What Should I do?
Dear Dr T.,
I have a problem with my two-and-a-half year old. He is always hurting his one year old brother. Even if I am playing with them both, the older one may just take a toy and throw it at the baby.
I am writing to you as a last resort though I don’t know if you can help me. I certainly have asked many people – parents, siblings, friends, and even a rebbitzen in my community. People say all kind of things: from just looking away to punishing with time-out or a potch. Nothing feels right to me, but honestly I just don’t know what to do. I know I have to teach him to stop but I don’t have a clue how.
What should I do?
This is one of those times when I wish I had some magic to make this all go away. Short of that, some fool-proof idea would do, as well. However, this is one of those very complex situations that does not lend itself to an easy answer. But, understanding your children – their developmental level, feelings, behavior, motives, and abilities – will go a long way in helping you develop some strategies for success.
Let’s begin by looking at your older child. I’m sure it’s no news to you that he is jealous – or at least disturbed – by the baby. Look at it from his point of view: For eighteen months, he was king – and then this usurper came along. Though I would imagine that you work hard at continuing to give the older one lots of attention, and probably interact with the baby mostly out of your older child’s vision, your child knows the truth. He sees that he is no longer the only focus of the parents’ attention, and he doesn’t know what to make of that.
Now, at two-and-a-half, your child probably does not have the verbal ability to tell you what he is feeling. In all likelihood, he himself is unaware and confused by his thoughts and feelings. So when he feels bad and needs to express it, he shows you how he feels by lashing out at that which bothers him – the baby. As the behaviorists are wont to say, “All behavior is communication.” It’s our job to teach our child another language.
However, we should never confuse understanding with excusing. In other words, understanding why the two-and-a-half year old hits does not make that behavior okay. Aggressive behavior is harmful to both of the children. The older child may learn that “:might makes right,” and the baby may learn to see the world – and the people in it – as bad and menacing. Obviously, such an unhealthy world view impacts on your baby’s ability to develop trust, a key ingredient in mental health. So, though ignoring is a basic principle in chinuch, you cannot allow yourself to look away in this particular situation.
Obviously, you want to teach your child a different bag of tricks, but the question is how? This is the tricky part. Though your child may very well have the cognitive ability to understand that hitting is bad, he does not have the impulse control to stop himself. Learning to control our impulses is a lifelong process – anyone who is faced with that favorite dessert can attest to that. It is a skill that is certainly not mastered by age two. So, many a mother will say, “But he knows not to hit the baby!” without figuring in the other piece – that he is just too young to act consistently on this knowledge.
What I would recommend here is a two-pronged approach: positive reinforcement and shemirah. Here’s why. Though punishment may stop a behavior, it doesn’t really teach behavior. Behavior needs to be slowly shaped, and the most effective way to do that is by positive reinforcement. We all want to do what feels good to us; so when a behavior is rewarded, it is likely to be repeated.
You might begin by modeling how you touch the baby softly. Take your child’s arm and help him do the same. Choose a phrase that you will use consistently like “gentle hands.” Now at every opportunity do this exercise with your child. And, here is the key: give some positive reinforcement each time your child follows the drill. Positive reinforcement can be either tangible – a sticker, prize, nosh – or intangible – praise, high-five, or hug. Eventually, your child will feel good about “gentle hands” because of its positive association, and you can begin to taper the rewards. I do want to caution you that this is a long process and requires consistent input from you. The key to positive reinforcement is consistency and patience.
In the meantime, there is no substitute for shemirah. Until your child can be trusted with the baby, it is your responsibility to supervise and ensure the baby’s safety. Whether this means separating the two, hiring help, or your constant presence, the physical and emotional safety of your children is your primary concern. Obviously, this puts a tremendous burden on you, the mother, but safety is non-negotiable.
Chinuch habanim is not simple – or easy. But, rest assured that your dedication to your children’s protection – through shemirah and positive reinforcement – will not be wasted or lost on your children as they grow into adulthood.
The Book Nook: To a small child, the world is an exciting but sometimes frightening and unstable place. In The Magic Years, Selma Fraiberg takes the reader into the mind of the child, showing how he confronts the world and learns to cope with it. With great warmth and perception, she discusses the problems at each stage of development and reveals the qualities – above all, the quality of understanding – that can provide the right answer at critical moments.
Sara Teichman, Psy D. is a psychotherapist in private practice in Los Angeles and Clinical Director of ETTA, L.A.’s largest Jewish agency for adults with special needs. To submit a question or comment, email DrT@jewishhomela.com.