My 3 year old is always hitting his brother

Parent Question:
My 3½-year-old son is constantly using force or hitting his 1½-year-old brother. Sometimes, I manage to catch before he does it and I am able to stop him. Other times, I turn around and he has just hit him and his brother is screaming.

I give out to him and that does not work, he just starts screaming too. I ask him why he is doing it and he can’t say anything. There does not seem to be any reason for it. I’m unable to watch them all the time. It is becoming a big problem. What do I do?

During the preschool years, it is very common for an older child to feel jealous of their younger sibling. Frequently, they deal with this jealousy by hitting out and this usually provokes the anger of their parents, which makes them feel more jealous.

This can make the problem worse because they come to believe you love the younger child more and they become resentful and hurt themselves. However, there is a lot you can do to break this pattern and to help your older boy feel secure and to get on better with his younger brother.

Be empathic and understanding
The first thing you can do is be empathic and understanding of your older boy’s feelings. Remember, at three years of age he won’t be able to tell you how he feels so you have to understand his feelings for him. Just imagine how hard it must be to go from being an only child with the exclusive devotion of your parents to having to share this love with a noisy demanding intruder.

People tend to make a fuss of babies to the exclusion of their older brothers and sisters, and of course babies need lots more attention too. As a result, it is easy for older brothers to feel left out. Further, older children are expected to make constant concessions – “Give him the toy, he is your little brother” – and can feel they are not treated equally.

Showing empathy and naming his feelings will go along way to helping your older boy cope: “I know mum is busy now with baby, but we will have our playtime together later”, or “I know it is hard sharing with your brother… you are very kind when you do.”

Coach him in how to be a big brother
Young children don’t just know how to get on with their younger brothers and sisters. They need to be taught by their parents. Set up shared playtime with your two boys. Sit between them and guide them in playing well together – “First it is your brother’s turn, then it will be yours.”

In particular, you want to show your older boy how he can be a good brother and to enjoy playing with your youngest boy. Show him how he can teach his little brother and how his brother follows him – “He really looks up to you as his big brother.” Really go out of your way to praise him any time he shares or helps his brother – “You shared your toys – that is very kind”, or “You helped him pile the blocks, that is very helpful” etc.

Also, show your older boy that he does not have to always respond to his brother and that you respect his boundaries as well – “I know these are your special toys, so let’s keep these safe from your little brother – you can play these when he is asleep.”

Make sure you have one to one time
When you have two preschoolers, it is tempting to everything together. However, all children benefit from one-to-one time with each of their parents and parents benefit from this too, in terms of enjoyment and improved relationships. Given his jealousy, your older boy in particular will really benefit from having a regular one-to-one time with you when he gets your individual time and attention.

If you are co-parenting with a partner, set up times when you divide the children between you – one with the older boy and one with the younger (making sure to switch). If you are parenting alone it can be trickier to do this, but it is still worth trying.

Perhaps you can have one-to-one time with the older boy when the little one is napping and perhaps you can have one-to-one time with the younger when the older is in preschool. Alternatively, you might be able to draw on your support network and ask a family member to take one of the boys for an hour or so.

Get in early to avoid misbehaviour
It is great that you sometimes notice your son about to hit out and are able to stop him. Getting in early like this is the best way to interrupt this behaviour. However, it is very important that you respond positively at these times. If you get angry or criticise (”Don’t you dare hit your little brother”), you are still likely to make the jealousy worse.

Instead focus on positively diverting him. For example, if you notice your older boy getting frustrated that his brother is taking his toys, and about to hit out, you can say: “It’s hard when your brother wants your stuff… let’s find something he can play instead.” If the ‘hitting out’ is avoided make sure to praise your older boy – “Well done for waiting and being so patient.” The praise will make him feel much better about himself and his little brother.

Respond positively when he hits out
Of course, you won’t be able to avoid all conflict or hitting-out incidents, so you need to have a positive plan for when these happen. For example, rather than immediately jumping in and criticising your older boy you might:

  1. First pause and try to understand what happened.
  2. Ask your older boy to explain what happened.
  3. Acknowledge feelings: “It sounds like you got cross.”
  4. Correct the misbehaviour calmy: “When you are angry come and tell Mum, no hitting is allowed.”
  5. Take a break if needed: “Let’s take a break now, until everyone is calm.”
  6. Have a consequence if needed: “No toys until you can play nicely together.”

John Sharry is founder of the Parents Plus Charity and an adjunct professor at the School of Psychology, University College Dublin. This parenting Q&A was originally published in the Irish Times in November 2022. John writes in the Irish Times Newspaper on Tuesdays. His website is