Preventing 3 Year Old Behavior Problems After New Baby
For the first month or so after bringing home our new baby, I was surprised that my 3 year old had no apparent shifts in behavior. He seemed curious about and delighted by the new baby.
Fast forward a month and this is when the ear piercing toddler screams started. Yikes.
In addition to this outrageous screaming, other 3 year old behavior problems after new baby came home included;
- Refusing to go to bed
- Refusing to get in the car
- Making angry grunting noises when wanting attention
- Ignoring or pretending not to hear directions
In retrospect, I really can’t blame my toddler for acting out in these ways. Things were a bit chaotic as we all figured out a new schedule and I myself took to “silent screaming” on occasion, along with stuffing my face with cookies as my primary coping mechanism… Perhaps this is why it is hard to return to pre-pregnancy weight after a second child.
So when I realized that my new cookie eating habit was getting a little out of control, as was my toddler, I got serious about figuring out how to help him and the whole family adjust to our new family system.
Resources On Helping Toddlers Adjust To New Baby
I read Dr Laura Markham’s book, “Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings” and this book completely shifted my mindset and approach with my toddler. 100% recommend. For those who do not have time to do a deep dive into the whole book, I share my takeaways below.
I also recommend following @Transformingtoddlerhood on Instagram for bite size pieces of amazing parenting advice.
So as my husband and I implement many of the suggestions from these resources, we have witnessed huge improvements in morale around our house. Our toddler is back to falling asleep at a decent hour, he hasn’t had a major tantrum in weeks, and for the most part he is listening to us when we ask him to do something. Of course there are days where I want to rip my hair out, but overall, my heart is full and our house is peaceful. Well, as peaceful as a house can be with a 3 year old bursting with energy.
Toddler Regressions After New Baby
While I was initially bewildered and frustrated by my 3 year old’s behavior problems after new baby, I have since realized that they actually make a lot of sense given the massive shift in our family system. With a new baby in the house, my 3 year old started receiving far less attention than he was used to, and of course he was/is going to have big feelings about that.
Romper explains that toddler behavior regressions are perfectly normal after brining home a new baby. Young children can feel like they are being replaced and the shift in their parents’ attention can really throw them for a loop!
So after reading about toddler regressions, I realized that those angry grunting noises I mentioned earlier were my toddler’s attempt at mimicking the baby when she cried out. He was making that same “eh, eh, eh” sound whenever we were shifting our attention to her. So to a toddler, mimicking a baby probably seems like a perfectly good way to win back some attention.
To highlight how stressful a new baby can be for a toddler, I love the way that a HuffPost article on the subject frames it; they describe a scenario where your spouse brings home another partner and tells you that this new partner will now be living in the house and how great it is that everyone is going to love one another. Of course most people would not be happy with this situation. So it is understandable that our little toddlers with their undeveloped toddler brains can’t quite comprehend why exactly we have brought home a new baby.
5 Guiding Principles to Deal with Toddler Tantrums After Second Baby
Toddlers can ignite a special kind of fury and frustration in their parents. As a result, I think it is very normal for parents to start feeling like they need to strictly discipline so that they do not become their 3 year old’s personal minion.
Let’s remind ourselves though, our 3 year olds’ need for power and control is not about them having dreams of ruling over us. Rather, it is most often about them feeling insecure, anxious, fearful or overwhelmed.
And as a result, trying to figure out (aka test) where the boundaries are that are going to help them manage those feelings. A boundary lets them know that things aren’t going to get out of control. They also help our littles know what to expect, which helps build a foundation of stability and security in their growing minds.
So reminding myself that little brains and hearts are prone to overwhelm and that I can help keep that overwhelm in check, usually pretty quickly starts to transform my frustration into compassion and love for my toddler.
So what little ones may need most when they are acting out is to know that their parents can remain calm and in control, and that they will continue to love them no matter what. This approach requires putting some trust in our toddlers.
So rather than assuming the worst of my toddler, I assume the best; I assume that he wants to cooperate and listen, but that he is struggling with some big feelings that are making it hard for him to do so. I assume that when I give him my unconditional love and supportive guidance and boundaries, he will better be able to regulate his feelings and behavior.
1. Keep Your Cool
Keeping your cool and calm while modeling emotional regulation skills for your toddler is no easy task. Especially when you are exhausted from being up half the night feeding a newborn. But, it is something to strive for and work on, both for yourself and your toddler.
Keeping your cool does not mean that you do not have or express any emotions of your own. It does mean though, that you do it in a conscious and regulated way. So rather than angrily yelling at your child when he refuses to listen, you step back and take a deep breath (or several).
And when I notice that I am having a hard time keeping my cool with just a few deep breaths, I put extra effort into some self care at the end of the day, or I step up my independent play basket game for my toddler so that I can have a quiet moment during the day.
2. Be a Fountain of Unconditional Love
In the midst of a toddler tantrum, I remind myself that my toddler is likely feeling insecure and overwhelmed, and that his undeveloped toddler brain is in overdrive and is spinning out. This is when he really needs my love and supportive guidance so he can take back control of the wheel. So I remind myself of this over and over and over.
And being a fountain of unconditional love is simply letting my toddler know that I am there for him, whether it be through words or just a calm and loving physical presence. In the midst of a tantrum, the later is more effective since a spinning out toddler brain really can’t process many words. So in these cases, a bear hug or a warm and concerned facial expression while sitting nearby can mean a lot to a little one that is overwhelmed.
3. Cultivate Empathy
We teach our children about empathy by showing and talking about feelings; both our own and theirs. Cultivating this emotional awareness and understanding is a huge part of learning to regulate big emotions.
Giving a name to emotions and talking about them helps kids feel like their big feelings can be managed. They learn to see that big feelings are not illusive all powerful monsters that are going to completely overwhelm them. They are just normal human emotions that can be felt and talked about. Additionally, understanding emotions is an important part of positively connecting with others.
We can also help explain to our toddlers why they might be feeling those big feelings. This helps young children feel seen and heard, and that is so important for our little ones’ sense of self worth and self-esteem.
Here are some ways we can cultivate empathy with toddlers;
- Use an “I feel…” statement and use a facial expression to match it. In the case of a feeling like anger or frustration, using an “I feel” statement is not about trying to emotionally guilt trip or manipulate your child. Rather, it is about teaching them about emotions, understanding others and understanding how they can positively or negatively impact others.
- Empathize with your toddler and help name the feeling they are expressing (eg anger, frustration, sadness, happiness) and pointing out how their behavior and facial expressions match the emotion. And also narrate for them what happened before, during and after the arrival of a big feeling.
4. Set Reasonable Limits
Sometimes it is not enough to empathize with an overwhelmed toddler. Sometimes, we need to additionally practice some assertive parenting skills and set a limit. This is a boundary that helps toddlers know what to expect as well as what is and is not acceptable behavior. And when toddlers know what to expect and know what we will and will not allow, this may lessen anxieties that are contributing to problem behaviors after new baby.
For example, when my 3 year old started having some regressions around bedtime after new baby, he started kicking his door and then me one night. In this kind of situation I’d say, “You are feeling really frustrated because I am asking you to go to bed. You don’t want to go to bed because you are having so much fun playing together. I can’t let you kick me though, because it’s not okay to hurt people”.
And then I step back or put a pillow in front of me. And if he keeps trying to kick me or looks like he might bust his toe by kicking the door, I give him a big bear hug to help him calm down. Bear hugs help activate the body’s parasympathetic nervous system, which is the system that kicks in when we are in a rest and relaxation mode.
I have only had to physically step in like this twice after new baby came home and things were escalating too much for my liking. For the most part, empathizing, setting a limit verbally and lovingly letting my toddler know that I am there for him is enough to get things back on track. And then we talk about what happened once things are calm.
As parents, we decide what limits to set for our children. Sometimes though, it is hard to know what exactly an appropriate limit is. Sometimes I find myself setting limits when one isn’t really needed, or setting limits that do not really make sense. Or sometimes I am too lax about setting a limit and things get a little out of control.
So whenever I realize that I need to set a limit, I ask myself the following questions;
- Is this limit meant to keep my toddler and others around him safe?
- Will this limit help my toddler feel less overwhelmed?
- Will this limit teach my toddler something important?
If I answer yes to one or all of these questions then I know I have set a reasonable and meaningful limit. Setting a reasonable limit also allows parents to explain in simple terms to their toddler why they set the limit. And toddlers are surprisingly reasonable themselves when they understand why a limit has been set.
And when you combine empathizing with setting a limit, it helps your toddler feel seen and heard, as well as helps them know that you are watching out for them.
5. Maintain a Positive Connection with Your Toddler
In her book on encouraging positive sibling relationships, Dr. Laura Marham discusses how young children want to listen and cooperate when they have a positive connection with their parents.
So often we think that we need to focus on strict discipline or complicated parenting strategies to get our kids to listen, but in reality, maybe we just need to play with them more!
Here is what I do with my toddler to build up our positive connection;
- Schedule time for one-on-one activities or special outings. Baby stays home with my husband and my toddler gets my undivided attention. Outings do not have to be extravagant or excessive. It can be a simple trip to the donut shop, a walk to the park or making a batch of cookies together.
- Use encouraging words and comment on positive behaviors
- Play and play and play more together
Doing Our Best to Help Our Toddlers Adjust to New Baby
It’s so easy to talk about unconditional support and maintaining calm as a parent, but I know it can be incredibly difficult in reality. And I don’t think we ever become a “perfect” parent, but we can always be a better one than we were the day before.
And sometimes no matter how calm, empathizing and loving we are, our toddlers are still going to have the occasional meltdown. We might too. And that’s normal.
What I want though, is to minimize the number and intensity of the meltdowns and problem behaviors. I want my toddler and his little sister to have a great relationship growing up together, and I know that I can influence this relationship by practicing patience and consistency, and giving them all my love and support.
Do you have any stories to share about the challenges of life with two little ones? Say hi and share in the comments below!
More on parenting young children:
Assertive Parenting to Help Mom Keep Her Calm
Intergenerational Family Patterns and How We Parent
Raising Little Boys and Thoughts on Andrew Yang’s ‘Why Boys and Men are Failing’
Raising Global Citizens for a Better Tomorrow