Help! I Have a New Baby and My 4 Year Old Has . . .

. . . Turned into a Monster! What Should I Do?

A client wrote me a letter while she was home on maternity leave, asking for help with her four year old daughter, who was throwing mega- tantrums, whining constantly, hitting her two year old brother, feeling clingy and insecure in unusual ways, and making the rest of the family miserable. Her newborn was 5 weeks old, and mom had returned to the hospital briefly following the birth due to some complications that were resolved within a few days. She wrote to me, describing the problems, and ended the letter with, “Help! Now that Eric is here, Hallie has turned into a monster!” (Names have been changed.) Here is my response to her:

First off – yes, I am pretty sure this is about the baby, the baby, the baby. Hellie is also reacting to your absence during the time in the hospital and the fact that she lost you, got you back, and then lost you again. In the context of a) being 4, and b) being “replaced” and c) plain old missing you, two back-to-back absences that are sort of scary (not because you went to a spa with her aunt) would easily throw a child into unusual anxiety, and unusual anger.

Anger is the sequel to the anxiety. Her angry outbursts are probably because Hallie feels so helpless in coping with her own emotions triggered by her parents, the world, and Eric’s arrival. Big changes in the family feel unfair, and your absences were probably frightening. This can lead any child to implode in a panic. Sometimes getting angry and fighting feels less scary than panicking – not only for children but for all of us.

Next, your daughter may have a disposition that makes her emotions quite intense, and her ability to regulate them quite unequal to the task of coping. This does not mean she is going to grow up to be a difficult person – it probably means she is going to be an emotional person who will need some help figuring out good coping strategies. But a lot of this difficulty is likely to decrease simply with maturity and her growing intellectual abilities to understand what is happening.

So advice:

Starting with most extreme.

If the behavior continues for several more weeks, you could bring her in for a child therapy consult, just to find out if an expert thinks she needs therapy for a little while to HELP her regain her equilibrium, AND start learning how to cope with her Big Feelings. A consult could lead to more concrete guidance for you and your husband, without a therapy recommendation.

Or the consult could lead to a recommendation of some therapy for a while for Hallie. Not at all unusual for the older sibling of a new baby.

Here are some additional ideas for you and your husband:

  1. Set up a system of reinforcement for good behavior. Pick 5 top priority target behaviors that are measurable and observable: for example:

    • Play nicely with your brother;
    • Say good bye to one place nicely and hello to mom or dad nicely (transitions from day care);
    • Talk like a big girl when you want something;
    • Listen well to mom or dad when we say “no”.
    • Include as the 5th behavior: “Calming down when upset.”
  2. Make a behavior chart. Create a grid that is like a calendar. During the first week, the time periods should be short. In other words, each day is broken into several periods during which she can earn a star. Like Monday would have Before School; After School; Dinner Time; After Dinner; At Bed Time. List the behaviors and use stickers to depict what they mean so she can “read” the chart.

    As she gets better at things, the periods can be longer on the grid. Monday can be broken into Morning and After School. Then eventually, it can just be Monday – and the behavior of the entire day will count.

  3. Explain to her that when she does any of these five things on the chart she will get a star for that period of the day. Really describe the target behavior so she gets what it is. If she does NOT do those things consistently during that period of time (e.g., before school) she will NOT get a star. If she gets 5 stars a day (total, from ANY category), she will get a (tiny) prize. If she gets 5 stars a day for 4 out of 7 days, she gets a somewhat bigger prize at the end of the week. Create a little ritual of giving her the daily prize (for 5 stars) and the weekly prize (for 5 stars on 4 out of 7 days).

    All adults taking care of her (this isn’t going to be happening at school – just in the family) need to be consistent. If anyone (you, her father, her grandmother) sees her doing one of the target behaviors they need to be sure she gets a star. Make a fairly big deal out of the fact she earned a star on a target behavior. Stress your pride in her, the fact that she made an effort, and the fact that she was able to do it well. Not a lot of cooing and applauding, just verbal recognition and a pat, or a hug, or a kiss, or a handshake, or a high five. So if she speaks like a big girl three separate times when she wants something before breakfast instead of whining, she gets 3 stars. If she does it only once before breakfast, and whines the rest of the time, she gets 1 star.

  4. I’d get a box, have her decorate it, and put prizes in it. You can divide the box into tiny (meaning very meaningless) and small (slightly better) prizes or make two boxes. Whatever SHE would think is a prize can be a prize, but it has to be desirable.

  5. In addition to the reinforcement for target behaviors, try to “catch her” at doing ANYTHING good. If she sits and eats nicely during a meal, verbally note that she just did really well at sitting with the family and eating her lunch. If she gets dressed without complaint, notice it, and give her verbal recognition. Again – not applause or over the top attention, just verbal appreciation and recognition. All adults in the family need to do this. Obviously this does not need to be a constant thing. But try to punctuate every day with moments when she is reinforced for being well behaved, and keep up with the chart for target behaviors. Be sure to give her the rewards according to the chart. Do not reward her if she doesn’t meet the target, but when you design the chart, make it success oriented – design the target behaviors so it will be pretty easy for her to make the target and get the stars. But as I said above, after succeeding for a while, make the chart harder by stretching out the periods in which she needs to behave. You can later add other, more challenging, target behaviors.

    Whenever you notice that she is getting frustrated or upset, but she did NOT tantrum, she stayed pretty calm, she gets a star for “Calm when upset”.

  6. Here’s the hardest part. Start ignoring the tantrums and defiance and all other negative behaviors that you can possibly ignore.

    When she tantrums, or speaks back at you, ignore her. You can SAY, “While you are doing X, or speaking that way, I’m not going to talk with you. When you talk like a big girl, we can start chatting again.” Then IGNORE her. This is going to be very hard but it is essential because intermittent reinforcement strengthens behaviors. You can never give in when she is doing a bad behavior. She is likely to get worse before she gets better, and she is likely to fight the chart when it is in action in the beginning. You will need to stand firm and ignore her.

    If she is doing something you cannot ignore (like smacking her brother), remove her brother and ignore her. Don’t punish her, and don’t scold her. This system does NOT include punishment. It is based solely on positive reinforcement and the “extinguishing” (in psycho lingo) of negative behaviors.

    You can say to her, “You’re hurting your brother, so we are taking him into the kitchen.” Then ignore her. If she is whining, ignore her. Do not respond. You can say ONCE, “Please talk to me like a big girl and then I will answer.” Then no more response. Just ignore her if she escalates. You will feel like you are making her crazy. She will escalate. You need to just ignore her no matter what.

    But – if she starts having a full blown tantrum that you cannot ignore, you can do one of two things:

    • set a timer for 10 minutes and tell her if she can calm down by the time the bell rings, she will get her Calm Sticker. Even if she calms down right when the bell rings, she does get the sticker. Ignore her during the 10 + minutes of tantruming if possible.

      or if she is hurting herself, or furniture, or someone else

    • you should obviously do whatever you need to in order to keep her safe, but do it without much talk, and with NO punishment. Just sit with her, or sit with her on her bed, or do whatever you need to do to keep her safe, but do not engage with her and don’t yell. Sort of ignoring her while you are keeping her safe. Set the timer. Remind her that if she can calm down by the time the bell goes off (give her at least 10 minutes, or approximately a length of time that could allow her to be successful) she will get one of her stickers. If she keeps going and misses the bell, don’t bring it up again. But do NOT give her the sticker.

    NEVER USE THE FACT SHE MISSED GETTING A STICKER AS A SCOLD. NEVER SAY, “TOO BAD YOU DIDN’T GET A STICKER BECAUSE YOU DIDN’T CALM DOWN.” NEVER SAY, “IF YOU DON’T STOP HITTING ME, YOU WON’T GET A STICKER.” Just don’t give her a sticker for that period of time.

    It is important to reward her with a Calm sticker and verbal recognition any time she has a little tantrum but calms down before you even set the timer. Or when something is clearly tough for her, but she stays calm. She gets a Calm sticker.

  7. Because many of her tantrums and upsets are because she is threatened and angry about Eric, and about not having enough control over her life, everyone needs to do their best to give her cuddles and attention when she is behaving well. Spontaneously. That way you can all avoid feeling guilty that you are ignoring her so much. If you know that she had several cuddles in the last two hours, and then you have to ignore her for 15 minutes, you will feel more confident that you aren’t harming her by ignoring her.

    Again – if you have to intervene and you cannot ignore her, do it with a minimum of emotion, a minimum of words, and the absence of punishment.

    Everyone should try hard to insure Hallie is observed doing well at least five times during the day, even if it is brief. She needs to feel successful on the chart. But if she is a nightmare one day and really does not earn the five, remind her that if she gets 5 stickers at least 4 out of 7 days, that even one, two or three really hard days without enough stickers won’t prevent her from getting the prize at the end of the week. You want to make the chart EASY at first to insure success, but then after a week, make the chart harder. So you are not trying to make it HARD to reach her target stickers, you are trying to shape her behavior so she gradually controls the negative ones, and increases the positive ones, and gets plenty of attention and reward when she is behaving.

Finally – TELL ME HOW THIS GOES!
It sounds complicated and arduous, but once you get going, it will become more obvious how to make it work. Again, be prepared for her to fight the chart, and escalate initially. But within a few days it should start working. It is super important never to give in when she is misbehaving around a target behavior especially, and super important to give her lots of good attention when you catch her being good. Good Luck!!! And get some rest!

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