“Mine! No, he can’t touch that!” Does this sound familiar? No worries. In their early years, children commonly go through phases of possessiveness that can seem totally unreasonable and extreme. They may want everything their sibling or peer shows interest in and try to take it. They refuse to share.
In this episode, Janet explains why this behavior actually makes sense and what we can do to help kids pass through these phases readily and in a healthy manner. She illustrates by addressing a question from a parent about his 5-year old’s incessant impulse to protect his territory and possessions from his baby brother. While he and his wife try to maintain an understanding, respectful approach to the behavior by acknowledging his feelings and his space, they’re perplexed by their son’s demands which seem unreasonable and often nonsensical. Worse, he can act aggressively toward his sibling, which is alarming. Janet offers specific advice and verbal examples for handling “mine” and other controlling behavior between siblings and peers.
Transcript of “Coping with Your Child’s Possessiveness”
Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled.
Today I’m going to be responding to a parent who asked about their child’s possessiveness. And one sort of general bit of advice that this reminds me of is that a wonderful way to figure out what’s going on with our children and what they need from us and how to help behavior shift, or at least understand it, is to imagine ourselves in our child’s shoes. Reminding ourselves that our young children are new to the world, everything is fresh. They don’t have these preconceived notions about not sharing, possessiveness, stealing, all of these things. They don’t understand what any of this is. And this is to their benefit, actually, that they don’t have all these judgments in their head about how other children are supposed to behave, how they’re supposed to behave.
Yes, they need our guidance, for sure. But if we can guide from a place of that kind of empathy or imagination—really, it’s us imagining what it’s like to have this fresh perspective that they have—that’s how we’ll be able to be truly attuned to them. To really see them and help them feel the comfort of being seen.
So with that introduction, here’s the question I received in an email:
Lately, my wife and I have been struggling with how to maintain a respectful approach when our 2.5-year-old protests our six-month-old playing with or even touching anything that’s not explicitly designated for him.
Whenever the baby touches, say, the wall or the kitchen table or the basket of clothespins, his older brother yells, “No, that’s my wall!” or “The baby’s too little to play with that. He can’t play with that!” We strive to stay unruffled and acknowledge that he doesn’t want his brother to touch those things. And also let him know that the wall or table or whatever it is is for the whole family and that the baby’s actually old enough to play with clothespins (they’re the plastic, non-pinching sort). Our older son usually accepts this with chagrin, but in another few moments, it’s a new protest over a new item.
Sometimes when he discovers the baby touching something, he’ll run over and attempt to pull the baby away physically, his lips pursed with aggression. We intervene as quickly as possible and restrain him, saying, “I won’t let you hurt your brother.”
We’ve drawn a line for his own toys, acknowledging that they’re indeed his, and that he has a reasonable expectation that the baby not touch them if he doesn’t want him to. When the baby begins to roll eagerly toward one of his toys, we coach our son through moving the toy out of the baby’s reach or taking it to his play space we’ve partitioned off so that he has his own refuge from his brother. But we don’t want to have to allocate every single toy as for one boy or another. And nor can we readily abide our son’s continuing expectation of the baby’s less-than-equal role in the family. But more than anything, we don’t want to set our son up to resent his little brother.
Any advice you can offer would be great.
Okay, wow, these parents are being extremely respectful and sensitive and they have a lot of empathy. Really they’re doing a remarkable job, and I love that they’re being so considerate of this situation.
Here’s what I would add: When their son says these things, I would keep in mind something that I guess could probably be the title for this podcast: trust the feelings. What I’m hearing here is something that I experience with toddlers in my classes and when my own children were little. I hear a lot about this from parents that I consult with. And that’s, by the way, the reason that I choose certain questions. I choose them because they bring up a theme or a question that I’m hearing about from lots of other sources, messages in social media, parents I work with in consultations or in my classes. I realize that these are common concerns, and so it seems that they would be good to share on the podcast.
I have to say, I kind of love that this boy is going to the extent that this parent is saying he doesn’t want the baby to touch the wall or the table. Because this makes it so clear to me. It makes it so clear that this is totally beyond reason. I mean, there’s no question, right? It doesn’t make sense. And what that means is that it’s not going to make sense. That these are feelings, not facts, that he’s expressing about the situation. That he has a baby brother, and the baby came and took over his whole life and changed it with his parents. And moved him a little bit out of being the center of the family, which he was used to. And that can be very scary and painful. So he doesn’t really want him to be here in certain moments. Just don’t touch the wall. That’s my wall. This was my whole house, these are my parents, this is my everything. And here’s this baby wanting to touch things, and it’s representative of how he’s invaded my life.
And often this also happens in classes with children and their peers. If a child has a baby at home that the parent has added to the family, then it’s very likely that I’m going to suddenly see a change in their behavior, that they become more possessive with other children. They’re in that holding on mode because they feel their place in their home slipping away. So they’ll say mine!, they want everything that every other child has, sometimes. And do they really want those things, those particular things? I don’t think so. I think they want to express, I’m feeling scared or worried or unsettled. I’m wanting to control things. I’ve lost control of what I knew of my life the way it was.
This can also happen for developmental reasons. When children are toddler-age and other children come to their house and they don’t want those children to touch everything. It’s not that they’re showing that they’re mean, selfish brats. They’re showing that they’re experiencing a feeling of feeling out of control of something that they’re used to having control over: their home, their toys. Now somebody else is here and I’m losing control. And if we recognize how quickly and completely toddlers are developing these first three years. Children develop more in the first three years than they do in all the rest of their years of life put together.
So this is a time we can have that impulse to want to hold onto something, anything. Everything’s changing, without even having a new baby in the family. A toddler’s life can feel like, Gah! I want to hold onto things. I need anchors. And that’s why they need us so much to be an anchor and, if possible, not to be reactive along with them. They also benefit from having a predictable routine, which is not too much stimulation, not a new class every day. They’re most comfortable in what we might consider boring, predictable, routine days. Why? Because there’s something there they can hold onto.
My point is that there are a lot of reasons that children feel like this, and rather than judging them, as we might want to in these moments, or trying to talk to them about what’s reasonable, what makes sense, No, this is not your toy, and This is the wall that holds up our house, it’s everybody’s wall. I can definitely understand the urge to want to explain those things, but that’s not really addressing what’s going on here. What’s going on is our child just wanting to say, I want this. I don’t want him to have it. This is mine. I want to hold onto all these things and have them all.
So to help our child feel more comfortable and satisfied and healed, expressing these feelings, all we have to do is actually what this parent is doing, which is acknowledge him. Acknowledge that he doesn’t want the baby to touch those things. That’s it, that’s the perfect response. We don’t need to explain what’s reasonable, and what I strongly believe that this child already knows, which is that the wall or the table or whatever is for the whole family, the baby is indeed old enough to play with this type of clothespin. This is the tendency that comes up for most of us. As parents, we want to explain it, the way we would to an adult or an older child. Let me tell you what’s true. And it feels like if we could just convince him and reason with him, he’ll see what a silly thing that is to say. But it’s silly because it’s an impulsive, emotional thing to say. I believe even as adults, we can say things we don’t really mean because we’re expressing a feeling in the moment. Well, younger children do this a lot more. So I would just stick with acknowledging, welcoming him to feel like that.
And then, because he’s let us know that he may decide he’s going to push his brother away from that wall or take his hand off the wall or do something else physical, we’re ready to stop that. So as we’re saying, “You don’t want him to touch the wall,” we’re ready to calmly intervene if we need to. And then if he tries to do something physical with his brother because he doesn’t want him to touch the wall, that’s when we say, “You really don’t want him to touch the wall, and I can’t let you move his hand. I’m not going to let you stop him,” while we’re blocking him with our hand. “But I hear you. You don’t like him touching that.” And if the baby’s expressing something then, that’s healthy. We acknowledge that too. That’s it. That’s all we have to do.
The other benefit of this: not only does our child get to express what they need to express to us and have us accept it in a non-judgmental, totally accepting way, the way that they really can feel heard and understood and not judged. We’re not only giving them that, but we’re also not winding ourselves up. Because when we’re trying to reason with someone that isn’t expressing reasonable things, they’re expressing these flashes of emotion, unreasonable things, we’re going to wind ourselves up. Because it’s a frustrating enterprise, right? It’s not going to get us anywhere. That’s also what I love about this experience that this parent shared. They got to see that it doesn’t help, because what did their son do? Well, they say he “usually accepts this with chagrin, but in another few moments, it’s a new protest over a new item.” So yes, that’s what makes it so clear that it’s feelings, not facts.
One of the many reasons I love children this age is because they’re so clear that way. It’s so over the top, right? Some of the stuff that they say that we know it’s not meant to be a reasonable truth. Young children are very uncomplicated. They just need to express it. So if I can’t express it with you here and you’re just not getting it and you’re not hearing me, now I have the impulse to keep trying to express it in another way, to do something else. You’re not letting me express it. And again, the more unreasonable these comments are, the more we can feel certain that they’re using this as a self-therapy, which is what children do. They’re not thinking consciously, I need to tell my parents that I don’t like this baby in my house. But that’s what their unconscious is telling them to do.
You may have heard or read somewhere that when toddlers say, “Mine, mine!”, mine means a lot of things that it might not mean to us. It means I want it, I like it, I need it, I feel like having it, or I don’t want him to have it. It doesn’t mean that my parents bought this at the store for me. Children aren’t thinking of it that way. They’re very in the moment with the feeling, and they’re saying it to express something in that moment. They’re not saying what’s true factually, but expressing something.
So continuing with the details from this note, sometimes when their son discovers the baby touching something, “he’ll run over and attempt to pull the baby away physically, his lips pursed with aggression.” There’s that guy getting into my stuff and he’s taking over my house. He’s taking over my parents. I want to control this guy. Which is also the reason children want to take all the toys away from a baby. It makes a lot of sense, right? This baby ripped my life away. Maybe if I just control every single thing he does, then I’ll feel better about him. He won’t be a threat.
Children feel this. It’ll flare up at different times for each child in different ways maybe, but it’s kind of a grieving process. And the way we grieve about any given situation has its own life and its own process. For example, we might go to our friend’s funeral or our family member’s funeral, and we’re not even crying then. And we wonder, should we be crying? What’s wrong? I don’t feel sad right now. But then maybe some random thing happens, we see something, we hear something. And suddenly, we’re bawling. This is how children grieve this loss, this change in their life. There’s this new person sort of pushing them aside. The feelings come when they come.
That’s why parents will often share with me their concerns that, just randomly, the older child is lashing out at the baby. It doesn’t make sense. No, it doesn’t make sense. And that’s why I encourage parents to try not to judge their children in these situations, because they are grieving and they’re doing it in a very immature, messy way. And yes, they need our help not to do wrong things, but if we could let the little things they say and those feelings that don’t make sense go by and just acknowledge them, they get through it more quickly and without the resentment that this parent says they’re worried about.
So if they’re just taking toys a few times, I would allow that, if it’s not this rampant thing that the child keeps doing. And then I would stop them to help that child, whether it’s with a sibling or a peer, that’s when I would say, “You want that one too, that he’s holding? I’m going to stop you here, because it seems you’re kind of stuck doing this again and again.” Without judgment, we help. But him expressing things like, “I don’t want him touching this or that,” we can let that go by, just validating.
But when he’s running over there, yes, I would try to get over there. I don’t know that I would run unless it was really an emergency. Because coming closer with that calm response, just walking over there at a nice, brisk pace maybe, and trying not to run unless it’s an emergency, helps us to demonstrate a more accepting, calm, non-judgmental attitude. Instead of telegraphing, Wow, you’re doing something really urgently terrible here that I feel I can’t handle unless I stop you immediately! Even if we don’t mean that, that’s kind of how it comes across, that my parent isn’t confident in their leadership here and that I’m doing these really terrible things.
And the tone that’s helpful to create is more of a calm, safe tone. Hmm, I’m going to see. I don’t want you to touch him that way. That’s a little too hard. And then blocking accordingly. So if there’s just a bit of something going on, if it’s not hitting or totally grabbing in an unsafe way, if he’s just maybe touching his hand a little roughly, then I probably wouldn’t even say, “I won’t let you hurt him.” That’s sort of saying the obvious, right? At that point, I would just say, “Hmm, that’s a bit too much.” And I’d have my hand there. “I see. You don’t want him touching that at all. You’re not liking him touching that. Hmm, yeah, that’s a bit too hard. I’m going to need to stop you there. You didn’t like that. You didn’t want him to do that.”
So those kind of things show that we’re not perceiving everything as this big emergency. We’re projecting that calm confidence that can be so important and helpful to our children. And to us, because the more we’re in that zone, the more we see how helpful it is and the more confidence we feel in ourselves, and therefore, it can become a natural way that we have with our children. It’s all about the way we’re perceiving this. Hmm, he’s getting into a little bit of trouble there, I better go help. Instead of, Ugh, there he’s doing it again! I got to stop him.
And then maybe if they really need to be separated because our older child keeps going back and he can’t stop himself and he gets in a rage, or he’s just so lost in his impulses, dysregulated, then yeah, then I would separate them. But whenever possible, I would do something much smaller, the least thing. Do less, because that gives the message that we’re not freaked out by his behavior.
This parent says “We’ve drawn a line for [their son’s] own toys, acknowledging that they’re indeed his, and that he has a reasonable expectation that the baby not touch them.” Yes, so that’s good to do. And I think it might help to say more like, “If you want to keep those things away from him, here’s a way to do that.” Maybe making less of a deal about these things are yours and these things aren’t yours, which can kind of feed into that possessive behavior without us meaning to. Again, because this logical part of the situation, that’s really not what this is about.
And that will help with what this parent mentions later in the note, which is: “We don’t want to have to allocate every single toy as for one boy or the other. And nor can we really abide by our son’s continuing expectation of the baby’s less-than-equal role in the family.” So there it feels like the parents might be veering a little bit into trying to keep things so equal at this point. And the truth is, with children, everything isn’t equal. I really love how this is expressed in Siblings Without Rivalry, that wonderful book. I kept it on my bedside table for years. One of the perspectives that it gives is that everything isn’t going to be equal with siblings, but everyone’s going to get what they need. So if you need 10 Ps, our older child, and the baby only needs two Ps, that’s how it’s going to be. It’s not, Well, he got this many, so he has to get that many. I found this idea to very much resonate and be true and helpful.
This baby was born into a very different situation than his older brother was, with all the excitement and the bonuses of having a sibling. But there’s also some, I don’t know, I guess I don’t even think a baby thinks of it that way, but maybe negatives to that, or some things that there’s just less of. There’s less time alone to be the one with all the toys, maybe there’s less one-on-one time. But the trade-off —and the baby doesn’t know any different— is this amazing day-to-day social experience with somebody else, this exciting person. Many of us have noticed that our babies, they know the difference between a child and an adult, and they’re much more interested in the children a lot of the time. They kind of light up. And if toys are taken away from the baby and we haven’t made a fuss about it or been too judgmental, then it’s really not a big deal to them. Most of them don’t mind it at all. Nobody wants the stuff as much as they want the attention of the other child or the attention of the parent.
And yes, seeing it this way also helps us because it makes for a lot less work for us in terms of, Okay, this is yours and this is yours, and Who had it first?, and all of that stuff. That can be hard to decipher at times, especially when we’re talking about children playing with peers. That’s not our job. Nor is it helpful to our children as they’re learning social behaviors, constantly being the police or the referee that’s in there. And instead really trusting a lot more that children can figure these things out a lot of the time, maybe not to our perception of how it should be, but to their liking, to something that satisfies them. But yes, if something’s nonstop, he keeps taking every toy away from the baby, then I would say something light, a little tip, and maybe stop him. “You’ve taken a couple of things. Let’s let him keep that one.” Not in a judgmental way. We’re still on both of your sides and we’re just coaching both of you to navigate this relationship.
That’s the way that we get this wish that this parent expressed. It’s the same that I certainly had and I believe all parents have. We don’t want to set our child up to resent their sibling. This is the way to do that. We understand that you’ve got these impulses. We understand they’re not reasonable. We’re going to stop you when you get too out there with them, because we’re on both of your sides. That’s how we give our children the opportunity to really develop a mutually respectful relationship and help our older child to not resent a sibling. Or resent us, or feel that we don’t understand and that his feelings are wrong and that he needs to somehow correct them. None of us can correct our feelings. We can work on our behaviors, the way that we express our feelings, but the feelings are just there. We just have them. They don’t make sense a lot of the time.
Again, I often see these situations with not just siblings, but with peers saying, “mine, mine!”, taking toys. And as parents, we want to say, “Well, no, that actually is not yours,” and we want to make sure that they get this right. But what’s even more important is to trust them to just vent the feeling, the momentary feeling. I’m holding that, I don’t want him to hold that. That’s all they’re saying. They’ve got that. It looks interesting in their hands. I want it. And when nobody has it, when it’s available, it’s often not as interesting.
This is similar to saying “share” to a very young child. They don’t really know exactly what this means with friends. We can explain “share” by using it in our behaviors with our children. Here, let’s share this umbrella so you don’t get wet. Or, I have some extra carrots here. Would you like me to share them with you? Or, Thank you for sharing those with me. That’s how children learn to share, not by it being demanded in situations where it means giving something up that they want.
Know that most of these awkward behaviors are impulses. They’re not reasonable thoughts that they’ll understand that they shouldn’t do if we just talk to them about it more. And the more out there the behavior is, the more you can trust that. Again, helping our children feel safe with all their feelings is really all we have to do.
I hope this is helpful. And there’s a lot more information about these ideas and many, many more on my website and in my books, No Bad Kids and Elevating Child Care. And in my No Bad Kids Master Course, if you really want to deep dive. That gives you the complete picture and helps you internalize this approach. Go to nobadkidscourse.com.
Thank you again for listening. We can do this.
UPDATE: A parent shared how she’s using the advice in this podcast and I thought our exchange might be helpful:
Parent: The day after listening to this podcast, my three year old got very upset about his new baby brother wearing the same diapers that he wears. My husband picked them out without thinking He tried pulling it off of him so I tried to remember what you said and replied, “oh man. I know that’s so hard seeing him wear the same diapers. I can’t let you take those off of him though” while as gently as I could trying to release his grip. I hope that was the right way of going about that. I also know you said it’s ok to allow them to take a few toys but if it seems they’re stuck to kindly stop them, however, what if it’s a teething item in the baby’s hand and they shout “I want that! It’s mine”
My response: Yes to this, well done! “oh man. I know that’s so hard seeing him wear the same diapers. I can’t let you take those off of him though” while as gently as I could trying to release his grip.” You can be firm though. With that wonderful empathizing you’re doing, removing his hand as easily as possible will come of as love and care. Too “gentle” can come off as tentative, which won’t be as helpful to him.
(Excerpted from my Facebook page)