How can I get my 3 year old to be gentle with the new baby?

pramQ. My three-year-old son can be really aggressive with his little brother (eight months). He seems to get great fun out of upsetting him. It starts out with him being boisterous with his little brother or saying he wants to “play” with him, but then it gets out of hand and I have to intervene. No matter how many times I tell him to stop or to be gentle he still keeps coming back to tease his brother. Lately, I have been worried about leaving the two of them alone in the room together, because when I come back a moment later the baby might be crying. He, of course, denies anything happened.

People tell me that I should understand that he is jealous of the baby and of course I appreciate this, but I don’t think I should have to put up with this behaviour. Also, he gets lots of attention from me and his dad. When the baby goes to sleep at night for example, my three year old gets at least a whole hour playing with one of us. He is a very happy boy during this time. But I can’t give him one-to-one attention all the time when I have a new baby. How do you suggest I manage things?

A. The arrival of a new sibling can be a difficult adjustment for a young child. Up until then they had their mum and dad to themselves and suddenly they have to learn to share their parents’ attention and this adjustment comes at a time when the parents are more stressed with the demands of caring for two small children.

It is normal for children to feel jealous and to resent a new sibling which can lead to conflict. Understandably, as a parent in these situations you will intervene to protect the little brother but your actions can inadvertently make the problem worse. If you frequently criticise your son in front of his little brother or intervene on his brother’s behalf during a squabble, your son will interpret this emotionally as a sign that you favour his brother more and lead to increased resentment and negative behaviour towards his brother.

The key to breaking this cycle is to frequently get in early to divert squabbles between them and to take time to teach your son how to be a big brother and to enjoy his relationship with his new brother. Below are some practical steps you can take.

Playing together
Set them up playing alongside one another with you close by. Go out of your way to notice any time your son is kind or at least tolerant of his little brother and really give him lots of praise and attention for this. “Oh you shared your cars with J, that is kind” or “you helped J build the tower, well done” or “lovely to see the two of you play together”. This helps your son learn that he gets your positive attention for being kind to his brother and makes this behaviour more likely.

Caring for his little brother
Involve him in specific tasks such as getting clothes or opening the nappy bag and give him praise for this. Show him step by step how to be gentle with his brother – how to hold him in his lap and guide him in having safe physical (and fun) play. When anyone visits and comments on the baby, always involve him in this praise – “and yes, P is such a great help . He is a kind big brother.”

Intervene early
If you spot your son getting frustrated with his little brother taking his toys, go over and distract them before he hits out. Make sure to be always fair when you intervene. Don’t always force your older son to share and sometimes intervene on his behalf. For example, taking the baby away to play with something else so he feels supported by you – “it’s your big brother’s turn now to play with the trucks”.

Sort out his own squabbles
It can help to first acknowledge your older son’s feelings – “it is hard when J wants the same toys” – and then to try to help him solve the problem. “J wants to play with the trucks too, what can we do?” or “what can we give J to play with now?”. Even young children can come up with sophisticated solutions and learn to manage conflict with a younger sibling once they feel supported by the parent.
You can also help your son think up solutions by reading with him the many excellent children’s books that are about having a new baby in the family or learning to share with other children.

One-to-one time
Make sure there are times during the day when your older son gets your full attention. If possible, it might work better if you can make it more frequent for shorter periods of time. Tune into him as to when he might need a little bit of attention from you (such as when he is stressed or tired) and try to build your family routine around this.

Finally, continue to be vigilant about his behaviour towards his brother. Until you think his feelings have settled and his relationship with his brother has begun to improve, be careful about leaving them alone together and particularly at flashpoints when they might need a little bit of support to manage.

Dr.John Sharry, Irish Times Newspaper. John writes in The Irish Times Health+ every Tuesday.