“I’m a bit lost. My older child is 2 years and 10 months old. For the past week he’s been telling me he’s a baby. I acknowledge his comments by playing pretend that he’s a baby, but I’m concerned about whether I’m doing the right thing. He asks to be fed (when he has been doing it on his own for a year), and he wants to be picked up all the time. I wonder if jealousy finally kicked in (my younger one is now 18 months old and more vocal), and he feels displaced by his sister? I admit there’s been occasions where I don’t play along and tell him in a nice way that he can do it on his own because he’s a big boy. How do you approach this?” – Ana
Yes, I think you nailed it: “I wonder if jealousy finally kicked in (my younger one is now 18 months old and more vocal), and he feels displaced by his sister?”
The emotional process of accepting a new sibling is unique to each child. Some children appear most unnerved during their mother’s pregnancy, perhaps anxious about all the mysterious, impending changes they sense but for which they have no frame of reference. These children might even feel relieved when the baby finally arrives and becomes a reality for them.
Other children might be only slightly rattled during the pregnancy and far more uncomfortable after the birth when they experience the sudden shift in their parents’ focus. Still others don’t feel the sting of rivalry until their baby sibling hits developmental milestones that make them seem like an actual “person” and a greater threat, like when the baby begins crawling, walking or, as in your case, Ana, talking. Particularly sensitive children feel waves of discomfort throughout all of the above.
Acting like a baby can serve two primary purposes:
- Play therapy
Playing out a fantasy of reverting to babyhood is one of the ways children process their feelings around this major life adjustment, and we can help them by accepting and trusting this behavior (rather than being concerned, annoyed, or judgmental about it). It is through play that children explore, understand, heal, and gain a sense of control over their feelings around new and uncomfortable experiences. Play therapy also helps children explore the perspectives of others. Through imitation kids can try on that person’s shoes (or booties, in this case), which helps them to understand and empathize with that person’s experience. This is also why children sometimes imitate the behaviors and personality traits of their peers or characters from books and movies. If this “make believe” behavior gets a nervous, negative or uncomfortable reaction from parents, children might be compelled to continue testing that.
- Physical nurturing and unconditional acceptance
Infants get a lot of hands-on care, nurturing, and affection, so it’s understandable that a child who feels unsettled by the addition of a sibling would want to recapture some of that physical love. It’s also common for young children to act out their uncomfortable feelings through impulsive limit pushing behavior that might be directed at the parents, the baby or both. As challenging as it can be for us to empathize with our children in these situations (I share more about that HERE), our harsher reactions tend to intensify their feelings of hurt and rejection. The unconditional love that the baby is receiving looks very attractive in comparison.
But none of this means that parents should feel obliged to heed all our children’s requests to be fed and carried, etc. Children don’t need us to play along with babyish behaviors so much as fully accept and allow them.
Acceptance stems from trusting that the behavior is serving a healthy purpose for our child and, therefore, not being judgmental about it or worrying that he’s losing his abilities to talk, walk or dress himself, etc. So we don’t try to fix the behavior, nor do we coax or shame him to stop it. And because we don’t perceive it as a demand or need we must fulfill, we don’t let it get on our nerves.
Set clear boundaries and trust the feelings
In your case, Ana, I would not “tell him in a nice way that he can do it on his own because he’s a big boy.” Instead of trying to talk him out of his request, be clear and comfortable with asserting your boundaries.
“You want me to pick you up. I can’t right now, but in a few minutes I’m going to sit on the sofa and I’d love to have you on my lap.” Then if he continues to ask or becomes upset, you might acknowledge, “You really wanted me to carry you and I said no. That’s upsetting.” Trust him to express his feelings for as long as he needs to in response to your reasonable limits. This is how children heal their pain.
Play along wholeheartedly — or not at all
Children deserve our honesty and clarity. It’s unfair and unloving to begrudgingly give in to please them. Our resentment creates guilt for them and poisons our parent-child relationship. We are the only ones who can prevent this from happening, which is why it’s so important to stay tuned in to own needs, wants, and boundaries. So, if we are fully on board and available to spoon feed, carry or play with our child, we should do it with gusto. If not, we should kindly and clearly say no and not judge or resent our child for asking. We might reply, “I love feeding you, my baby, but I’m going to take this time to eat my own food along with you.”
Pay undivided attention
There’s another reason children behave like babies besides the two I mention above. It’s an attention getter. Unfortunately, the attention it commonly gets from parents is annoyance and impatience, which is not helpful. So, besides perceiving this behavior as healthy and not letting it bother us, we can also help alleviate the urgency for it by fulfilling our children’s attention needs (which are a lot easier to fill than their 24/7 attention wants). One of the best ways to do that is to put aside all our distractions during caregiving activities like dressing, bathing, diapering (or potty help), mealtimes and bedtime rituals and be fully available to our child in those interactions. We won’t be able to do this every time, but we can seize these opportunities as best we can. Our engaged presence while our child plays, putters or just hangs out with us is an added bonus.
Ana, I hope this answers your questions and isn’t way more than you wanted to know.
I share more about being confident leaders and setting limits with empathy in