Dr. Linda, since the separation from my husband, my three-year-old has started biting his baby sister. Is this normal? How can I protect the baby? What should I do?
As we talked about in last week’s blog, children who feel stressed will show the stress and anxiety through their behaviors even when they don’t yet have the words.
Signs of stress and anxiety in 3-5-year-olds (preschoolers)
Separation anxiety and clinginess.
New fears like fear of strangers, darkness or monsters.
Changes in their eating and/or sleeping habits.
They may act out the events that happened or tell exaggerated stories about what happened.
They may develop symptoms like tummy aches, backaches, headaches that have no medical explanation.
Please know that after the trauma has been dealt with, order has been restored, and your child feels safer, these behaviors should go away as long as you set the tone and use the proper skills to support them.
Tips for talking to your preschooler about stressful situations
If your child develops any of these symptoms after a traumatic event here are a few pointers about how to talk to them
3-5-year-olds have an age-appropriate understanding of what is going on so it is important that you take the time to talk to them and explain what is going on:
Take the time to calm yourself first.
Get down to their level and make eye contact with them.
Tell them what is happening and how it will affect them. Use words that they will understand. Be brief and be very literal in your explanations.
Reassure them they did not do anything wrong.
Tell them you will do everything you can to keep them safe.
If it is a natural disaster or a war situation tell them about all the people they can’t see and who are working to keep all of you safe: The firefighters, police, paramedics, civil defense, doctors, nurses, etc.
Ways to help your preschooler manage stress in healthy ways
Get back to your normal routines (or as close as possible) as soon as you can.
Try to feed your child a healthy diet at regular intervals to keep their blood sugar stable.
Make sure to spend ‘special time’ with them every day
Be sure to do lots of snuggling and hugging with your preschooler
Remember to reassure your preschooler often that you love them, they are safe and you will do everything you can to help them feel safe and secure.
Teach your child stress relief skills like:
Deep breathing: Have them practice deep breathing 3 times a day so when you notice they are getting wound up and ready to have a meltdown you can coach them to breathe deeply instead. Have them pretend to blow out birthday candles, blow bubbles, blow up a mylar balloon, or blow on a pinwheel.
Exercise: Jumping rope, dancing, jumping jacks or yoga poses are all thing that can be done anywhere. These things are fun to do, distract your child, and release chemicals that lower stress and which help your child feel better.
Teach your child other healthy ways to express their feelings:
Through words( teach them feeling words like scared, frustrated, worried, bored, angry, sad, happy, excited) they can then use these words to talk to you or to sing about how they feel.
Show your child they can draw their feelings.
Teach your child movements like stomping, pretending to be an angry elephant or dancing they can use to express how they feel
Positive discipline to manage unwanted behaviors
Back to the question: ”Dr. Linda, since my husband left the country, my three-year-old has started biting his baby sister. Is this normal? How can I protect the baby? What should I do?”
If your child has started having some harmful behaviors as a result of stress here are some things you want to consider:
How can you minimize the harmful behaviors they are exhibiting?
How can you be sure to reinforce all the positive behaviors he/she has?
What healthy stress management strategies can you teach them?
Let’s say your child has started biting his baby sister, like the child in the question. You know biting is dangerous and can lead to serious infections but you don’t want to add more stress to your toddler’s life.
Choose one or two of the above stress relief strategies to teach and practice with your child to help him cope with the stress he is feeling as a result of the separation.
Spend ‘special time’ with your child every day where you have fun and enjoy each other’s company. “Special time’ is designed to be a 5-10-minute period where you spend dedicated, high quality time with your preschooler, completely focused on them and where you do what they want (within reason). This lets your child know that you love them and that they are important to you. It also gives them some control in a situation where they feel they have no control.
‘Catch’ your child doing ‘positive’ behaviors and be sure to acknowledge them “ I am so impressed that you are playing alone so well while I take care of the baby. I really appreciate it and I am so proud of your behavior”. Then give him a hug, a kiss, or a high five.
Teach your preschooler to use a ‘calming corner’ where he can go to calm down when he is feeling very stressed ( we’ll talk more about this in future blogs)
Consider using “time out” as a gentle and effective way to help discourage your child from biting the baby if it continues despite the above strategies.
If all else fails, try positive timeout
Establish limits about what behavior you will and will not accept.
Tell your child the ‘rules’ and make sure to tell them clearly what the ‘consequence’ of breaking the rule will be. For instance: “We have a no biting rule in our house. Anyone who chooses to break that rule will be making the choice to go to time out”
Watch your preschooler for times when he does not bite his sister and praise his behavior: “ Ahmad, I am so proud of your behavior. I am so impressed you are following our ‘no biting’ rule so well” Then give him a hug or a high five.
Watch your preschooler during situations when he has bitten his sister in the past. If you see his stress level go up, distract him or do some deep breathing with him, or encourage him to use the ‘calming corner’ ( as we talked about earlier)
If for some reason you missed these opportunities, or for some reason the biting hasn’t stopped, and your preschooler bit his sister you can say: “ I see you have made the choice to go to time out.” Calmly and quietly (this is key) take him by the hand and put him in the time out area. Start the timer (1 minutes per year of age) and walk away letting your toddler know he will be able to leave time out when the timer goes off. It is important you enforce this consequence calmly and quietly every time your preschooler bites his sister. The calmer and more consistent you are the faster the behavior will start to go away.
After the time out, kiss and snuggle your toddler, reassure him that you love him and that you will do everything in your power to keep him safe.
Continue practicing and teaching the more ‘positive ‘ strategies at calmer moments during the day so your preschooler doesn’t have to resort to biting or negative behaviors to manage their strong emotions. Teaching them these skills when they are calm allows you to be able to coach them through using them during the more challenging times
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