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Sibling Rivalry: How Do I Get My Toddler to Calm Down?

Peace at Home February 16, 2017 | Ruth Freeman

If you don’t think it is a big deal to be replaced by a baby brother after being the princess of the household and the apple of daddy and mommy’s eyes for 2 or more years, try to put yourself in your child’s place. Imagine: You have been happily married for 2 or more years and your husband treats you like you are special and wonderful. One day he says, “Guess what, I’ve decided to bring home another wife. I’m so happy about getting another wife and I’m sure you will be too. We will all be one big happy family.” You get the picture.

When the new baby arrives, both parents are exhausted and sleep deprived. Mom may be breast feeding which takes a lot of time and energy. Mom holds the baby close and quickly comforts the baby when he cries. Dad certainly plays with baby’s two year old sister, but may seem to have less energy and patience. Maybe your toddler is getting a little less outside play time. Your toddler may perceive correctly that she is getting less attention and baby gets a lot more.

Toddler and even preschooler brains don’t have a lot of control over impulses.This perceived threat to their well-being may seem very, very big and showing anger by hitting or throwing things or yelling may be impossible for some to resist. And given less energy and patience, parents may fall into removing the child from the situation in a harsh manner or lots of time outs or raised voices and threats. And none of these will improve the situation.

Sound familiar? These parents are caught up in a negative attention cycle with their toddler.

Here are 3 things you can do to improve your jealous toddler’s behavior:

  • Give your daughter a positive, useful role in caring for the baby. And give her very enthusiastic praise when she helps mom by bringing a diaper, pacifier, bib or wash cloth. Describe her contribution very specifically. Tell her how much it helps you. Give her physical touch to go with the verbal praise. A big hug. This begins a positive attention cycle. Children give us more of whatever behavior we pay attention to.
  • Create a cooling down corner with comfortable chairs, bean bags, stuffed animals, books your daughter likes. Invite your child to help put the space together and pick out favorites that help her feel calmer. When she starts becoming emotionally activated, mom or dad can sweep her up gently and playfully and say, “Let’s go to the cool down corner together.” Parent and child can sit and do a few calming breaths (breathe in to a count of 3 and out through blowing- the-candle-out lips for a count of 5). Mom or dad might read a fun book while daughter cuddles in his or her lap. Together parent and child can visit the library or bookstore and pick out a few “calm down” books to put in the cool down corner – asking the child to help pick those out. They might include one about “When a baby arrives in your house.” If mom or dad become angry they can model going to the cool down corner, taking a few breaths or meditate for a few minutes.
  • Consider reading “Self Reg” by Stuart Shanker so you can learn how to calm your own emotional brain in order to consciously calm your daughter’s and not get activated by her distress. This will influence how you talk to your daughter throughout the day and in the cool down corner.  She needs the same calming and soothing voice the baby does.

And remember – progress not perfection. All of your efforts may decrease your toddler’s challenging behaviors but they may not disappear. Take a big breath or throw cold water on your face or open a window to calm your own activated brain and try to remember what you might be doing if your spouse really did bring home another partner!

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