Q: My husband and I have a question about our son’s behavior lately. He is three years old and it seems as though he is having trouble listening, following directions, and first time obedience. He seems more whiney and tends to get frustrated more quickly than usual. It's only been the last couple weeks. We want to know if this behavior is related to the fact that we are expecting our new baby in about 4 weeks. My husband’s parents and sister were out for a visit last week and she has a baby. Our son did very well with her. He wanted to help and was good about sharing his toys and very sweet to her. We just wanted to get your opinion about this. Thanks!
A: There is really no way to know if or how much your son’s change in behavior has to do with your soon-to-arrive-addition-to-the-family. There are other changes going on in your son’s life, aside from that new bundle of joy. At about three years old, and several other times in the life of a child, they will reevaluate and re-test all the of boundaries that they have accepted up to that point. That sounds like bad news, but this is a natural part of the cognitive (brain function) development of a child. The important thing for us to remember as parents is that when our children reach another point of re-testing those boundaries, we must show them that the boundaries are real and firm and will be enforced. The beauty of each stage is that it is an opportunity to explain, on an even deeper level, the moral reason behind those boundaries or rules. Be strong. You are the parent. You are in charge. Be firm in reminding him that he will obey when you ask him to do something. Keep your word. Don’t make empty threats. Follow through immediately with discipline. Younger children are very good at learning first time obedience, it is often the parent’s enforcement that is lacking. The child is testing that, and if you let up now, it will be the first step down a road that leads to an anarchic disregard for authority. In a few years, he will be getting bigger and more difficult to physically handle, so it is important that he has a clear idea in his mind of who is in charge.
I would also like to suggest that you do some specific things that show him that although you now have to focus on a new child in the house, your love for him is as strong and full as ever.
1. Tell him several times a day how much you love him and how important he is to you. Look him right in the eye and with a big smile ask, “Do you know how much I love you?” and see what he says.
2. Get a special gift and give it to him right about the time he sees all the gifts for the new baby.
3. When you put the baby down for a nap, take a few minutes to play with him. Resist the temptation to jump on the dishes or housework right after putting the baby in her crib. Read him a story, get out the blocks, get on the floor and play legos with him. Take 10-15 minutes to fill up his love-tank, so he remembers how important he is to you.
4. Try to never use your care of the baby as a reason for not spending time with him. Instead of saying, “Mommy can’t play with you right now, I have to feed little sister,” say, “Mommy will play with you in a little bit,” and then follow through on your promise.
5. Feel free to include the older child as much as possible in the care of the younger child, but never force it. If he wants to hold little sister, show him how to do it safely, but if he doesn’t, don’t force it.
Bottom line: give him time, attention, affection, and as much discipline as needed.