A 4-YEAR-OLD REACTS BADLY TO BABY

From the NEW YORK TIMES COLUMN: FAMILIES TODAY

By: T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua Sparrow, M.D.

Q. I am writing for advice about my 4 1/2-year-old grandson. Very recently, my son and his wife welcomed their second child, a girl, to the family. They very diligently included their son in all the preparations beforehand, and he seemed to be handling everything very well. His parents even allowed him to stay at the hospital overnight with them.

Now that the baby is 3 weeks old, my grandson is beginning to act out at preschool, not even wanting to attend, but when there, has done things no one ever thought he would do. He’s even been sent out of the class because of disruptive behavior.

How can you get a 4-year-old to voice his feelings when he himself probably doesn’t know why he’s behaving negatively? What approach might his parents take in addressing this problem?

A. Your thoughtful questions show how much you and his parents have tried to do everything you could to prepare him for the new baby. The last question about “voicing his feelings when he doesn’t know why he’s behaving negatively” is so respectful of what it’s really like to be 4 years old. Knowing what he’s feeling, and knowing how to say it is a very big project – even for many adult-aged children!

You’ve prepared him in every way. I’m sure you’ve talked about the baby in mommy’s tummy, how he could help take care of his little sister when she comes (as if he asked for her, as if it were up to him). He even stayed overnight at the hospital so he wouldn’t feel abandoned by his concerned parents.
Everyone has reassured him that he’ll never be deserted because of her. You probably even brought him home a teddy bear or a truck to nurture when his mother is nurturing her new baby. This may help keep him from feeling displaced by the fascinating new baby.

So why shouldn’t he handle everything well, or even near perfectly?

Despite all best efforts, he still feels angry and displaced. Of course, you and his parents feel let down by his behavior. You feel so badly for him and may blame yourselves, wondering what else you could have done that would have made it easier for him. Yet it sounds as if you all have done everything you possibly could have to smooth over this big transition for him. Except perhaps to leave room for him to protest. To let him know that no one expects him to enjoy being a “big brother,” all the time. To allow him to be “a baby” too without feeling that he is letting anybody down. And to reassure him that sooner or later most big brothers ask about sending the new baby back to the hospital, or stowing her permanently back in the mother’s “stomach.”

He is upset; upset enough to act out at preschool. Not yet at home, although that may come yet. Over time, he may come closer to understanding his feelings, and then to controlling them, if the adults around him can identify the specific aspects of this natural catastrophe that are most disturbing to him.

Of course his parents have less time for him. Of course the baby is lavished with nurturing that stirs up longing – both embarrassing and irresistible – for such nurturing in him. Can he be encouraged to nurse and change his baby doll alongside his parents as a way of pulling together this flood of feelings? Are his parents too tired, too busy, and too preoccupied for their old games and rituals with him? Which ones does he miss the most? Are there a few rituals that they could manage to keep going while he is wondering if they even remember who he is, if they even know he’s there? Can they sit down with him and simply talk out some of the hard parts and show them that they understand and that they care? “It’s so upsetting when people come over with gifts for the baby, and they barely even say hello to you. Of course it hurts your feelings!” Or is he under so much pressure to be praised for being such a good big brother that he doesn’t dare regress – as he will need to -to ask to be your baby again?

But it sounds as if he wants to protect his parents and his baby from his feelings, so he “blows up” at pre-school where it is safer, and where the teachers will protect him from his understandable angry and naturally destructive feelings. He must feel safe with them, and I recommend that you and his parents thank his preschool teachers for the environment they have created where he can feel safe and protected from his out-of-control feelings. Their discipline must be reassuring to him at such a time.

These feelings of displacement and jealousy are inevitable. One of the most precious gifts you can give as parents to a first child is to guide him through his feelings about being displaced to the point where he can accept and control his jealousy. Then he can get on to the important job of caring for his little sister.
For competition with a sibling is one side of the same coin as caring deeply about that sibling later on. But you must be patient and wait for caring to come later.

Meanwhile, to allow him his negative feelings about her, and to face these angry feelings, can be a real gift to him. He won’t have to suppress them. In time, he can feel in control of them so he can move on. My mother always expected me to “love my little brother” so I never got a chance to face my feelings openly. I disliked him until he was 50 and then we became best friends. The pressure to be perfect instead of real was finally off.

It is interesting that he begins to be aware of and to show these feelings after she is 3 weeks old. Just at the time when she’s beginning to smile, and coo, and to fuss at the end of the day – more beguiling but also more demanding. He picks up his family’s turmoil and reacts at preschool. I would predict that he’ll “blow” in some way at each of her new developmental steps – most older siblings do. I call these developmental steps Touchpoints (See our book, “Touchpoints: Birth to Three.”).

Before each new step in her development, she will regress and be more demanding. This will throw the family into turmoil. Your grandson is likely to react at these predictable times. For example, when she begins to crawl, or to walk. Don’t be surprised, and if you and his parents can help him express himself safely (with limits on how far he can go) each Touchpoint becomes an opportunity for him to express these negative feelings. Eventually he can become aware of his protective and caring ones for her. Good for you to want to help him connect his feelings with his actions!


Responses to questions are not intended to constitute or to take the place of medical or psychiatric evaluation, diagnosis or treatment. If you have a question about your child’s health or well-being, consult your child’s health-care provider.

Dr. Brazelton heads the Brazelton Touchpoints Project, which promotes and supports community initiatives that are collaborative, strength-based, prevention-focused sources of support for families raising children in our increasingly stressful world. Dr. Sparrow, a child psychiatrist, is Director of Strategy, Planning and Program Development at the Brazelton Touchpoints Center. Learn more about the Center at www.touchpoints.org.

Reprinted with permission from the authors.