years of age) what they SEE happening is everyone’s attention wrapped up in the baby – feeding, changing, holding – all that attention that used to be theirs. They often assume that love is finite – that there isn’t enough to go around and now the littlest one has most of it. So, of course they are jealous, and they often will become more baby-like or will act out in angry ways in an attempt to get back some of the love and attention. It makes sense to us if we can imagine for a minute how it might be if our spouse decided to bring ‘another mother’ into our home. Would we welcome her with open arms and willingly share our space and our child and want her to be loved as we were loved?
So….what to do? Here are some suggestions that I hope might help you.
The basic need for all of us is to feel belonging and significance. It is always helpful just to acknowledge children’s feelings. Sometime when you are having some quiet time with your eldest son (bath time, or tucking him into bed, etc) you might just say something like “it’s hard having a little brother sometimes, isn’t it?”, or “I’m guessing sometimes you wish it was just you and me and daddy”. You can then reassure him that his feelings are ok, and that you have lots of love and you love him just as you always have.
The hitting and biting are somewhat normal for this age and punishing is rarely effective. You have the right idea by redirecting the anger into some more constructive outlets. It’s important for children to know that feelings are ok – and we need to teach them skills for appropriate handling of feelings. Anger and jealousy are big, strong feelings that take some time for little ones to be able to manage – we need to help them. The more calm and rational we can be and the more we can model for them what we want, the better able they will be to master those skills. When your son is about to hit or bite, try to ‘see it coming’ and redirect – ‘ it looks to me like you are getting really mad – would it help for you to do a ‘mad’ dance or have some quiet time in the rocking chair? You choose.
When he does hit or bite, rather than punish, try to treat it as a mistake, and help him come up with a solution – you can make a statement. “Ow. You hurt me! What can you do to help my arm feel better now?’ Try to encourage him to get an ice pack, or give it a kiss. Later when he is calm, you can engage him in a short conversation about what other things he can do when he is mad instead of hitting or biting.
Even these suggestions will not work immediately. Discipline is teaching….it will take time. Your son is learning, and the best that you can do, is model for him the behavior that you want, by being calm and teaching him skills to manage his feelings.
Spend quality time with him one-on-one when his younger sibling is not there. Make sure that he has time, whenever possible alone with each of his parents, even if it is brief. Involve him in helping – children this age love to be involved in setting the table, helping with food preparation, folding laundry, carrying things to the car, etc – they want to contribute to the family.
Offering choices is another great way to empower children. For example, saying to your son “Would you like cereal or toast for breakfast? You choose.” Or “ Would you like to pick up your toys before or after your bath? You choose.”
Lastly, know that siblings do adjust and, in fact, learn valuable life skills from each other. You might find it very helpful to read one of Jane Nelsen’s books on young children “Positive Discipline, The First Three Years”, or “Positive Discipline For Preschoolers”. There is a wealth of information for parents of children under the age of six in both of these books. Also, you might enjoy watching Jane share the candle story as a way to deal with jealous first born children.