Dear Mr. Dad: Our three-year-old son is jealous of his new baby brother. My wife and I did our best to prepare him for the baby’s arrival, and initially, he seemed happy about having a sibling to play with. But now, he seems to be angry with us and aggressive toward the baby, throwing tantrums and shouting that he hates his brother. How do we handle this?
A: First, it’s important to understand that your older son’s outbursts are completely normal. Think about it from his perspective: For three years he was the center of the Universe and had you and Mom all to himself. Then, without even consulting him, you bring in someone who steals all your attention. Worse yet, the instant playmate he was hoping for turns out to be a blobby baby who does nothing but sleep, eat, cry, and poop. And to top it off, with everyone ooohing and aaahing over the new baby, your older boy is feeling unwanted and unloved.
Of course, nothing could be further from the truth, but a three-year-old doesn’t have the same capacity to understand this new family dynamic as you do.
So what can you do to help the big brother get over his jealousy? Start by telling him—often—that you and Mom love him very much and that those feelings will never change. I remember having a similar conversation with my oldest when her younger sister was born. She was afraid that if I loved the baby I couldn’t love her as much. I lit a candle and asked her to imagine that the flame was my love for her. Then I took a second candle and lit it with the flame from the first one. The second candle burned as brightly as the first, which wasn’t diminished in any way. It’s the same with love.
Next, keep a few small presents around in case big brother feels left out when people bring gifts for the baby but not for him. It doesn’t have to be a big deal, just a little something to let him know he’s special too. If you have an album or a scrapbook of him as a baby, show him the photos and tell him about the presents he received when he was born.
Stress the perks of being an older brother. For example, the baby is too little to play with “big boy” toys, or eat food that big kids do. It’s an odd way to build self-esteem, but it works.
It’s also important to start fostering a relationship between the brothers by teaching big bro to gently interact with little bro. If he wants to help you care for the baby, let him. If he wants to play with him and brings his trucks into the crib, explain that the baby is too little to enjoy big-boy games and suggest alternatives like soft toys or a song. Don’t leave him alone in the room with the baby just yet. Though he may not intentionally want to hurt the baby, he’s too young to gauge his own strength. And be sure to praise loving, gentle behavior whenever you see it.
Finally, try to carve out some one-on-one time with your older son, doing all the activities you used to do before the baby’s arrival. He may be a big brother, but he’s still a very young child who needs your time, presence, and attention as much as ever.
Finding enough quality time to give everyone in a growing family will be a challenge, but the rewards are well worth it.