Toddler Aggression toward Baby

Jan Faull, M.Ed., answers a parent's question about a firstborn toddler's aggression toward the new baby.
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Q. I'm surprised how jealous my 3 1/2-year-old daughter is of her 9-month-old sister. She had a difficult time initially, doing everything from hitting the baby to taking a permanent marker to the couch. But fortunately, her acting out did eventually settle down. Since the baby has become more active, however, my oldest now finds any opportunity to knock her down, push her, pinch her, or hit her. My firstborn's negative behavior and jealousy has resurfaced and seems to be escalating. What do I do?

A. Although your older daughter's behavior and jealousy is disconcerting -- no parent likes to see one child hurt another -- it's not terribly unusual or alarming. Your older daughter once sat alone on the childhood throne in your family, now she must share that seat with her little sister. It's a tough adjustment for any child to make.

Most big brothers and sisters respond to a new baby just as your daughter is responding. The first weeks with a newborn sibling usually bring out the worst behavior in the older child. Once those weeks pass, however, the older child usually adjusts to the intrusion of the new baby. This is particularly true if the infant is fairly unobtrusive, eating and sleeping most of the time.

However, when the baby starts to crawl, making her presence more obvious, those feelings of jealousy arise anew in the firstborn. Older sister proudly builds a block tower, while curious and mobile little sister crawls toward it and knocks it over. Older sister in anger pushes her little sister away causing her to roll over and bang her head on the floor. Now everyone, including you, is upset.

When such scenes occur, resist sending the older child to her room. Doing so will only build more resentment toward her little sister. Yes, the older child pushed the baby, but the baby had knocked over her tower. To blame the older child or expect her to be understanding of her baby sister's behavior is unrealistic.

To avoid such scenes, do what you can to protect Big Sister's play area. Big Sister can play at the kitchen table, in her bedroom or blocked off in the dining or living room; make her spaces off-limits to your little one. When your girls are playing together, be right there to see that playtime goes well. Demonstrate to the older child how to interact with her little sister. Stay between them, not giving the older one the opportunity to hurt her little sister. If you leave your two girls to their own devices expect that the hitting, pushing, pinching, and knocking over will occur. When your older daughter displays anger, frustration, jealousy, or resentment toward her sister, put a name to the emotion she is feeling. Say: "I can see you're angry at your sister. I understand you're angry, but I can't allow you to hit her." Eventually your older daughter will be able to express her negative feelings for her sister without hitting her.

It's important to realize that same-sex children, of a similar age (under three years apart) exemplify the best and worst in sibling relations. Your girls will compete, fight, bicker, and rival now, but as your younger child grows a bit older, the girls will most likely begin to play well together and may even become best friends.

Jan Faull, MEd, is a veteran parent educator and the author of four parenting books, including Darn Good Advice -- Baby and Darn Good Advice -- Parenting. She writes a biweekly parenting advice column for this site and a weekly parenting advice column in the Seattle Times. Jan Faull is the mother of three grown children and lives in the Seattle area.


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