How to stop an older sibling from acting out

Schulte asks: I am trying to figure out how to get my 3-year-old son to stop biting at preschool and fighting with the other kids for their toys. His father and I have been taking his toys away and grounding him to his room and giving him an early bed time when we get a report from his teacher that day saying he bites. We also talk to him telling him that is bad. He has a 6-month-old baby brother who has been teething so a lot of attention has been on his little brother. We pay attention to our older son and play with him.

Hi Schulte –


Oh boy did you write the right advisor on this!!!  For the first two years of my life, biting was my greatest joy!  I don’t remember everything, but Handsome tells me I basically ate, slept, and breathed only in order to chew and bite.  I bit him LOTS, bit everyone else when I could, and chewed up EVERYTHING in our house!  So I relate fully to both your youngest son, who has to teethe just as I did, and your older one, who’s expressing all sorts of emotions by biting.  I was both!


But you already know how to handle your younger kid.  It’s that older one who’s making things difficult.  And as I said before, I do think his biting comes from some emotional places.  And I’m mainly going to guess one:  that younger brother!


See, when a human is an only child, the whole world revolves around them, and they don’t know anything else.  Their parents can love each other, or love movies or chocolate or their jobs, but their parental love is only for “me.”  And then if those parents have another kid, that whole universe is shattered.  Even in the best of homes with the most attentive of parents (as you seem to be).


Now if your son was older, say 7 or so, when you had that second baby, he would have much more awareness of this situation.  But being so young, all his reactions to his baby brother (most likely both gigantic love and huge resentment) are unconscious.


And – and here’s my biggest point – one of the most common ways for a child to react to something life-changing is to regress, to behave younger than they are, in a wish that the world would go back to the way things were then.  (This is true of us too – puppies don’t mature in a straight line, we’ll have times of acting young again – and even as adults, we can suddenly start acting like puppies.  Like peeing in the house, for example).


So your son WILL get better.  He WILL stop biting, and start acting more mature.  But right now, biting serves two purposes – it gives him a way to act out his aggression, and it lets him act the same age and stage as his baby brother!


So what we want is not so much to punish him for being where he is, but rather to get him through this as quickly as possible.


So I’m going to recommend something that dog-trainers do.  Instead of punishing him for biting at school, switch to giving him treats for not biting.  You see, if punishment were to work, it would have worked already.  But instead, he’s feeling bad about your love being split in half, then feeling bad about other kids not liking his biting and the teacher being cross, and then he’s feeling bad about being punished by you.  He very likely doesn’t see any way out of it (even though it’s very obvious to your adult mind that all he needs to do is stop that biting!).


But if you told him that he could get a doughnut every day he doesn’t bite someone at school, and (and this is SO important) that you will take him to the donut shop to get it, he’ll suddenly sense a way to feel GOOD.  And then you could throw in that, if he gets through a whole week without biting, you’ll sit and watch a video with him, and he gets to pick out what you have for dinner that night.  This will get him very eager to accomplish this goal – and to learn that good behavior brings him the two things he most wants, instant pleasure (from food, movies, etc.) and attention from you.


The way Handsome learned to teach me not to bite was to, whenever I bit, say “No” harshly, but then instantly put a toy in my mouth and pet me and congratulate me for being so smart as to choose that toy.  It still took time, but it worked perfectly.  And your son’s brain is way more developed than mine was.  So this should work WAY more quickly!


And then, next thing you know, he’ll be behaving himself quite well, and your younger son will learn how to walk and talk and they’ll start to play together… and oh you’ll suddenly find a whole new set of problems!


Please let me know how it goes!



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