Baby Jealousy

We have a three-year-old at home and recently had another baby. Prior to our new baby, our three-year-old was our everything. He received lots of attention from both of us and I (mommy) was lucky enough to stay home with him on a full-time basis.

Since the birth of our second son, our three-year-old has shown incredible jealousy. We expected some of this and understand it’s a normal reaction to a new baby in the family. However, it’s been five months now, and he continues to struggle with his interactions with his baby brother. I have to watch him like a hawk as I have caught him on several occasions grabbing the baby’s arm too tight, pushing the baby away just a tad too hard, making kicking motions in the baby’s direction and within inches of his head, and so on.

We have sat down often and discussed his jealousy and have given lots of verbal reassurance that we love him just as much as the baby. We have also given him dates out with both mommy and daddy alone. He has been able to express from time to time that “he’s mad at the baby” and wants our attention. It seems no matter how much attention he gets he still struggles with acting out his jealousy in ways that could potentially upset or harm the baby.

We find ourselves engaging in constant redirection with him and are growing a bit frustrated ourselves. There are times when it seems he turns around and does exactly what we just asked him not to do and we end up raising our voice at him. I am sad that he feels such jealousy, but don’t know how else to handle it at this point. We feel like we’ve tried everything: talking, praising, positive redirection, special time out with mommy or daddy, encouraging the use of his words and talking about his feelings, yet nothing seems to have changed this behavior.

Will we have to forever resort to constant redirection and keeping him at a distance from his baby brother? Would love some advice and direction on this issue.

Congratulations on the expansion of your family. It can be a difficult adjustment for all your family members, as you have experienced. It sounds like your little guy has some pretty strong feelings regarding the new baby. Although most siblings adjust to the new baby within the first three months, many children can take longer. It may take your child a good year or two to process this change. Sibling conflict then flares up again around the baby’s first birthday when he is up and walking and getting into the older sibling’s things, and then continues for the rest of their lives.

As anyone who grew up in a family with more than one child can attest to, sibling conflict is a normal part of family life. As parents, you are behaving in a helpful way. Redirecting, using positive phrases, one-on-one time, discussing feelings, and of course, supervision is essential (until the older child is around seven or eight, avoid leaving them alone together).

You are probably helping him process his intense feelings of jealously more than you know, even if his behavior isn’t changing yet. Please try to keep up with the type of parenting you are doing now. It will pay off in more sibling harmony down the road. The more children are free to express their negative feelings about life with brothers and sisters—and we know that it’s not all a piece of cake—the more they can share their positive feelings, too.

So help your son grieve and work out his feelings of loss. He is acting miserably becuase he is miserable.  He worries that he is being replaced, and to defend against those terrible feelings, he rages at the baby.  (The best defense is a good offense.) Once he grieves and feels reassured, he won’t need to attack his brother as much.

You’ll need to make clear that feelings are given to us, like our arms and legs, so it’s ok to have any feeling he has — but he is always responsible for what he does with his arms, legs and feelings. (One four year old I know said to his Dad, “I just hate her, Dad. I don’t know why.” But because he was able to say it, he never hurt her.)

He’ll do better expressing his feelings with his body than with words. Let him show you how mad he is. “Draw me a picture and show me how mad you are” or “Can you bang on this drum and show me how mad you are?”

Be sure to go past the anger whenever possible to the feelings underneath: Fear that you might not love him anymore, sadness that things are different. Tell him the story of how it was just him and you and his dad, and then the baby was born and he was sad/angry, and how everything changed for him. End with how his mom always understood and how she was always there for him and he could tell her when he was upset, and how he would always be so special to his mom, because he is the only one of him in all the world.

I also love the “story” with candles that you have probably heard: Light a candle, for you. Then light a candle for your partner from your candle. Tell your son that you gave his dad all your love. Then light a candle for him from your and your partner’s candles. Tell your son that you gave him all your love but your partner still has all your love because love is magic that way. Then light the baby’s candle, and again say how you gave him all your love, but your oldest son and their Dad still have all your love because that’s how love is.

Giving him paper and markers to draw his feelings can help. It can be useful to use dolls to express his feelings about the new baby. Accept all responses without judgment. Remember that there is no limit on feelings, but only on behavior. If he draws a paper full of black and red marks, it may seem scary to you, but he is getting his feelings out in a way that doesn’t hurt anybody or anything. Keep acknowledging his feelings by saying, “I see that you are feeling angry that the baby is getting more of mommy’s time. It’s OK to feel angry. We can’t push baby. Here, let’s draw a picture of our ‘angries’ instead.” Repetition is essential.

I realize that it’s frustrating for you to constantly practice positive parenting and not get the behavior change you want to see, but it will come in your son’s own time, and you will see a blossoming relationship between the siblings. It will all be worth it in the long run!

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