Dear Faith, My 27mo has had lots of changes in the weeks since our new baby was born, with Daddy home for three weeks, then Grandma staying with us. Now it’s back to the “new normal” of me, him, and baby, and we’re having a really hard time. He’s testing non-stop, doing things I’ve asked him not to or that he knows he’s not supposed to do; he’s also generally sort of wild and out of control, thrashing around, grinning and repeating actions when I ask him to stop, refusing to sleep. I’ve tried really slowing everything down, but we’re in the thick of it and I’m going crazy and just so sad for him. And so sleep deprived with a newborn. I’ve even yelled and lost my cool a couple of times. Please help!
That sounds so hard, both for you and your little guy! Hang in there, and know that this is not the “new normal,” this is a transition. We know in our heads that it will take a toddler time to adjust to the shift in relationship that comes with a new baby, but somehow it still takes us by surprise when it happens. This is temporary. The “new normal” is still a little way off.
First, a word about defiance. A good relationship is one which is mutually responsive: both parties respond quickly and positively to each other. When things get out of balance, children let us know that something is out-of-whack in the only way they can: by refusing to be responsive to us. By being defiant. They are using their behavior to say, “Something isn’t right; our relationship is out of balance.” In “normal” life, this can happen when we are not responsive enough, or when we cater to them without asking (or supporting) them to be responsive in return. Now in this case, we know what’s not right from your child’s point of view: the rules and expectations of your relationship are undergoing a fundamental shift with the new baby. Your love has not changed, but your expectations have. With a new baby, we suddenly expect our children to be MORE responsive to us (to do what we ask the first time, do many more things on their own without help, etc.) while at the same time, we have become LESS responsive to them (we’re short-tempered, exhausted, and tethered to the couch). How can we give them the reassurance that our love has not changed, especially when their actions are so challenging?
Two Tools: Humor and Rough-Housing
Two of my best tools for wildness and testing are humor and physical fun (rough-housing). I realize that humor is hard to come by when you’re sleep-deprived, and rough-housing is challenging or perhaps impossible with a newborn. That being said, your child NEEDS to know that your love for him is still strong, despite all of the changes in your responses to him. So get yourself the support that you need, and see if you can use these tools, either a little or a lot. Let me describe how I use them, and you can adapt them to your current reality.
Humor is a powerful tool for defiance. One of the ways I’ll use it is that every time that child does something that I’ve asked them not to, I’ll pretend like they’re making a joke or trying to be funny. “Oh, you’re so silly! Come here, silly boy!” Or, “Grabbing the monitor again?!? Oh my goodness!” I’ll open my mouth ad put my hands by my cheeks to make a shocked/funny face at him, hamming it up. Responding to defiance with humor instead of getting stern can shift things around immediately. Of course, sometimes it’s enough and sometimes it’s not. So if that child then looks at me and does the thing again (although often almost smiling when they do it), or if they immediately do something else that they know is “wrong,” then I’ll say, “Oh my, it looks like you want to play!” and I’ll pick him up and spin him around, or toss him onto couch, or sling him over my shoulder and say, “Hey, where did Sammy go? Where is he?” while turning around again and again.
Once I’ve gotten giggles and connection, then we can pick up the items that he’s thrown, or I’ll gently mention, “It’s important that you come the first time I call you,” or we’ll practice touching gently, or whatever the issue was. But I always try to address the underlying need BEFORE I address the behavior itself. We wouldn’t withhold food from a child who’s having a meltdown from hunger; we would give them food and THEN address the behavior. I believe that the need for connection is just as important as the need for food. And many times, when children do things that we’ve just asked them not to do, this defiance is really masking a deep fear, that perhaps they are really unloveable. If we can show that child through our actions and our attitude that he IS lovable and enjoyable, even when he’s pushing, then he may be able to relax and actually become lovable and enjoyable again.
I know that humor and rough-housing may be in short supply at your house. Reach deep and see if you can dredge some up, and it may help to shift the energy in your house. Perhaps schedule in “wrestling time” when the baby’s asleep. If it all just seems like too much, look at how you can get some more support. Get a high school student to come over and hold the baby while you get some one-on-one toddler time. Get a postpartum doula. Ask your husband to take on one regular night-time feeding of the baby (and get a breast pump if needed). And remember that this too shall pass. Although the rules of your relationship with your son have changed with the arrival of the new baby, when your son is reassured that your love for him is just as strong and as real as ever, he can settle into his new “big boy” role in the family.
Warmly, ~Faith Collins