The ‘hitter’ is not trying to be difficult; but is communicating a feeling
Often when a new baby comes into the family, the other child can feel left out or sad. When we understand that the child who is creating difficulty is a child who may be feeling less loved or favoured, we see that punishment will only make the situation worse.
But that doesn’t mean we don’t set a firm limit against poor behaviour.
Here is an example where Conor who is four has hit his younger sister Aoife whom he is fed up with. Dad tries to intervene in a way that will work better than blaming Conor as this will only make Conor act worse.
First, Dad scoops up Aoife, who is howling. He resists the urge to yell at Conor.
“Ouch, that hurt. Getting pushed hurts your body, and your feelings, too!……Tell me about it, Aoife.” Aoife cries even louder for a moment, as we all do when we’re hurt and receive loving attention. Then she recovers and reaches for the toy, which is abandoned on the floor. Dad puts her down with the toy, takes a deep breath to calm himself, and turns to Conor.
Dad: “That hurt your sister, didn’t it?”
Conor: “She’s a cry-baby.”
Dad doesn’t take the bait. He gets down on the floor next to Conor, making strong eye contact. He’s breathing deep, trying to stay calm and kind. Naturally, his face is serious.
Dad: “What happened, Conor?”
Conor: “She wouldn’t give me my toy.”
Dad: “I hear you were frustrated with her. But hitting hurts. I won’t let you hit your sister.”
Conor glazes over and looks away. Dad knows Conor’s trying to push away some big feelings that he needs help with. Dad moves in close, pulling him gently against him and making eye contact.
Dad: “Sometimes you get REALLY mad at your sister, don’t you?”
Conor looks at him, testing. “I hate her.”
Dad: “Sometimes you get so mad it feels like hate. (Trying to go under the anger to the more vulnerable feelings that drive it.) I know you tell me it isn’t fair that she always gets to sleep with us. Maybe you think she gets everything, and you get left out?”
Conor (shouting) “I am left out! Why did you have to get a baby, anyway?! You never have time for me anymore! Why can’t you send her back?! She ruins everything!”
Dad: “You miss the way it used to be.”
Conor bursts into tears and buries his head in Dad’s neck. He sobs and sobs. At one point, he struggles away from dad and hides behind the couch. Dad follows him, staying in contact with a soothing voice:
“You can cry as much as you need to. I am right here. I am ALWAYS here for you, no matter what, baby or no baby. ”
He isn’t trying to “comfort” Conor or stop him from crying. He’s helping Conor feel safe enough to let all those feelings out.
Aoife is initially distressed by Conor’s crying, so Dad does the hardest part of this process — reassuring her at the same time as he tends to Conor: “That’s right, Aoife. Conor’s crying. It’s ok. Conor’s just sad right now.”
Finally, Conor is done crying, and snuggles on Dad’s lap.
Dad: “You know that I couldn’t love anyone more than you, right? You are the only Conor I have. You are my boy and I am your dad and I will always love you, no matter what.”
“I know you worry sometimes that we love the baby more. But that is never true. You can always tell me if you’re feeling left out, or angry, you know that.”
Dad: ” What about hitting?”
Conor: “It’s bad.”
Dad: “Hitting hurts. People are NOT for hitting. People are for loving. Just like your mum and I love and hug you. So what can you do instead of hitting your sister when you feel like hitting?”
Conor: “Get you?”
Dad: “Yes, use your words and call me and I will always help you.
Is it necessary to make Conor feel bad about what he did?
No. He knows it was wrong, he just couldn’t help himself in the press of all these hateful feelings. Shouting, punishing, timeouts, and giving him the cold shoulder would all make him feel worse, like his parents don’t love him anymore. In that case, why not just make his sister’s life miserable?