My Toddler Was Easy Until We Brought Our New Baby Home, Now I Can't Stop Yelling at Him
Behavior changes in young children may be frustrating and confusing, but a very normal response to big life changes. Parents.com's "Ask Your Mom" columnist, Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., says parents can help by modeling positive coping and staying as connected as possible as a stable, reliable source of love and support.
First of all, you sound like one of the lucky few parents of a toddler who remained "happy and easygoing" through the arrival of a new baby. And to potty train with a newborn in the house? Astounding. So, I will start by giving you the gift of my perspective of child development and knowing hundreds of families: your son and you have accomplished a remarkably smooth toddler transition.
I also realize everything is relative, and you are accustomed to your son's easy nature, but "easy" has never described the reality of raising an infant and toddler/preschooler in the same house. As he approaches his own milestone of turning 3, this "growing up" may be converging with having a new sibling to overwhelm his seedling-size coping resources. The good news is you are already focused on what matters most to get you through this phase: your connection with him. You can leverage this to help you both through what sounds like a quite normal behavior regression.
Permission to Feel the Feelings
In what I think of as required reading for all parents of toddlers, preschoolers, and any age who tantrums (parents included!), The Tantrum Survival Guide, psychologist Rebecca Schrag Hershberg recommends adding a critical element to your one-on-one time during the transition to life with a new sibling: permission to not want the baby around. You can give this permission with statements expressing that you enjoy time together without the baby and miss the old life too: "I'm so happy to be with only you right now! I miss our time just the two of us now that the baby is here."
When young children are adjusting to this new reality of sharing attention, they are managing emotions that exceed their tiny resource pool (puddle?) of coping strategies. You are fortunate (so far) that this does not seem to include major meltdowns and epic tantrums, which are also typical responses. Instead, your easygoing little guy expresses himself through behaviors that communicate what he can't in words yet: If I were a baby too, I would get the attention I'm missing right now. So, he acts like his baby sister.
Emotion of Regression
As I've said before, during this age, we are basically our young child's brains. Part of our function as the parent is to do the more complex thinking, feeling, and coping that they haven't developed yet, so they can learn how. Most parents' responses to regression behaviors sound like: "But you're a big boy now, you don't need me to change your diaper like your baby sister!" I can speak from experience, this doesn't sink in. The young child does not think, "Oh you're right! I AM a big boy. What am I doing lying on the floor? I'm never doing that again."
Instead, you can reflect back to him how he is likely feeling as he acts more like a baby than an almost preschooler: "You want your diaper changed even though you use the potty now? I bet you miss when Mama only had you to take care of, and sometimes you wish it was still just us!" You can open up the conversation to show interest in his experience: "What was it like when you were just a baby?" I know how memory works, and he will not actually have memories, but he may have a fantasy of what it was like that could help you understand his response better, even if captured by a 2-word sentence, "More Mama!"
Compassion for All—Especially You!
The last sentence of your question struck my own guilty mom chord; I have been there so many nights of these last 11 years of being a mom! The almost-bedtime part of the routine signifies you are close to getting a break (this does get easier compared to the newborn/toddler parenting season, but I still feel it). When our children's behavior delays that break, our fatigued brains and bodies want to cry in protest, which often converts to yelling.
I finally learned that at least part of this frustration can come from lack of experience. With our firstborns, we haven't yet learned over and over that "just a phase" truly defines childhood. Most aggravating phases do end, and sometimes we never know why. If you can pair some of the above emotion-focused parenting strategies with your own deep breaths and mantras that "this too shall pass," that may help your coping.
Speaking of your coping, I beg you to have more compassion with yourself than I did, and many moms I know do. Majority opinion rules that you are currently in the most demanding and depleting phase of parenting. Evolution has wired your brain to be entirely focused on your young children, and it's downright exhausting. Be kind and patient with yourself as you do your best. Children are so in tune with the emotional weather of their parents, that your son will also benefit from this self-compassion by sensing a calmer mom.
The Bottom Line
My best guess is that these regressive behaviors represent your young son's coping with having a new sibling at the same time his birthday reminds him he is growing up. He is processing these big life events with a newly developing brain, and your connection with him will support him through it. I rarely make promises in the world of parenting and child behavior, but I do promise you he will not be crawling instead of walking, lying in wait for a diaper, and wanting to sit in a car seat for the rest of his life. This too shall pass.
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Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., is the author of The Art and Science of Mom parenting blog and a mother of three from Oak Park, Illinois. She is a clinical psychologist in private practice who specializes in working with children and adolescents.
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