Lauren, a reader of mine, wrote to ask me for advice about her daughter Jade (18 months) and Jade's frustration with her new baby brother, Max (1 month). Jade is biting and grabbing Max roughly, as well as experiencing a severe sleep regression. Jade has always been able to sleep peacefully in her cot, but is now screaming at bed times and her parents have started to lie with her on a mattress on the floor to help her feel secure enough to sleep.
First of all, Lauren, this is a normal reaction for any young child. For the past 17 months Jade has not had to share your attention, or wait for your time. She can feel the shift in energy that has come from Max’s arrival and what you are seeing in her behaviour are the big feelings that naturally come with grief, loss and Jade responding to the change in family system.
Whenever a toddler bites, it is because they don’t feel safe. When little kids feel threatened they use the (limited) resources they have to 'defend' themselves. Biting and grabbing/pushing are the two most common forms of counteracting perceived threat. For a child to use biting or pushing, it means they are likely coding their current environment as unsafe. When this coding has taken place, it is also likely that they have been triggered into fight, flight or freeze mode – that is, their body senses danger and switches into the sympathetic nervous system.
Here are my tips to help your toddler adjust:
1. Help them process their big feelings – Jade is young, but old enough to gain relief from you being able to state clearly and simply what is happening for her. You will, in this way, make sense of her feelings for her. The easiest way to do that is to say what you see. “You don’t want to sleep in your cot” is a simple way that allows Jade to understand that you see her. Children often escalate their big feelings because they aren’t understood. We don’t address the root cause of the issue for them. Naming something brings immediate relief.
2. Stay close with Jade whilst they release their emotions – Jade screaming in her cot can be overwhelming for everybody involved. But, done respectfully as a team, it can be a lovely gift to give your child. You can be there to witness all her big feelings, and make sure she feels safe. Little people trust that big people can handle their big feelings. Staying close to Jade, at eye level, and holding her hand or sitting quietly while you empathise or name feelings for her, allows her to discharge all the uncomfortable feelings that have built up in her body, such as grief, loss, fear etc. and allows these emotions to complete their cycle and leave the body. If you can view it as a healthy and normal emotional discharge, that is better out than in, you are on the right track. This is a tricky skill for us as parents to learn, as most of us didn't receive this type of support as children. Keep practicing, the rewards in your relationship with your child are worth it.
3. Within reason, adhere to your normal boundaries – Children test our boundaries to be sure that they are safe. When children are overwhelmed, feeling insecure or under threat they push our boundaries to make sure that the markers in their little world are reliably the same. This brings immediate relief to them, although it can take a little while before you, the adult, can 'read' this dynamic. When we relax our boundaries, even if we think we are doing the right thing, it can have the reverse impact that we are looking for. Holding a boundary will often bring tears, rage and other big feelings – this is a very good sign. It means that the child is processing all their pent up feelings in a safe place – with you. You stay respectful and kind, and the emotional discharge will be complete before you know it. Your child will then return to their equilibrium and likely stay there for the rest of the day.
4. Hurting their sibling – This will be the first time in what will surely be hundreds of thousands of times you will be teaching your kids social etiquette. With a toddler as young as Jade, you will need to keep your sentences short “no biting – biting hurts’ and then gently removing her from her brother. If this brings an emotional release, follow the steps above. At 18 months of age, it is your responsibility as the primary carer/parent to make sure that Jade doesn’t hurt Max. When you see the warning signs in Jade, keep them in separate zones, unless you are able to supervise them. It is too much responsibility for Jade to regulate her own feelings and stop the impulse of biting and grabbing. She won’t be able to reliably do this until she is primary school.
The last part of your question is about lying in bed with Jade to help her fall asleep. This is a personal judgment call. If you think the boundaries process described above allowing her to discharge and then restfully sleep will help, this is the way I would go. If you believe that her attachment ‘tank’ is low, and lying with her helps her feel safe and secure above and beyond the emotional discharge that would come from following step 2, then please do this. Meeting a child’s need will only ever do good. The trick is to make sure you have correctly identified their need.
Finally, look after yourself. Parenting is a marathon, not a sprint. The constant growth and stretching required to navigate these complexities is hard. You are asking for help, and noticing your child's needs. This means you are doing great work. Be sure to 'fit your own life mask' as often as you can. When your batteries are charged, you and your whole family will feel better.
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How do you help your child with their big feelings?