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Recently, my 3-year-old daughter started hitting her 8-month-old baby brother. It started a few weeks ago, and is getting more and more common.

So far everything we've tried, we've been unable to change this behavior. We tried explaining to her (she understands it's wrong), being mad at her, punishing her, and asking her why she hit him.

It doesn't seem like it's done out of anger. One time she even said "mom, I want to hit my brother", and did just that right after. We assume it's either jealousy or craving attention, but the girl gets a lot of attention and doesn't have any rational reason to be jealous of him.

Any ideas?

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    What happens when you talk to her about your son's feelings? How does she react when he cries? – Joe Feb 27 at 17:57
  • If I ask her why she hit him she doesn't answer. Or says stuff like "I wanted to hit him" or "Because I hit him". If I tell her that she hurt him, or ask her if she likes when others hit her, then she says that no, but her behavior remains unchanged. – tbkn23 Feb 27 at 19:00
  • "why" is usually not something that a child that age can answer - so that's not surprising. – Joe Feb 27 at 19:01
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    Loss of privilege and time-outs. Time out should be no longer than the age of the child in minutes. Then explain to the child why he/she has lost his/her privilege. – MacItaly Feb 27 at 19:48
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Rather than focusing on how to stop the bad behaviour, try instead to work on the underlying cause.

The older child is clearly resentful and jealous of her new sibling. This is very common at that age. She doesn't see him as a beautiful, precious new little person. She sees him as a competitor for her parents attention.

However, giving her more attention won't necessarily help. She can't quantify how much attention she gets vs her brother. Even if she could, she's not using logic to justify her behaviour.

I think what you want to do, is help to nurture her relationship with her little brother. Show her positive things she can do with him. Get her involved with his care, so she can feel like she can contribute in a meaningful way.

She could, with supervision of course, help with bath time, or with meals etc.

Show her simple games she can play with him, like peekaboo.

She may soon enough start to enjoy hearing him giggle, rather than cry.

  • This could be the chance to show how grown up she is becoming by helping you care for him! – Smock Mar 1 at 14:38
  • We always do try to involve her, and she does seem to love him most of the time. When she comes home from kindergarten he's the first she hugs and says hi to. We'll try to encourage this, even more, hope it will help. – tbkn23 Mar 4 at 7:37
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For the most part, what worked for me with my children at that age was to focus on their empathy. Namely, when one child hits another child, to take a few actions - assuming this was a significant enough hit that it made the other child sad/cry:

  1. Show the child the victim's face, clearly, and point out that the other child is sad, and hurt, because of the hit.
  2. Ask the child what they can do to help.
  3. Let them take that action.

At three, it's not very easy to tie actions to consequences in my experience. Punishments don't really seem to change long-term behavior; for the most part they just hurt the child's feelings. See for example this Psychology Today article:

[E]verything we know about child development suggests that angry punishments don’t work very well in the long run. You may get a child to comply for the moment, but it will come at the cost of their self-esteem or lead to simmering resentment. In the long run, this won’t go well for you or the child.

Instead, use natural or logical consequences. In the case of hitting another child, the logical consequence can be as I explained above; it can also be a short break from the play area, a time-out (but importantly not a punishment time-out - a cool-down time out).

The natural consequence would typically be that the other child won't want to play with the aggressor anymore, something I regularly point out to my children at any age. Push the other child around too much and they'll go play somewhere else.

I'm also a big fan of role playing in situations like this. If you try the above, and at (2) she can't think of anything, then role play the scenario with her - pretend to be her brother, or even swap roles.

The above article has a good explanation of how to do this, even for specifically a three year old:

Three-year-old Lauren hits her brother because he’s using the toy she wants to play with.

Do not hit Lauren or tell her to go to a timeout. Look at her as if you can’t quite believe she has done this, and say something like, “You know we don’t hit people in our family. What happens next?”

If little Lauren doesn’t seem to know she needs to apologize, help her get there. Do some role-playing with what an apology looks like, with you and Lauren taking turns playing the role of her and her brother. Once she has told him she’s sorry and told you that she knows she shouldn’t hit people, consider what else might be going on. Is she hungry, tired, thirsty, needing a snuggle? Use her behavior as a message to attend to what’s happening with her.

  • While I agree with much of what you've said, I disagree with some as well. Even a meaningful apology doesn't do much good to an 8 month old who's getting struck for no reason. As the OP stated, "...but her behavior remains unchanged." What then? – anongoodnurse Feb 27 at 23:59
  • The apology isn’t for the 8 month old; it’s helping her understand she shouldn’t do it. Focusing on helping her develop empathy and the understanding of why you don’t hit will lead to her changing her behavior over time, though expecting quick results with a three year old is unreasonable. – Joe Feb 28 at 0:28
  • I understand the apology is for her benefit. My point is, the baby still suffers. What to do about that? If she still acts on her jealousy, and since you acknowledge her behavior is unlikely to change quickly, what do you do in the meantime for the baby? (Hence, "Even a meaningful apology doesn't do much good to an 8 month old who's getting struck for no reason.") – anongoodnurse Feb 28 at 0:56
  • The other problem with punishment is that the older child may consider this yet another reason to resent the new sibling. They've been punishment and as far as they're concerned it's baby brothers fault. – user1751825 Feb 28 at 12:01
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    The question doesn't explicitly ask about the baby's point of view, but it appears strange to completely disregard the baby's well-being. It's not about some random behavior you want the girl to stop even if it doesn't harm anyone else (e. g. because it's socially unacceptable ("What will the neighbors say?")). And hitting a baby is not acceptable, even if it doesn't "hurt him meaningfully" - it can still cause pain or sadness. And, for sure, it's potentially, though maybe not intentionally, dangerous, e. g. imagine the baby hitting his head against some piece of furniture when pushed back. – Anne Daunted Feb 28 at 17:04
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We assume it's either jealousy or craving attention, but the girl gets a lot of attention and doesn't have any rational reason to be jealous of him.

She has every reason to be jealous of him. You're delighted with him. She's not the center of your universe anymore; she has to share the spotlight. It's quite normal/natural (and rational to her mind.)

TL:DR: Do everything you can correctly and consistently before the option of last resort.

By consistently, I mean, Every. Single. Time. Whether it's convenient or not, whether you're in the grocery store, a restaurant, at friends' houses or dog tired. Pick a stance/tactic and stick to it (i.e. don't jump around between acting angry, time outs, discussion, etc.

Emotional Vocabulary

Talking to her isn't the same as exploring what she thinks, feels, and knows. It's likely (especially because the baby is probably delighting you especially around now with first words, good social interactions, laughing, crawling/cruising and other delightful accomplishments) that she's doing this out of jealousy. She may not recognize "jealousy", and it might mean you have to give her examples, like saying, "let's go have some ice cream!" Then give yourself a big serving and her a teeny tiny one. Ask her how she 'feels'. She will probably say 'mad' or 'sad'. You can then talk about what jealousy is any how it hurts inside, trying to explore ways to help her comprehend. Then give her plenty of your ice cream. Ask her what she feels now - don't settle for 'better'. Help her to name her emotions; give her an emotional vocabulary.

Emotions are not right or wrong; they are a feeling

Make sure your daughter knows that feelings aren't right or wrong, feelings don't make her good or bad; feelings just happen. It's how someone acts when they have feelings that matters. Talk to her about your feelings (noble and ignoble, including jealousy) and how you deal/dealt with them. That way, she might be able to freely express her true feelings to you without feeling shame or fear.

Examples help

Short books, stories, fables, fairy tales, examples of any kind that might interest her wherein the protagonist (or antagonist) feels jealous can help her name and recognize that emotion. Critique not the feeling but how they work through it.

Empathy building

At 3 years of age, kids can feel empathy (it's even been shown in infants) and can be deceitful/know they're doing wrong and do it anyway. You need to give her a reason not to hit her brother that's stronger than her desire to lash out. Help her to imagine how it feels to be struck for no reason; help her to identify with her brother. There is a lot on the internet about building empathy even in preschoolers. This answer is too long already to repeat it. Again, though, books, stories, fairy tails, etc.

Actions have consequences

Praise and reward good behavior. Good choices have good consequences! A sticker chart here would be a great idea.

Children learn about what behaviors are acceptable and not acceptable based on the consequences of them. If you want a child to do a behavior more often, a reward will help.

For your child, the desired behavior is making a choice not to hit her brother.

At 3, the rewards need to be relatively immediate, e.g. an extra game after dinner, an extra book at bedtime, or a cartoon. Rewards can help in learning self control. See The Dos and Don'ts of the Sticker Chart.

On the other hand, if explaining why it's wrong and hurtful does nothing (i.e. until she learns empathy with your help), when it happens, I highly recommend time outs with her, using 1,2,3 Magic (for 2-12yo).* It is for many really magical. There's no pleading, explaining, etc. The first step is to sit her down and explain that there are going to be new rules now and why they are rules, not requests. Generally, kids are warned when they start behaving in any way reasonably unacceptable to you, and if they don't stop, you start counting. You'll find, though, that hitting is an automatic "3" and they go right into a time out. If you want to have a discussion with your child about how loved she is, how harmful jealousy is to her relationships with others, and how bad for her brother hitting is, that is done at the rule setting stage and only after time outs.

If, (if!) properly administered time-outs don't work after a few months, consider spanking. This is very unpopular advice, but hitting a baby is dramatically just not ok. People may argue that spanking teaches kids that hitting is a way to solve problems. It's not a good way to solve problems, but striking an innocent baby is worse, and judicious spanking has never been shown conclusively to do long term harm to a child. Just save it for that one thing: intentionally hurting others even though repeatedly warned not to do so. Thoughtful use of spanking should be replaced by self control and discussion/other consequences by the age of 6 or so.

Another argument might be, why don't you keep the baby and the 3 yo separate? I'm against that because it creates an artificial solution, not one that teaches the child to control herself. It also makes it difficult to have family time, and isn't that kind of punishing the baby as well? The child must learn that hitting her brother is simply not an option whatever she is feeling.

You may need to spank her more than once (I hope not more than twice.) Before you decide on this (which should be your last option), sit down with your child and explain how everything you've tried to help prevent this behavior (and you should have tried everything) has not helped her to control herself, so the new rule is that when she strikes her baby brother, she will get a spanking. Ask her if she knows what that is, and if she doesn't, explain it to her. Make sure she understands. Then, the very next time she does it (no, "What did we talk about?" or other half-measures), don't say a word and just calmly but immediately pick her up, take her to her room or somewhere private, and swat her bottom. The point of this is that it should be immediate and dramatic, not angry, painful, or impulsively done.

(Spanking is defined as) striking the child on the buttocks or extremities with an open hand without inflicting physical injury with the intention to modify behavior. Spanking is intended to be aversive, but not necessarily by inflicting physical pain.1

It will probably scare her or startle her, but don't coddle her. Tell her that you talked about this and this is the new consequence for hitting her brother. It's not that you love her brother more than her, it's just that her brother is completely innocent and she is not.

Good luck. This is a difficult situation to deal with, but it is surmountable with patience, persistence, kindness, and wisdom.

*Most people think they know how to do this correctly but they don't. This is a very specific method that, if done improperly, will do absolutely nothing but confuse or frustrate the child. Please, buy the book and read it cover to cover before trying to implement it. It's not a long book, and there are videos on Youtube to help as well.

When I had baby #2, #1 expressed jealousy by always knocking #2 down whenever #2 got to an upright position. It was always "an accident". I tried everything I could think of for months, including all the above. I began to despair of #2 ever learning to walk without getting knocked down. Finally exhausting every possibility I could think of, I sat down and explained that accident or not, every time #2 was knocked over, #1 would get a spanking. I made sure #1 understood what a 'spanking' was. Sure enough, a few minutes later, #1 got their first swat on the bottom. #1 took it in stride, didn't even blink. But the second time, #1 was so offended that the behavior stopped immediately. It was truly one of the most memorable things I ever saw as a parent.

[1] DOES CAUSALLY RELEVANT RESEARCH SUPPORT A BLANKET INJUNCTION AGAINST DISCIPLINARY SPANKING BY PARENTS?
ARE SPANKING INJUNCTIONS SCIENTIFICALLY SUPPORTED?
Comparing Child Outcomes of Physical Punishment and Alternative Disciplinary Tactics: A Meta-Analysis You might think the author is pro-spanking. He is not. This is his field of research.
For the layman: Findings Give Some Support To Advocates of Spanking For the record, I despise the teachings of Dobson and his ilk. I am not pro-spanking. But I - and my pediatrician and others - don't think one swat on the bottom in extreme circumstances is going to ruin a child for life.
Perspective taking in children's narratives about jealousy (Mostly about 5-8 year olds, but helpful info.)

  • Sorry, but I feel that hitting a child to teach them not to hit is entirely counterproductive, and unethical. Were she to be doing serious harm to her 8 month old brother, there are far better solutions (including simply removing her from situations where she can hit him). – Joe Feb 28 at 15:38
  • @Joe - I don't favor spanking; it's a tool of last resort. "Simply removing her from situations where she can hit him" doesn't teach her self control. It's punitive in itself ("I can't play where daddy is because of that baby..."). Better to address her actions/consequences, which means she has the opportunity to strike the child (with a parent available to stop her and give her a time out for her behavior.) Removing the baby is like making the victim of a schoolroom bully sit in the classroom during recess so the bully doesn't have an opportunity to act badly. Wrong person gets isolated. – anongoodnurse Feb 28 at 19:17
  • In many countries, spanking for any reason is illegal, and it would be my opinion that it should be here. – Joe Feb 28 at 19:19
  • @Joe - Btw, "I feel that hitting a child to teach them not to hit is entirely counterproductive" isn't supported by the current literature, even the most vocal opponent of any spanking admits this. See the NYT article for easier reading that sums up the dilemma well; two of the papers I cited are discussed in it. To those who live in countries where spanking is illegal, then I say, don't follow this advice. Just because 5 people you know are ardent vegans doesn't mean you should be. As you're fond of saying , there's no proven rulebook to parenting. – anongoodnurse Feb 28 at 19:22
  • @Joe: It’s good that spanking is for bidden. But in this case here I fully agree that the parents have to use it as last option! – Albrecht Hügli Mar 2 at 6:30
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I’m not a friend of spanking but here it is inevitable to show or explain the little girl that her actions or reactions are dangerous - for the baby and for her own forthcoming.

You can tell her that your spanking is not meant as a punishment but that this is your duty to protect the fable one and to explain the one bullies what it means to hurt and how it feels to be hurt.

To discuss is better than fighting. But sometimes we are speaking too long and should be better acting.

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