Helping Parents and Toddlers When Baby Comes Home
Misbehavior mask painful emotions that are difficult to express in words.
Posted Dec 26, 2019
In The New Yorker’s “Love and Anger: The drama of disciplining a toddler,” Keith Gessen writes about the difficulties of parenting a toddler after the birth of a sibling. Gessen writes about the trials of balancing his love for his child with his strong negative feelings provoked by his son’s disruptions. He describes reading several books by authorities in the field, contemporary as well as older ones. To some extent, they are helpful, but not always.
What is missing in the advice that Gessen receives from these parenting books?
The books describe how to think about the child’s behaviors and how to manage them. What they do not seem to discuss is the nature of the child’s emotions that lead to his disruptive behaviors?
One scene highlights the importance of a child’s unspoken emotions.
“Twice in the summer after the baby was born, I raised my hand to Raffi. The first happened when the baby was just a few weeks old. One evening, while Emily was cooking dinner, I was holding the baby in my lap when Raffi came over and started trying for some reason to slap the baby’s head. “Stop that,” I said. But he kept doing it. So I held the baby with one hand and with the other tried to move Raffi farther away. But, instead of pushing him in the chest, as I’d intended, I pushed him in the forehead. He staggered back and then ran to his mother in the kitchen. “Dada hit me!” he said.”
This anecdote illustrates how it is impossible for parents to always keep their cool. This is especially true when a child is angry, irritable, defiant, and/or oppositional. This behavior is really challenging to endure and manage, especially when there is real threat to another child in the family, especially a newborn infant.
Certainly, Gessen’s actions are flawless. What else could he have done at that moment? After the fact, however, he could have considered Raffi’s feelings as a motive for his actions.
Why is it valuable to understand the triggers of a child’s disruptive behavior?
All disruptive behavior has meaning. There is a reason why a child impulsively strikes out or annoys a sibling or a parent. Usually a child is emotionally upset, is unable to verbalize those feelings, and instead strikes out towards another person.
Understanding this enables parents to be sensitive to their child’s feelings and not just look at the child’s behavior as a manifestation of willfulness or badness. This way of thinking will allow parents to tolerate their own feelings which are triggered by the child’s disruptive behavior; they will begin to notice events that occur prior to the disruption, and they will begin to accept that the disruption is a disguised expression of a child’s painful emotional states
In other words, by noticing the emotional meaning of the misbehavior, parents will be able to approach the child in a more balanced way. The parent’s attitude to the child can shift from being certain about the child’s intentions to being curious about what motivated a particular behavior or response (appreciating that the child is not simply being “bad”)
For example, after the fact, an important question for a parent of a toddler and a newborn to ask him or herself is:
“I wonder why he/she did that? I’m not sure how he was feeling at the time I picked up the baby?”
This state of mind creates more space and invites the adults to think about the child’s actual experience rather than feeling compelled to react to it with harsh discipline. The required limit setting can then feel more neutral to the adult
Thinking this way about disruptive behaviors can lead parents to say to a child, as young as a toddler, something like,
“Oh, I see. When daddy was holding the baby you felt left out. Maybe next time daddy or mommy does something that makes you feel bad you can tell us in words and not by hitting.”
Adopting such a stance, a reflective stance, and understanding that all behavior has meaning, can help parents respond in ways that will reduce the child’s need for disruptive behavior.
Hoffman, L ., Rice, T . and Prout, T . (2016) Manual for regulation-focused psychotherapy for children with externalizing behaviors (RFP-C): a psychodynamic approach . New York, NY: Routledge .