My 3.5 year old son most of the time loves his 1 year old sister a lot. However, he can get very aggressive in playing with her, sometimes treating her more like a doll than a person. Examples include: - Sitting on her or otherwise crushing her - Pulling hard on her leg when one of us parents is holding her - Showing too much affection (kissing, hugging) than she can handle at a given time or being overly aggressive in showing affection - Throwing toys at her - Hitting her

Though these things have been more or less a problem for our daughter's entire life (except for the last two, which were pretty rare before), lately these problems have been greatly increasing in frequency (used to be at most a few times per day, now it's several times per hour). They have also been increasing in negativity. Whereas before the first three things in the list were done out of an abundance of love and an ignorance of fragility, more often now (but not all the time) these things are done with anger or frustration directed towards the baby.

Possible external stimuli for my son's actions: - Playing inside a lot more now. During the spring/early summer when outside was comfortable, the kids would play outside a lot. These problems never arose when they played outside. My kids and my son especially are very high energy and so being outside is more suited for their playing style than our small apartment. - Hot indoors. The biggest air conditioner we are able to put in to our small apartment is not big enough to handle the hottest and most humid days where we live, so inside my apartment it's usually low 80's (F) and 60% humidity, much higher than we're used to. - My baby is starting to walk and climb and so is helping herself more to playing areas my son once thought were safe from her clutches. - Related to above, my son's most common play area (our couch) is now completely accessible by our climbing baby. We have explained to him before and still explain to him that the only places completely safe from the baby are the kitchen table and his bed, but despite this he still insists on playing on the couch.

Our primary consequence for bad behavior so far has been time outs. He's been having more of those lately. Extra long time outs seem to help him behave better for a little while after the time out, otherwise the normal time outs seem to have little affect on his behavior. We've explained repeatedly that his sister is a person and is little and needs to be treated carefully, but this seems to have no effect. My wife even brainstormed a list with him recently of what our son can do with his sister but that hasn't seemed to help even when we remind him of the list.

How can we help our 3.5 year old treat his baby sister nicer, or at least more gently?

  • Generally timeouts are not something kids like, so I'm a little surprised that hasn't changed his behavior. I'd like to ask a couple of questions about how timeouts have worked. Have you applied them consistently and immediately? When you put him on timeout do you keep the issue simply to his behavior (don't do that behavior), or do you focus on the sister and create a sense that she is the reason he is in trouble? Are you completely free of anger when the timeout happens? Also, as a follow up, do you role model how to play nicely?
    – Adam Heeg
    Jul 9, 2018 at 18:47
  • Timeouts: consistent yes, immediately, we usually give 2-3 warnings. Timeouts are focused on his behavior. Not completely free of anger much of the time. We talk about how to play nicely, I wouldn't go all the way to say we role model though. Jul 9, 2018 at 21:03
  • Any anger and all the warnings need to stop. 2-3 warnings every incident is killing your authority and killing your sons' ability to take adults seriously. He already knows too well the warnings and what is expected of him. As @iulia says below, you need to play with him, but also with her in front of him. If he has no frame of reference or if TV is his only social frame of reference he really has close to now chance to invent new behaviors. Sorry I can't draw this out to a more formal answer. I may later.
    – Adam Heeg
    Jul 10, 2018 at 11:40

4 Answers 4


I've witnessed this behavior before between my oldest and my newest. In the beginning he would treat new baby kind of rough. It's hard for children to gauge their own strength sometimes. It's also hard for them to realize they might be hurting baby when baby can't scream out "OUCH! You're hurting me!" Until baby has a voice, you will have to be the advocate for her well-being when he gets out of control.

Never alone together

This level of trust took a couple of months but my son is much older than yours. In the beginning, we never left them alone together in the same room. Being a presence is always a deterrent for rough play. Once you're out of line-of-sight, there is little you can do to stop an accident.

Praise the good

You say that you are currently using time-outs. Keep this up. Inform him of what is acceptable playing and what is not acceptable playing. Be consistent with timeouts when he does not meet the standard.

When he is playing gently, praise him for it. Tell him that you like the way he is being gentle and so does baby. This is important! Without a standard to measure against, he will only know how not to play with the baby. Give him a standard on how to play with the baby too.

Be a buffer. Put baby in time out.

Often when any of my children would start to play rough with anything, be it new baby, fragile toy, expensive technology, I remove the item being played with rather than removing them. When my newest was just a couple of months old and I could see my oldest getting too rough, rather than handing down a timeout for fairly normal behavior for a 6-year-old boy, I removed baby.

"It looks like you are getting a little too rough and need to calm down, so baby and I are going to step out of the room for a bit." It gives baby a break and it lets oldest know that his actions were getting a little out of hand without him resenting being disciplined. Once he calmed down, the baby and I would come back.

Remain mindful that your son wanting to play is a good thing! It means he has accepted baby. From what you described, he doesn't sound like he is intending to do harm but rather just rough playing a little too much. Continue to be that buffer and praise him for good behavior and things should turn out fine.

  • Thanks for this answer, which I completely agree with; I wish only that you had included how to handle intentionally hurtful behavior, because that's what I think might be going on. Baby is more interesting now, and getting more responses of delight from parents; perhaps 3.5 is passively-aggressively punishing baby for the redirected attention of the parents. I still wish I could split the bounty between your answer and @Adam Heeg's. +1. Jul 14, 2018 at 16:25

While I agree with most of what SomeShinyObject wrote in his answer, it seems to me that one cause of your son's more rough behaviour manifested recently towards his sister could be jealousy. At this age your son is old enough to understand right or wrong in such situations, so his behaviour is most likely intentional. This sibling jealousy arises when first-borns (up until a certain age) realize that their younger sibling is not just a "doll" who only eats, poops, and smiles cutely, but that she is becoming a person in her own right, with all that entails, including invasion of the previously exclusive space of the older siblings (like you describe).

Besides what you are already doing and what was suggested by SomeShinyObject, I would add that it's important to give your son plenty of one-on-one time, as much as your circumstances allow you to. And even when both kids are in the same room, try to sometimes carve some playing or learning situations where you focus your attention only on the older son. He needs confirmation that you are still there for him, and that can consequently diminish his jealousy and roughness.


Your main question to me appears to be about the socialization of your son. How to play with others, how to listen to adults, and follow rules.

Spend Quality Time With Him/Them
It is important that you find ways to teach your son and show him correct behavior. Too many kids (and this is ridiculously true for kids 8-14) get all their role modeling done by social media. With 2 kids who are getting older now you will become more and more needed in their lives. They must have times where they are the primary focus of your attention.

During this time you can show your son how he should play and how to respect and be gentle with his sister.

Handling Misbehavior
I heard a popular psychologist coin this phrase,

"Don't let your kid do anything that will make you not like them."

This is a good rule of thumb. Of course this has to be taken with a grain of salt because you and I are not God and they are not robots. This includes not just playing rough with the baby, but also not listening or talking back (when that inevitably occurs).

The more I thought about it I realized that the main problem is not that you're not doing the right things, because you are. The main issue is that you are also doing the wrong things! This should be helpful because it shows that there isn't a magic bullet nor a secret skill or ability you're lacking. You simply need to practice removing the wrong parenting response and keep the right ones! (That was an epiphany for me).

As a resource I found an article on the Child Development Institute which says simply and clearly about handling bad language:

Youngsters sometimes experiment and use language inappropriately, including highly unacceptable profanity, the meaning of which they probably don’t know. How to handle such situations? Firmly and immediately! Letting it go until a later time means that the correction will lose its punch and impact. What is needed is a strong (without anger) statement-e.g., “That is not the way we speak in out family.” That is all that is necessary and makes it possible to correct the child without “putting him down” in front of his friends.

And more specifically for physical issues:

The same principal applies as above. Pushing, shoving, hitting or outright inappropriate “pranks” need to be handled on the spot. No lecturing. “I’m putting you in your room because you shoved Tommy” may be all that is necessary. No “Why did you do that?” et cetera, which only belabors and clouds the situation and misdirects the thrust of the corrective action. Yes, there will be times when your child had to take defensive action-and you can deal with such situations by curtailing interaction with a specific youngster who may indeed be taking advantage of your child’s vulnerability.

If you are like me and don't read paragraphs, here is a concise list:

1) Handle misbehavior right away
2) Do not be angry
3) Strongly declare the issue or expected behavior
4) Do not start a discussion, rant, or go off topic
5) Do not put down your child ('you should already know this', 'what is wrong with you', etc.)

Little Tidbit on Not Getting Angry!
Focus on your children. The more you try to accomplish another task the angrier you will be about being interrupted and the more often you'll miss opportunities to intervene before a problem happens.

It is really hard to give up the things you're interested in or need to do to focus on your children. Remember, the more quality your time and parenting with them now the better off they and the rest of society will be. The work you do with them pays dividends for their entire lives and is vastly more important than any other task (although putting out a raging fire in your home might be more important).

A parents influence grows for a little while, but peeks earlier than we want. You are in the sweet spot right now and you want to put the most work in you can now. The cool thing is if you do that you will get used to it - you'll be socialized as a parent (referring to my title of socializing the child).

Bonus Material
Finally, a little heads up to the later years, here is a nice video about kids learning to sacrifice childish potential in order to gain reality as an adult.

  • I agree with nearly everything written here, and wish I could split the bounty between your answer and @SomeShinyObject's. You got the bounty for including sources. +1 (and 500) Jul 14, 2018 at 16:20
  • 1
    @anongoodnurse thank you for the vote of confidence. ;)
    – Adam Heeg
    Jul 17, 2018 at 0:31

While I like the answers here, I will tell you how I handled this exact problem. I have no idea if it was wise or kind, and I'm kind of embarrassed by it. But I was absolutely at my wit's end, and for some reason it worked .

At 3.5, my child was always knocking down my still-somewhat-unsteady-on-his-feet 1 year old. All. The. Time. Though the 3.5 always claimed it was an accident (they 'bumped' into 1yo going by; they 'couldn't stop' running on time, they 'didn't see' 1 yo, etc.), I began to see it as jealousy and a desire to hurt the baby (and a way to do it 'safely'.)

I tried everything: More quality time, explanations of why that was wrong, requiring 3.5 to slow down, time outs, ignoring 3.5 and removing the baby, everything. Nothing worked, and I despaired of the baby ever walking without the expectation of being suddenly knocked down.

At the end of my rope, I came up with a drastic solution.

Please know that I do not advocate spanking, even given this answer.

I sat down (for the umpteenth time) with 3.5 to explain why knocking over 1 yo was wrong, and outlined all the ways I tried to help 3.5 to stop. I observed that none of what I tried worked. 3.5 agreed in principle. So I outlined a new plan: whenever the baby fell, for whatever reason, 3.5 would get a spanking (3.5 had witnessed spankings so knew what that meant exactly.) 3.5 seemed totally unfazed. I repeated myself and made sure 3.5 knew exactly what I was proposing and why. 3.5 agreed to it.

Later that evening, 3.5 knocked 1 yo over once again 'by accident' He got a gentle spanking (not even any tears.) Fine, no problem. Then he went down into the basement to play with his dad. A little while later, 1 yo fell on his own. I called down to 3.5 to come up from the basement to get a spanking, because 1 yo had fallen.

An incredulous "WHAT???" was 3.5's reply. I calmly repeated myself, adding that 3.5 had agreed to this consequence of 1 yo's falling for whatever reason, remember? And, well, 1 yo had fallen.

3.5 came up indignantly and received a gentle spanking. 3.5 was clearly seeing a new side of life, one that was unfair and undeserved. I explained how unfair and undeserved it was to 1 yo that he was always 'accidentally' getting knocked down by 3.5. 3.5 said nothing, and was sent down to resume playing with Daddy with a reminder to remember the agreement.

The problem stopped that evening. 3.5 never intentionally rammed into 1 yo again.

The moral of this story is that maybe the older child needs to experience the unfairness and emotional pain that is being caused by their actions towards the baby, and words may not be enough. Maybe a concrete example, one that the accused can feel themselves, is needed. I think (I do not know for sure, but I hope) that this was what 3.5 experienced.

I did not like being the agent of unfairness in 3.5's life. But I also did not like 1 yo's suffering at 3.5's hands. I balanced the two and was fully prepared to take it as far as it needed to go such that 3.5 would make sure 1 yo didn't fall if 3.5 could prevent it.

Maybe - I don't know, and I hesitated for 8 days in posting this answer - maybe your child needs to feel the unfairness of his 'roughhousing' to truly empathize with his victim sister.

  • 1
    When actual push comes to shove, I advocate spanking. I think this approach is perfect and it worked. Jul 16, 2018 at 14:30
  • @SomeShinyObject - Love the pun! Thanks for the support. :) Jul 16, 2018 at 15:49

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