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I have toddler who is just under 2.5 y/o and is constantly hurting and being mean to his baby brother who is 9 months old. He will often take toys away from his brother just because his brother is holding them. Sometimes he pushes his brother over while he's sitting up, or kicks him while they're sitting together to keep him away from any nearby toys.

I think at least part of his behavior is rooted in jealousy. We make sure to give the toddler a lot of love and attention, but as soon we give any attention to the baby, he starts to act up more.

We have explained to him that it's not nice to take toys or push and that he should say sorry whenever he does it. We remind him to apologize and return the toy after it happens, and he does, but the behavior continues. We try especially hard to praise him for being nice whenever he plays nicely with his brother. I thought this would work, but it's almost like an immediate knee-jerk reaction for him to just be mean whenever he feels emotional. He just can't help it. I feel like I must be doing something wrong. What else can I do to help my toddler understand this behavior is unacceptable and teach him to be nice?


Update to answer question in the comments:

The toddler does seem to actually like his brother most of the time. He gets excited when the baby wakes up from naps and loves to sing "good morning to you" to him. They also play well together in the bath and he likes giving the baby high-fives and hugs and stuff like that. The mean behavior is not super common and seems more impulsive than anything. It's still concerning to me though because he's actually hurting his defenseless brother on a consistent basis.

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3 Answers 3

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We struggled with this too. I don't think we found a perfect solution, and eight years later still have some issues of this nature; but what did seem to help was focusing on the feelings.

By this I mean focusing on teaching the older sibling how the younger sibling feels when they do (whatever). This is a combination of 'show' and 'tell'; show older brother the younger sibling's tears and emotions (literally), and tell the older sibling how the feelings are connected to their actions. We tended to avoid requiring apologies at earlier ages, as our understanding was requiring an apology is counterproductive - they should choose to make the apology as a result of seeing the emotional impact of the behavior.

We also would talk to our older son about why he made the choice(s) he made, and tried to help him find alternative options for accomplishing the goal he had. Sometimes it was just wanting whatever younger brother had, but sometimes it was more complicated - being frustrated younger brother was in the way, or younger brother took something without realizing it was important where it was, or whatnot. Giving him tools to manage his frustration was an effective way of helping him solve the problem in a different way the next time it occurred.

Like I said, this didn't work perfectly by any means, but it seemed to help some, at least. We struggle still with empathy, and this is part of that in my mind. Find other ways to help develop empathy and some of this will improve. Don't feel bad for looking out for the baby, though - that's an important part of your job, beyond developing older sibling, protecting the younger one is necessary to make sure they are okay!

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    Thanks for the answer. I think talking to him about feelings is very good advice and something we did better when he was younger and kind of got out of the habit of doing. It’s not an overnight solution, but I think it’s definitely important and likely to help.
    – Ryan
    Feb 17 at 0:41
  • Great answer. To supplement: Make sure older has some safe places to put items he doesn't want to share. Teach older the trick of trading toys -- if he wants to grab Toy A from baby, it's easy if you just hold out Toy B. Baby will drop Toy A when he reaches out for Toy B. Teach older gradually to verbalize his feels, e.g. "I want some privacy now." "I don't want baby to bother us when I have a friend over." (Some of this is looking ahead when the toddler is a bit older.) My older got so fed up with younger bursting into his room unexpectedly, we reinstalled lockable doorknobs for his room. Feb 17 at 13:26
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    Childless dude in his forties here, so please excuse my ignorance. I had the impression that this sort of abstract thinking, the ability to comprehend the concept that other people are as real as you are and have emotions just like you do comes relatively late. Is that wrong? Can a toddler really grasp the concept that people around them have emotions and can be emotionally affected by the toddler's actions?
    – terdon
    Feb 17 at 15:23
  • @terdon good question. I had to look this up, but it looks like they can start learning empathy around 2, so this still seems like good advice
    – Ryan
    Feb 17 at 15:27
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    @terdon - On some level, this is present almost from birth. Experiments on infants show they can differentiate and show signs of empathy to a mother's feelings.
    – anongoodnurse
    Feb 18 at 15:18
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This is the OP. After using some of the advice from the other answers as well as some of our own techniques, I want to share how things turned out.

He is now much nicer to his younger brother. He no longer tries to hurt him and he actively tries to share with him.

What worked?

  1. We talked about how his actions made his younger brother feel. Whenever he would take a toy from or hurt his brother, we would remove one of them from the situation and talk about how his younger brother was sad because of what happened and what it’s like to be sad. We would talk about it even when he was not the one that caused the younger brother to be sadThis worked surprisingly well and he started noticing on his own and giving his brother kisses to help him feel better.
  2. We emphasized good behavior. Instead of just telling him he was doing a good job when he was playing nicely, we would make a big deal out of it by giving him a high five and acting really excited. He started even choosing to share even when not asked and we would talk about how it made his brother feel happy.
  3. We would encourage him to take toys he did not want to share somewhere else. If he didn’t want to share toys we told him to take them somewhere his brother couldn’t get to.
  4. We spent more one-on-one time with him. When younger brother takes a nap, instead of using that time to catch up around the house, we specifically do “learning time” with him which he really enjoys. It helps give him some of the positive attention he may have been missing before.
  5. Less screen time. We used to put on the TV to distract him while we needed to get other things done. We made a new rule of no TV until after dinner and only one show per day. This seems to have had a major positive impact on his behavior as a whole, although it was hard for the first few days.

These techniques worked well for him, but I imagine their effectiveness will vary from child to child. Anyway, I hope these ideas may help other parents who struggle with this problem in the future.

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You need both positive and negative actions. It is not wrong to punish a child appropriately for behaviour that hurts another person, and I get the feeling that you are deliberately avoiding even slight punishment. In fact, I would even say it is necessary to impose consequences for any hurtful behaviour, for the sake of the people who would foreseeably be hurt by future hurtful behaviour of similar kind.

If you do not impose consequences, you effectively send him a very strong message that he can get away with anything he likes because there are no consequences! That is not only bad for your baby, but bad for your toddler's personal growth as well.

For example, if he takes away a toy 3 times in a row (for no good reason), a fair consequence is to take all toys from him for a day. The punishment is justified by the repetition of undesirable taking from others, because if he cannot control his behaviour on his own then someone else has to teach him to do so.

If he pushes his brother over deliberately, it is fair to put him in a time-out. Of course, you also need to explain the reason for the time-out.

If he kicks his brother, that is crossing the line into violence, and cannot be tolerated in any sensible parenting approach. You should immediately stop him and warn him of severe consequences if it happens again. If you judge that he knows his kicking hurts the brother, then you may even need to give a palm-to-palm spanking. Many people may tell you that spanking is bad, but that is a false generalization. You must never spank in anger, and you should not use an object. But your baby is not a disposable object and you cannot afford to let the elder brother harm your baby just because you do not want to effectively curb violence.

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    @user21820 thank you for your input. I agree that consequences are important as well. We usually give him a warning the first time he does it and then put the toys away (not for a whole day though) if he does it again in the same setting which is rare. Maybe we can make a clear rule and then follow through with the consequence on the first offense. I also disagree with the spanking however. I don’t see any way of justifying hurting someone that can’t defend themselves. That’s what he’s doing to his brother, and if I did it to him, that would just send the message that it’s okay.
    – Ryan
    Feb 17 at 15:17
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    … but I recognize I could be wrong about that. We’re all just out here trying to do our best. I don’t have anger issues, but spanking just isn’t for me.
    – Ryan
    Feb 17 at 15:21
  • @Ryan: In case you missed the point, the palm-to-palm spanking is different from other spanking, because the goal is simply that both parent and child suffer a slight sting and nothing more. Furthermore, it has to be done cooperatively; you do not grab the child and force him to get a palm-spanking. Rather, as made very clear in my answer, it only applies "if you judge that he knows his kicking hurts the brother", because only in that case would he be able to understand when you explain that such hurtful behaviour is 100% unacceptable and he must get a palm-spank.
    – user21820
    Feb 17 at 15:42
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    Can someone please tell me what “palm to palm spanking” is? I tried to Google it but only perverted stuff comes up…thanks in advance.
    – sammy
    Feb 17 at 15:55
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    @user21820 Unless you are a lawyer and well-versed in the topic, please refrain from rekindling the discussion.
    – Stephie
    Feb 17 at 17:50

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