Dear Dr. P,
I just had a new baby and my first child (a 4 year old boy) who is usually loving and sweet, has started to become aggressive with me and his new baby brother. He’s been pushing and hitting me and pulling on his brother’s tiny hands, feet, and legs. Before I had the baby, I thought that I had done everything to prepare my son for the new arrival. I gave him ample opportunity to express all of his feelings about having a brother, we read books together related to the subject, and we provided constant reassurance about how much we love him and that he will always be our special boy. I was aware that bringing a new baby into the mix is often challenging for everybody, but never expected such aggression out of a boy who never hit anyone and was usually very articulate.
As you are now well aware, no matter how much you prepare, actually having a new baby in your family changes the dynamic for everyone. This change triggers all kinds of feelings in your son — not to mention in yourself and your husband and how you all relate to each other.
Let me start by saying that your son’s behavior is normal. It is also a plus that he is articulate. I know that this does not fix anything nor am I condoning his aggressive behavior with you and his brother.
First and foremost, he needs to know that he is never allowed to hit, pull, or push you or his baby brother (or anyone for that matter). Every time he exhibits this behavior, you need to physically remove him to his room or some other area until he settles down. I realize that by doing this you are only addressing the symptom. The main goal would be to address the underlying feelings that are driving his behavior, however the best time to do this is not when he is upset and aggressive. I recommend spending special one-on-one time with him that is mutually enjoyable. During this time (when he is calm and receptive), you can speak to him about how it feels to have a baby brother. If you only address his feelings when he has escalated to hitting, it is too late and unproductive.
It’s important to empathize with him about how hard it can be. He might have a fantasy that your only feelings about the baby are happy and as a result he believes that he is “bad” to have other kinds of feelings. He needs to know that he can share all kinds of feelings with you — especially the angry feelings — and that even mommy can have those kinds of feelings too.
Let him know verbally and by demonstration that you will continue to have special time with him where he has your undivided attention. It is useful to come up with a schedule together, even for only 10 minutes per day, so that he knows he can always rely on that special time with you.
Remember to continually acknowledge his angry feelings and remind him that it’s never ok to act on his angry feelings by pushing, hitting, etc. Together, when it is calm, you can come up with alternative strategies when he is feeling angry or sad. Often times, what happens is that children’s feelings become so intense and overwhelming, they themselves don’t have words to put to them.
What is he saying by hitting? Possibilities are: “I hate him/you”; “If I act like a baby, maybe I’ll get more attention”; “I am sad”; “I feel lonely”; or “I feel overwhelmed”. The more your are able to help him understand what his hitting means and come up with more productive alternatives together, his aggressive behaviors will likely subside. Productive alternatives to hitting could be: when feeling upset, he can have a designated place to go to hit pillows, he can draw what he’s feeling, he can have mommy remind him that you and he will always have special one-on-one time together.
The more you help him articulate what is going on inside of him and the triggers to his feelings, the more likely he will be able to verbally express how he is feeling as the feelings come up and then can be reminded of the alternative strategies that you came up with together. The ultimate aim is to understand the upset before it gets too intense, articulate it, and then redirect.
About Dr. P
Dr. Laura Pescione is a licensed clinical psychologist with over 15
years of extensive training and experience working with children,
adolescents, and adults. She is currently in private practice in Encino
where she specializes in treating adults with issues related to
post-partum adjustment and parenting, as well as depression, anxiety,
and relationship issues. Have a question for Dr. P? Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org
Visit her online at www.drpescione.com