My Toddler’s A Little Rough With The Baby

In this episode: Janet responds to a mother struggling to moderate her toddler’s enthusiastic, energetic interactions with his 7-month-old sister. She believes that her son means well, but she’s afraid his play is too intense. “I want to encourage sibling play, but how do I get him to understand he can’t play that rough with her?”

Transcript of “My Toddler’s A Little Rough With The Baby”

Hi. This is Janet Lansbury, and welcome to Unruffled. Today I’m responding to a parent who posted a question about my article, “Seven Reasons to Stop Judging and Start Trusting Sibling Play.” This mom says she’s been struggling with how and when to rein in her toddler son’s intense play with his seven-month-old sister. She thinks he means well, but it’s just too rough.

Here’s the comment I received on my website.

“Hey, Janet. We appreciate your calm comfort in giving parenting guidance, and we love the RIE approach. While I am normally very good at staying calm, recently I’ve been struggling with my toddler. He’s 2.5 years old, and we have a new baby girl who is seven months. Recently our toddler has shown great interest in playing with his little sister. This is wonderful, but it is often way too rough for her. For instance, he wants to rock her car seat, but does it with such effort that her little head goes back and forth. While she’s crawling, he wants to ride her like a horse. He also pats her tummy, but it has the intensity of hitting even though he says he is patting. They’re both wildly giggling during these events, but I know they are too much for her. My reaction to these events is not level-headed because I fear he’s hurting her, and I want to stop the action. I want to encourage sibling play, but how do I get him to understand that he can’t play that rough with her? When I intervene, he internalizes the reaction as though he’s done something wrong, and that is not what I want.

I also don’t want to separate them. We’ve also recently moved from Chicago to Atlanta, and he’s in a new daycare while we wait for his Montessori school to reopen after summer. I know this is a lot of change for him, and he’s good about communicating his discomfort, but I truly think he isn’t meaning any anger by his actions with his sister. He truly wants to play with her. He just doesn’t realize it is too hard for her. What are the words I should be using to communicate with him during these events?”

Okay. A few things stuck out for me in this mom’s description. She loves that her boy has shown great interest in playing with his little sister. Yes, of course. This is what we want. We want our children to enjoy each other. That’s why we had more than one child. That’s one of the reasons, at least. We want them to have fun together, and play together.  So yes, this is a positive step forward that he’s interested. The problem is that children, especially with these other changes that he has going on, children this age, they get a little over-excited, and it’s not all entirely positive, the feelings that they’re having.

They get a little wound up, and he sounds like he’s very off-balance right now, with all the changes, and with the birth of his sibling, and this new shift in the family, and all that means I’m sure he does appreciate his sister, but he’s just a little out of himself a lot of the time when he’s with her. I think it’s actually more than that he truly wants to play with her, but doesn’t realize it’s too hard for her. I think he does realize that he’s a little out of bounds in his behavior, because I think he feels out of bounds inside himself. He doesn’t feel centered, and comfortable, and like he’s really ready to engage with his sister. He feels like it’s all too much. Not that he means to hurt her, but he’s just caught up in his impulses there. You’ll see children do this when they’re going through difficult periods, or going through periods of stress over all kinds of things.

Their play, even if it’s not with a sibling, they might be playing with creative materials, but instead of really being centered and focused in their exploration of these materials, they’re a little out of bounds, and they’re making a mess, but it’s sort of all under the guise of, I’m being creative here, and it can be hard for us to see as parents the difference between productive play and this type of emotional, “out there” play, which can even veer into kind of testing, testing, do you guys have my back here? Can you guys stop me? Can you keep a lid on this, because I’m having a hard time. I’m out of myself, and please help me before I do something that gets you really mad at me.

Children might do it with eating, where they’re sitting down to eat, and playing with the food, and they’re picking up the cup too quickly, and they’re ready to blow at any moment. Again, they need our help in this situation, not our judgment, and not our concern that they don’t know any better, but really our help in keeping a lid on this behavior.

The wild giggling is, I think, on both of their parts, it’s not, we’re just deeply joyful laughing here. It’s not settled, and focused, and centered. It’s, we’re both kind of … we’re feeling the uncomfortable excitement in this.

So when he wants to engage with her, whenever he’s coming near her, I would be gaging his energy. If he’s coming in towards her with excited energy, or a little too quickly, I would open my eyes and come close, so rather than waiting, and seeing what happens, and then coming in, as his mother says, not levelheaded, because she’s coming in with fear… come in early, see the energy, anticipate, hmm, looks like he’s going to need a little help here. He’s got this kind of energy. There’s certain times when he has it, around bedtime, when he gets home from daycare, and any other times that you notice that he has a hard time containing himself. He needs a little extra help there. He needs a helping hand to keep his behavior in control.

So, rocking the car seat… If you’re in the front of the car, you may not have the ability to stop that. If it’s getting really wild, you could pull over and say, “Hmm. I can’t let you keep doing this, so let’s take a little breather, and we’ll get going.”

But I think it would be better for the bigger picture to actually not even react to that, to really let that one go. Try to keep maybe enough distance between them in the car so that that can’t happen. So be preventative in that way, but if you’re not really able to intervene, I would err on the side of just letting it go as to not give it power.

If you are there, like when she’s crawling and he wants to ride her like a horse, I would stop him as he’s doing that. If you’re not there in time, I wouldn’t run in like it’s an emergency. That’s really important for the overall message that we want to give children: that we are the leaders, that we basically trust them, that it takes a lot to get a rise out of us, that we understand that he’s going to have out of bounds behavior, and that doesn’t mean he’s a bad kid or on a terrible track to something awful.

It really just means that he’s a guy in this situation with all these stressors in his life.

With that kind of understanding of him, be right there, and let him get close. Don’t overreact and move him away. I would do the minimal thing, if you want to encourage them to be together, which I know this mother does, to play together, and be confident together. I would just do the minimum to keep them safe.

But the most important thing is to be calm, and to be regulated yourself, because coming into this with something other than level-headedness is actually going to fuel the behavior, and create more of the uncomfortable feelings that are causing him to go out of bounds.

Be there. “You want to play with her that way? I’m not comfortable with that. I’m going to stop you,” or “That’s a little too hard sitting down on her. I’m going to lift you up a little bit.” Just the minimum, and you’ll see that this helps diffuse the energy that he’s coming in there with.

If it kind of gets more frantic, and he keeps going, and he keeps testing more and more in these situations, then there could be a point where you say, “You know what? You seem a little like a wild boy right now. I can’t let you play with her when you’re like that, so come over here with me.”

Staying on his side, caring about him, being protective and helpful, rather than judgmental, and angry, and frustrated. He’s doing normal stuff.

And then when he tries to pat her tummy but it has the intensity of hitting… So you’ll see him coming in with that energy ideally. You’ll be on the watch, because you see that he’s in that place where he’s probably not going to be able to play with her productively or safely, and you’ll be there. So maybe he gets one sort of heavy pat in there, and you’ll say, “Ah, that’s a little heavy. I’m gonna stop your hand,” and then you can help him. If he’s still having the motion of patting her, then you can actually hold his hand, and slow it down.

You could say, “It’s fine to pat her like that. I’m gonna make sure it stays soft.”

In other words, not disrupting the play, but just doing what you need to do to keep it safe and appropriate. And your baby, even if she’s laughing, she needs that protection, too, because she can’t assert her boundaries at that age. She needs us to show her how to do that, and that we’re going to do that, and he needs that message as well. This parent says she wants to encourage sibling play. That’s how she’ll encourage it, by not discouraging them from being together, but just being there to keep it safe.

“How do I get him to understand that he can’t play that rough with her?” He’ll understand when you start to show him that you’re not going to allow it, in the nicest possible way, from a place of protecting him from himself.

Then she says, “When I intervene, he internalizes the reaction.” If she’s coming in in a not levelheaded way, then yes, he will internalize that reaction, because it sounds like she may be coming in too late, and then it’s a little harsh, and a little frantic or fearful. That is going to probably spur a reaction in him.

But if you come in as I’m suggesting, it shouldn’t. He’ll feel that you’re on his side, and that you’re just there to protect both of them, and that you’re doing it with love and a lot of empathy for where he’s at.

If he still has a reaction, then that’s a reaction that he needs to have. That’s something that he needs to share with you. That’s not really about that moment together. Children in these situations have a lot of complaints that they need to share, not just about the sibling, but about these changes, and moving houses, and moving schools, and they can handle these things, but not without getting to complain about them, and flair up about them.

It’s wonderful that she says he’s good about communicating his discomfort. He’s actually young to be communicating clearly and verbally, and that’s incredible that he’s doing that. That’s very, very positive. But they also communicate it through this kind of behavior.

That’s why it’s so important to come at this with a helpful, empathic attitude, and she’s right. This is a lot of change for him, and she’s right that he isn’t meaning any anger by his actions with his sister. I’m sure he isn’t. He truly does want to play with her.

Where I disagree is where she says he just doesn’t realize it’s too hard for her. I think he truly wants to play with her, but he just can’t handle some of the feelings he has sometimes in these situations. When things calm down for him, and he feels a lot more acceptance, and he gets through this transition a little more, then that will be happening less. He will be more able to play with her productively and calmly.

I would consider when you’re not able to be there supervising, that you do have a separate place where the baby can be safe, and where he can be safe, either a gated off room for him, or an area for the baby that isn’t easy for him to get into. That’s just to save your sanity, so that you don’t have to be on this all the time.

Again, like I said in the beginning, reading his energy is the most important thing, because then you can be there coming down into this, with the right attitude, instead of jumping in in a reactive way.

The words you should be using to communicate with him: “I need to stop you there.” “That’s a little too much for her, I think.”  “That’s not safe.”

But a lot of acknowledging, too. “Looks like you want to sit on her, and that might be fun when she’s older, but I’m going to stop you right now, because that’s going to be too heavy on her back.”

Just what you see, just from a perspective of love, and helpfulness, and confidence, and your ability to intervene. If some of these things get away from you, that’s okay. It’s still better to come in calmly. Don’t scurry in unless it’s a true emergency.

I hope that helps.

Thanks for listening. We can do this.

At last! I’ve created the No Bad Kids Master Course to give you all the tools and perspective you need to not only understand  and respond effectively to your children’s behavior but also build positive, respectful, relationships with them for life! Check out all the details at ♥



Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. Justlooking says:

    “Looks like you want to sit on her, and that might be fun when she’s older, but I’m going to stop you right now, because that’s going to be too heavy on her back.”

    – I like your calm approach but it has left me wondering:
    1. How you would say “I’m going to stop your right now” without loading the phrase? – (my own parents used ‘come here right now’ as a threat). Is there another way to say it? For example: “I’m going to stop your hand” sounds much less yucky than “I’m going to stop your right now”.

    1. Sure, you could say it that way, too. This is a podcast transcript, not a written piece, so my tone in saying those words does not come through. If you listen, you will notice how “unloaded” my tone is. 🙂

      1. I agree…tone and intention matter greatly. Children need assertiveness (I’m going to stop you right now) without aggression (where tone and intention come into play the most!).

  2. Hi Janet,

    I am searching for some wisdom on how to deal with a younger baby who is being rough with his older sibling. Some of this podcast is helpful but obviously not all relevant. I have a nearly 3 year old daughter and a 15 month old son. They love to rag together but my son is quite rough and likes to jump on her which sometimes hurts her. I have encouraged her to tell him’ ouch, that hurts’, but she usually just goes very quiet (or cries quietly) as is a very gentle soul herself.

    At 15 months, he speech is very basic but he can understand a lot. How can I guide him to be more gentle to his adoring sister?

  3. Hi Janet,
    I’m in a similar situation with my kids. My 4 year old daughter is extremely rough with my 10 month old son. She’s not a toddler and there’s nothing upsetting our life right now (not even the pandemic has changed much in our day-to-day life). She does the typical pushing, taking away toys, and over reacting when he’s too close to her things but she also grabs on to him and won’t let go, even though he’s clearly distressed and trying to get away. She gets in his face and yells. She also is constantly just in his space and rough housing him. I’ve always been a pretty calm person but like the mom above, I have a short fuse when it comes to hurting the baby. I will tell her stop, that he needs space, and I point out the nonverbal cues he’s giving (I’m terrible at sportscasting but I try). She doesn’t listen at all. I say “that’s not safe” all day long but I always have to step in and physically remove her. Then she immediately starts it back up again and becomes extremely aggressive towards everyone until I remove her from the room (which I can’t do if my husband isn’t around to watch the baby). I can’t take my eyes off them for a second and there’s no way to keep them separated in my tiny house. Sometimes it feels like she has some unmet sensory need and this is how she’s meeting it. Suggestions?

    1. I wish Janet would answer this! Please!

      1. I would love an answer here too — I’m sure this is close to the experience of MANY readers.

    2. We’re having the exact same issue with our 3-year old and 1-year old, word for word. You can try all the talking and coaching and calmness, but after about 10 hours of it and she ends up being too mean to the 1-year old, the dam breaks and the 3-year old is in big trouble now. We’re patient with our 3-year old all day. I think our oldest is just jealous of having to now share toys, space, time, and attention.

      1. I’m thinking that you are spot on, James: “our oldest is just jealous of having to now share toys, space, time, and attention.” And what children often need to help change their behavior is a lot of “safe” space to vent those feelings to us. Safe, meaning we welcome them to share, empathize as much as possible, don’t judge. I recommend encouraging the sharing in safe ways, even if that means she yells, screams or cries toward you, and opening up conversations but letting her know that you see her and feel for her, you acknowledge it’s so hard to be in the position and everything she’s feeling is normal and expected.

  4. Ashe Humphries says:

    Hi Janet,
    My 15mo behaves like this with our cat. I worry because the cat will react and take a swipe at my son, and I worry the cat will get hurt.

    Like the listener described above, I encouraged interacting from an early age as I’d hoped it would foster a good relationship between them.

    And, I feel I have approached the situation as you advise above. It works to a point. However, my son will not tolerate me holding his hand to slow down his patting, instead he snatches his hand away and moves on. But when I move on, he comes back and we start again. My cat doesn’t help the situation, so I’ve resorted to keeping them separate as much as possible, or at least when I can provide my full attention.

    Any extras tips for this situation?

  5. Hi Janet,
    I’ve appreciated how much you normalize challenges in young children and seem to constantly seek to understand them in context of what else is going in the child’s life. I’m wondering however, what would be clues/signs to you that behaviours (eg aggressive physical behaviours – hitting, throwing, etc. – in a 4 year old towards siblings/parents), fall outside of what may be expected or understood for a child of a certain age or going through a stressful situation. In other words, what would be clues or signs that there is a challenge going on that may requires a different kind of intervention or evaluation (eg adhd, autism)? I’ve been working under the idea that challenging behaviours persist for my child because of our (parents’) responses or because of the child struggling with impulse control as many 3/4 year olds do and will gain more skills with time and maturity, but what if they are persisting because of some other factor? How would I know?

    1. Thank you, Oriana. If the parent senses there’s more going on than the typical adjustment to what for most children is a highly stressful transition, then absolutely they should get an assessment from a specialist. You might start by checking into some of the online assessments for distinguishing signs of neurodivergence:

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