Q. My wife has just had our third child. She is everything you could ask for and has rocked our world in the best way possible. However, her big brother, who is four years old, is being a little git and is causing a lot of tension and heartache around the house. I appreciate he is acting up as he’s not the baby any more, but he is genuinely breaking my heart. He is the apple of my eye and always will be. I can’t even begin to describe what a smashing little fella he is, but at the moment neither myself nor my wife can handle him. We took him and his little sister out for lunch yesterday and he set about ruining it. The more we tried to control the situation, the more he seemed to enjoy destroying it. Could you please advise on how to handle this as it is wearing us all down? He is getting more and more upset every time he is punished, and we are getting more upset every time it kicks off.
A. The birth of a new brother or sister is a huge event in the life of any young child as they have to adjust to no longer being the baby and to sharing their parents’ attention. Some children can find this particularly hard and they can easily become resentful of the new baby and then act out or misbehave as a means of getting their parents’ attention.
This can be difficult to deal with as a parent. You are already busy with the demands of caring for a new baby, and then you have another child becoming more demanding in a negative way. It is understandable to respond by criticising or punishing the older child, but this can easily become an ineffective pattern that actually reinforces the bad behaviour. For example, when he acts out or misbehaves this could be his means of competing to get your attention and distracting you from attending to his sister.
Further, if you tell him off or punish him when this happens, this can lead him to feeling insecure and, at an emotional level, he can interpret this as further proof that you love his sister more than him. This is especially the case if he is punished in public and/or when his sister is present. This can make him more insecure and cause him to further compete negatively for your attention, thus resulting in more difficult behaviour.
The key to breaking this cycle is to reduce as much as possible the times you criticise or punish him and, instead, to use more positive techniques such as encouragement and clear instructions to help him learn to behave. For example, when taking him out to lunch with his sister, you might anticipate that there could be problems and work hard to prepare him for this to go well, explaining positively to him in advance how you want him to behave.
You can even break the trip down into small steps and use pictures to explain it to him:
(1) chatting in the car to restaurant
(2) him helping Mum and Dad order the food
(3) sitting together at the table
(4) going up with Mum or Dad to pay.
The key to making this work is to make sure to include plenty of steps where he gets your attention, to give him plenty of positive attention and praise as you go through the steps: “You are sitting quietly at the table. Great boy.” To further boost the chance of success you even include a reward at the end: “If you behave well, you get three chocolate buttons in the car.”
It is also important to have a plan of action should he misbehave when you are out, but the important thing is to ensure there is no emotional punishment in how you discipline him. For example, you could warn him that he will lose one of his treats or one of you could take him outside for a period and remind him that to keep some of his treats he has to go back in and behave. This discipline is best done calmly and positively.
In addition, there are lot of things you can do to help him adjust to having a new baby sister and to even enjoy this. The important thing is to try and improve his relationship with her. This means that you might set up joint play times where you show him how to hold her or to play with her.
If he seeks your attention when you are busy with the baby, rather than saying “no” to him, try to involve him in the care you are giving the baby. For example, you can sit him up and let him watch as you change her nappy, chatting with him and giving him attention. Or you can let him help out (handing you a nappy and so on) and then praise him for being such a great big brother. It is also important that you try to attend to him first on social occasions, for example, letting him tell some positive news first when people come to see the baby.
It is also important for each parent to set aside daily one-to-one times with him when he knows he has your attention. Frequent, short times throughout the day such as reading a story, walking to the shop, letting him help when you prepare dinner and so on can work best at his young age.
There are also some lovely child-centred books that you could read with him that discuss the experience of having a new baby in the household, and outline the frustrations (having to share) but also the benefits (having a new playmate and also having a new role as a big brother).
Over time, you want to break a negative pattern of disciplining him and replace it with a positive one, whereby he gets praise and attention for behaving well and looking after his sister, which makes him feel more connected to you and his sister and which, in turn, makes you feel closer to him and proud of your parenting.
Dr. John Sharry, Irish Times Newspaper, October 2012. John writes in The Irish Times Health+ every Tuesday.