"My three year keeps hurting my 15 month old. Sometimes they play nicely, then out of the blue he'll just shove her over. We do timeouts and lectures all day long, but it doesn't help." – Claudia
Henry, age 3, is playing with Sophie, 15 months, by grabbing a toy away from her. Sophie loves his attention and giggles at this interesting game, especially because he restores the toy to her every time. But Henry is getting rougher each time, and Sophie is clinging harder to the toy. He wrenches it away from her. Sophie bursts into tears. Henry, feeling guilty, says “You act like a baby!” and reaches out and shoves her down, hard. Now Sophie is wailing.
If dad had noticed the game getting rougher, he could have intervened by getting between the kids and engaging in the game: “Hey, what about me? Take the toy from someone your own size, why don’t you? Waaaaaa…..You took my toy!” There would have been giggling all around, giving Henry the opportunity to discharge some tension around having to “share” everything in his life with his sister and his guilt about wanting to take things back from her. Dad could even have built some sibling solidarity by having the kids team up against him.
Prevention is always the best policy, when we notice hard feelings brewing. But Dad, being human and a parent, was trying to do three other things and simply glad for a moment of quiet. What should he do now?
Should he send Henry to a timeout? There are better ways to stop this kind of behavior. Most kids have a hard time with their complex emotions about the new baby -- usually a combination of protectiveness and the desire to flush the baby down the toilet -- and feel guilty. Over time, they develop a relationship with their sibling, but resentment often lurks below the surface, looking for expression. When the pressure of their tangled-up feelings pushes them to lash out and parents react with timeouts, the child is confirmed in his conclusion that he’s a bad kid for hating his sibling. But does he spend the timeout resolving to be nicer? No, like any normal human, he reviews why he’s right, his parents are unfair, and everything was so much better before his rotten sibling was born. The chip on his shoulder solidifies. That’s why timeouts don’t usually stop kids from hitting. Here's a whole article on why Timeouts and other punishments actually cause more misbehavior.
Punishment of any kind will make Henry feel worse and act worse. Helping him with the feelings that are driving his aggression is what will stop the hitting.
But that doesn’t mean we don’t set a firm limit against violence. First, Dad scoops up Sophie, who is howling. He resists the urge to yell at Henry. In fact, he resists interacting with Henry until he can get himself a bit calmer. So he summons up his nurturing and focuses on Sophie.
Dad: “Ouch! Did that hurt?" Sophie nods, crying hard. "Getting pushed can hurt your body, and your feelings, too!……Tell me about it, Sophie.” Sophie cries even louder for a moment, as we all do when we’re hurt and receive loving attention. Soon, though, she recovers and reaches for the toy, which is abandoned on the floor. Dad puts her down with the toy, takes a deep breath to calm himself, and turns to Henry. He tries to be warm and matter-of-fact, not accusatory.
Dad: “Ouch! That hurt your sister, didn’t it?”
Henry: “I guess. She's a cry-baby.”
Dad doesn't take the bait. He gets down on the floor next to Henry, making strong eye contact. He’s breathing deeply, working to stay calm and kind. Naturally, his face is serious.
Dad: “She certainly cries when she gets hurt, like the rest of us. What happened, Henry?”
Henry: “She wouldn’t give me my toy.” (Henry looks blank. Is he remorseless? No. He feels ashamed, and afraid of what Dad is about to say. He's in "fight, flight or freeze" - in this case, freeze. That looks on the surface like he doesn't feel anything.)
Dad: “You must have been really upset to hurt her...I'm so sorry I wasn't here to help."
Is Dad blaming himself? No. He's modeling taking responsibility. That opens the door a bit for Henry to feel less blamed. He shoots a quick look at Dad -- Is it possible that he might understand?! -- and then looks away again.
Dad: "I hear you were frustrated with her. But hitting hurts. I won’t let you hit your sister.”
Henry glazes over and looks away. Dad knows Henry's trying to push away some big feelings that he needs help with. Dad moves in close, pulling Henry gently against him and making eye contact.
Dad: “Sometimes you get REALLY mad at your sister, don’t you?”
Henry looks at him, testing. “I hate her.”
Dad: (Ignoring the "hate" bomb. Hate is a position, not a feeling.) “Sometimes you get so mad it feels like hate. (Trying to go under the anger to the more vulnerable feelings that drive it.) I know you tell me it isn’t fair that she always gets to sleep with us. Maybe you think she gets everything, and you get left out?”
Henry (shouting) “I am left out! Why did you have to get a baby, anyway?! You never have time for me anymore! Why can’t you send her back?! She ruins everything!”
Dad: “You miss the way it used to be.”
Henry: "I hate everything!" He bursts into tears and buries his head in Dad’s neck. He sobs and sobs. At one point, he struggles away from dad and hides behind the couch. Henry won't let Dad touch him, but Dad knows to stay close. Dad follows him, staying in contact with a soothing voice: “You can cry as much as you need to. I am right here. I am ALWAYS here for you, no matter what, baby or no baby." He isn't trying to stop Henry from crying. He's helping Henry feel safe enough to let all those feelings out.
Sophie is initially distressed by Henry's crying, so Dad does the hardest part of this process -- reassuring her and keeping her out of reach of Henry's flailing feet at the same time as he tends to Henry: "That's right, Sophie. Henry's crying. It's ok, Sophie. Henry's just sad right now.
Finally, Henry is done crying, and snuggles on Dad’s lap. Sophie has wandered to the train track across the room and is happily chugging the trains around, no longer listening.
Dad: "You know that I couldn’t love anyone more than you, right? You are the only Henry I have and you have the only Henry place in my heart. You are my boy and I am your dad and I will always love you, no matter what.”
Dad: "Maybe you worry sometimes that we love the baby more. But that is never true. You can always tell me if you’re feeling left out, or angry; you know that."
Dad: "What about hitting?"
Henry: "It’s bad."
Dad: "Hitting hurts. People are NOT for hitting. People are for loving. Just like your mom and I love and hug you. So what can you do instead of hitting your sister when you feel like hitting?"
Henry: "Get you?"
Dad: "Yes, use your words and tell me. If you need help with your feelings, or to protect your toys, call me and I will always help you. What else?"
Henry: "Give her a different toy?"
Dad: "Yes, what a great idea! And if you’re really mad, could you turn around and hit the couch?"
Henry: "I guess so. But what I really want is one of those punching bags. It falls over."
Dad: “Like your sister?” Both Dad and Henry start laughing.
Dad: “Well, a punching bag might be a good idea. Let’s consider that. But for now, I think you have a little repair work to do with your sister. What could you do to make her feel better?”
Henry: "I could hug her."
Dad: “I know she would like that, if you were gentle. Would you like that?”
Henry: “Yeah. Sometimes she’s ok. For a baby.”
Is it necessary to make Henry feel bad about what he did? No. He knows it was wrong; he just couldn't help himself in the press of all these hateful feelings. Yelling, punishing, timeouts, and giving him the cold shoulder would all make him feel worse, like his parents don't love him anymore. In that case, why not just make his sister's life miserable?
Instead, what does Dad do?
1. Gives Henry the message that while actions must be limited -- hitting hurts and is not allowed -- all feelings are acceptable. That's essential for kids to learn to regulate their emotions and behavior. Otherwise, they push those feelings away, out of conscious control, and then "act out" the feelings they can't express.
2. Helps Henry “express” the emotions that have been eating at him and driving his aggressive behavior, so those feelings can begin to evaporate. This melts the armor that's been collecting around Henry's heart, so he feels less angry at his sister, and more cooperative in general.
3. Reconnects with him, so Henry knows he's valued, not displaced. In my experience, disconnection from us is one of the most common reasons children hit.
4. Reassures Henry that he can tell his parents how he feels and get help, so he isn't left on his own in his struggle to control himself so he doesn't hurt his sister.
5. Helps Henry imagine other ways to handle his feelings in the future (building mental "muscle memory.") Henry is open to this because he wasn't made to feel like a terrible person, which would have put him on the defensive.
6. Builds Henry’s capacity for self-reflection, which will help him manage himself in the future.
7. Builds Henry’s empathy for his sister by focusing on hitting being a hurtful, harmful way to interact with another person, rather than simply labeling it as a bad act.
8. Empowers Henry to “repair” his relationship with his sister. Notice this is different than requiring an apology. It's only possible once the child has calmed down, and if they don't feel blamed. Let children choose the repair, and let them choose when to do it. Otherwise, the ritual forced apology builds resentment, not repair.
9. Helps Henry laugh about the situation, which discharges fear and helps Henry understand that feelings aren't permanent -- they can be expressed, and then we feel better. Laughter is one of the best ways to shift out of upset feelings so they don't get stuffed and drive future aggressive behavior.
10. Helps Henry past his anger to an emotionally generous state where he can acknowledge that he has good feelings about his sister. Choosing to hug his sister to make up makes him feel like a nurturing big brother, so he's more likely to act like one.
What does Henry learn? He can't send his sister back, and he can't always get his way, but he gets something even better: a parent who loves all of him, no matter what. That's what will gradually form the core of an unshakeable internal happiness that will allow him to handle whatever life throws at him – including, eventually, being a great big brother.