PRESCHOOL SIBLINGS

NEW YORK TIMES COLUMN: FAMILIES TODAY:
PRESCHOOL SIBLINGS
By: T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua Sparrow, M.D.

In the first months after the birth of a new sibling, the older child is likely to vacillate between ignoring the baby completely or treating her like a plastic – and indestructible – doll.

Yet there will also be moments of genuine tenderness, and the beginnings of learning to care and to nurture.

When a younger sibling is 2 or 3, she can be more of a playmate for the older one, even if there is an age gap of two years or more. However, the 2- or 3-year-old may now be more reluctant to be the older child’s “baby” or plaything.

By the time the younger child turns 2, shared words and gestures have deepened the siblings’ intimacy. They have developed their own language without words.

Watch the imitation between two siblings at this age. Once, while working with a Native American tribe’s Early Head Start Center, we were honored to be invited to a powwow. Two siblings, 3 and 5, were dancing at opposite ends of the gymnasium. The older one jumped, twirled and marched along. From all the way across the room, the 3-year-old studied every move he made, imitating him clumsily but almost precisely – and almost on cue.

I hadn’t known they were siblings until I saw that performance, when it became perfectly apparent.

What does all this imitation mean to the older child? He is watched, envied, copied, followed around all day. Although it’s flattering, it is also pretty hard to take. When his friends come over, the younger one wants to insert herself into their play and their relationships. When he tries to be alone, she is there.

When he wants to get involved in more mature pastimes, she pulls on him. His guilt about deserting her, and his secret sadness at abandoning her, are lurking just below the surface. She can and will play on it.

Meanwhile the meltdowns caused by their rivalry are proceeding apace. Interfering with each other’s play and bidding for parents’ attention, they just can’t stay out of each other’s business. Tripping each other. Rolling around on the floor. Splashing each other in the tub. Flicking food at each other across the table.

“I want as much ice cream as he got. One more spoonful.”

“No, you gave her more!”

Through their constant scuffles, they seem to be saying, “I want to be part of your every moment.” The older child has an unfair advantage. When he decides he’s had enough he can retreat to his room and slam the door. The 2-year-old, despondent, may throw herself on the floor in a flood of tears. Can you equalize their differences? Of course not.

Once you’ve separated them, you can treat each one as an individual. You can help each one to settle down. Both will push parents to take sides. Don’t do it. Instead, you can sympathize, and then ask each child to think about his or her role in the conflict.

To the older child, a parent might say, “I know it’s tough to have your little sister interfering all the time, but you can tell her to stop, or take your toys into your room and shut the door. You don’t have to hit.”

To the younger child, a parent might say, “I know you want to play with him so badly. But when he tells you he won’t, you’re going to have to learn to listen.”

Let her know you understand how hard that is for her, but that you can’t change it. Over time, this will help her to stop idolizing her older sibling and to start sticking up for herself. Right now, though, she’s bound to fall apart.

Predictable Times for Meltdowns

  • early morning, on the way to breakfast
  • at the table
  • shopping
  • attention to one child (nursing, reading, special help)
  • bedtime
  • birthday party of one sibling
  • Christmas and holidays with gifts and commotion
  • long trips

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.

BITING IN DAYCARE

NEW YORK TIMES COLUMN: FAMILIES TODAY:
BITING IN DAYCARE
By: T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua Sparrow, M.D.

Q. How can we help our 22-month-old granddaughter stop biting other children at day care? I know she is frustrated and needs help dealing with anger, as her daddy and aunts and uncles have.

A. Biting is a common and usually normal behavior in 22-month-olds. You compare the child to her father, aunts and uncles. At that age, did they bite? Presumably they also have trouble managing their anger as adults. Herein lies part of the problem.

As far as we know, biting in a 2-year-old doesn’t predict anger control problems later in life. Yet to many adults, biting is a serious problem and an ominous sign for the future. Parents and teachers who see biting this way may tend to overreact, unintentionally reinforcing the biting.

The child, who can’t understand what all the fuss is about, is bound to bite again – to see if the same thing happens again, and to get more information about what the frantic responses could mean.

The child may discover that biting confers a great deal of power: One little nip and a whole classroom can be catapulted into pandemonium. How exciting! Let’s try that again.

Harsh, repeated punishments may lead the child to conclude she is “bad.” This feeling can become another reason for more biting. A child who loses hope in her ability to change will not be motivated to try to get herself under control. She’ll continue what everyone now expects her to do – and keep on biting.

A clear but low-key response will help. Calmly separate the children. The bitten child may need adult comfort, but it’s important also to comfort the child who has bitten. She may be frightened by her own out-of-control feelings and by the other child’s screams. Reassure her you will stop her every time until she has learned to stop herself. Be sure she understands you know she’ll learn with time. Don’t think your efforts aren’t working just because you have to repeat them.

Why do young children bite? A pediatrician we know says that for children this age, “a bite is just the flip side of a kiss.” In the first year, babies will sometimes bite their mothers’ shoulders as if to say, “I love you so much I want to eat you up!” In the second year, when toddlers are interested in other toddlers but don’t yet know how to show it, they may bite as a bid to engage another child.

Sometimes young children bite when they are overstimulated. And sometimes they may bite out of anger. But at this age they don’t understand the connection between their action and its consequence – that a bite really hurts. That’s why some adults think the best disciplinary approach is gently to bite back. We can’t agree. Such a response throws a child’s understanding of adult caregivers’ roles into confusion.

All children this age need help with anger and frustration. They’re at the very beginning of learning how to handle these and other strong emotions. Perhaps you’re worried that this child needs help because she has been exposed to the behavior of adults in the family who continue to struggle with their anger.

If that’s the case, then the child’s biting may have a different meaning. Very young children are vulnerable to being traumatized by violent behavior of adults around them. They need help from mental health professionals trained to work with infants and toddlers. Check the websites of Zero to Three (zerotothree.org) and the National Child Traumatic Stress Network (nctsn.org) for more information, and ask the child’s pediatrician for a referral.

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.