Help Dr Justin!
I have a 2 month old son and 2 year old daughter. My daughter is going through the screaming period and not listening to me when I calmly ask her to do things or try to calm her down. It’s sometimes when her brother needs me and sometimes when he is asleep.
I understand that she wants special time with me and I make sure she has it everyday. But sometimes I am too busy with my son (overtired or feeding) and cannot put him down, and sometimes I get too stressed and remove myself from the room to calm down but she will follow and if I put myself in my room she will continue the behaviour on the other side of the door.
I used to try time outs with her in her room but after calming down, the behaviour starts again two minutes later. My husband also works two weeks away and one home. My little girls is not acting out at her brother. She is very loving and I let her help me with all of his cares if she wants to. She also still wakes in the night but settles after I get her a bottle of milk and a cuddle. I’m sleep deprived and stressed and so in love with being a mummy but I need some advice.
Can you please help me?
Dr Justin responds:
The challenges that you are describing with your two year-old are quite common for children this age – especially when they’ve just discovered a new brother or sister. While a newborn sibling brings excitement, it can also spur jealousy, aggression, and oppositional behaviour. Furthermore, these kinds of behaviours are central to why we call this age ‘The Terrible Two’s’.
Let’s take a look at the issues you’ve raised, and I’ll suggest strategies for improving the outcomes you are experiencing.
Screaming (and not listening)
Behaviour and emotion regulation are not easy for 2 year-olds. When they feel an emotion, they typically let everyone know about it loud and clear. Additionally, toddlers and pre-schoolers only see the world one way: their way. This means if we ask them to do something that doesn’t fit with their expectations, they feel upset, struggle to contain their emotions, and holler like their life depends on it.
Adults usually have no idea what to do when this happens. In your case, you stay calm and tell her to calm down. That’s logical, but even as an adult I’d bet that when you’re really upset and your husband says, “You really need to calm down”, you probably get more emotional – not less. That’s because you’re not feeling understood. While he might ‘get it’ intellectually, he’s not ‘getting it’ emotionally. What you really want is for him to say, “This is so frustrating for you. It’s so upsetting. No wonder you feel like screaming and hitting.”
Children are looking for the same thing. They want to be understood. This doesn’t mean we agree with them, but it does mean we acknowledge their feelings, and show we understand. When she screams you might say to your daughter, “You get so upset about it when…”, or “Sometimes this makes you really mad doesn’t it!” As she becomes calmer (because she feels understood), offer her hugs and love, and then ask, “What do you think we can do about it?” Then guide her through different options as she suggests them.
Special time and being busy
It’s great that you are making time for your eldest child – and involving her with her brother – in spite of the demands of having a new baby. This is important for her to feel loved, and increase in resilience. Teaching her that sometimes you can’t be there for her because of his needs is tricky. My suggestion is that you talk to her ahead of time (be pro-active), and let her know what to expect. Ideally you’ll ask her questions rather than lecturing her. You could say,
“We’re having fun together now, but soon your brother will wake up. What will mummy have to do then? What can you do while I’m doing that? What happens if you need me while I’m looking after him?”
Your daughter won’t get it the first time. Or the second. Maybe not even the tenth. But she will get it. Just as it takes children a long time to learn to walk, talk, or follow basic instructions, it takes them a LONG time to learn to think of the rules when they want something from you now!
Using this approach, however, helps her internalise the rules because she is telling you as she answers your questions. Additionally, it saves a lot of shouting and being annoyed. Instead, when she gets it wrong you can simply ask, “What am I doing? What do I need you to do?
Remember, too, to always let her know that even though you’re busy right now, you’ll be right there for her in 5 minutes. That many minutes doesn’t mean much to a child, but at least she has been acknowledged and knows you are coming. (You might say, “I’ll be there as soon as the baby is sleeping.”
Time out, like other control-based ‘discipline’ strategies is unhelpful for teaching children good ways to behave. While some data supports its use, other strategies that don’t involve punishment are usually more effective in getting long-term results. Time out makes your daughter feel abandoned, unworthy, and upset. It also makes her more, not less, selfish. And as you’ve seen, it’s effects are short-term at best.
There are many discipline strategies that are more effective. I describe some of them in my book What Your Child Needs From You, but I recommend focusing on teaching her, reminding her, and asking her questions. Remember, too, that ‘discipline’ that teaches won’t work when she’s emotional or when there is an audience. Wait until things are calm, be pro-active, and focus on helping her learn rather than punishing her.
Your daughter’s challenging behaviour comes (in most cases) from unmet needs. While not all needs should be met (like ice-cream for breakfast), they do need to be understood. Remember to understand, not reprimand. And get as much sleep as you can! Smile