By Deborah Wood, Ph.D.
Dear Dr. Debbie,
The oldest of my three boys is six-years-old. He took some time to adjust to his younger brother when he was three, but now there’s a new little one, seven-weeks-old, and Boy #1 is often argumentative and angry. I was looking forward to his going back to school – a daily routine for him and a break for me – but with increased concerns about in-person school due to the Delta Variant, it doesn’t feel like something to realistically look forward to any more.
By the way, my husband is almost as exhausted as I am, but tries to pitch in on evenings and weekends.
Not Having Fun Here
The novel coronavirus that causes Covid-19 is still very much an influence on family life. In non-pandemic times your six-year-old would have outlets beyond you and his little brothers for his daily needs for play, exercise, adult attention, etc. The middle child would also be in and out of your direct care with at least a few hours here and there to play at a friend’s house or attend a regular program for his age group. You and the baby might have a weekly get together with other moms and infants, to share the ups and downs of parenthood.
As it is, your six-year-old is enduring a very stressful period in his life and in history.
Are there family members and friends that can have brief online visits with him? They might share picture books with each other or use the whiteboard on Zoom to play tic-tac-toe, practice writing letters and words, and make drawings together.
Those loving adults might send him some snail mail – as much as for the excitement of seeing his name on the envelope and opening it up as for whatever treasure awaits inside.
Between you and Daddy, make the most of tag teaming. It may be challenging or impossible to add other human resources to the mix at this time – are they vaccinated, do they mask up in public, and what about the rest of the people in their home? Divide the essential parenting and household tasks between you and Daddy and hold off on nonessential projects. Keep “give each child one-on-one attention” on your list of essential tasks, even if it’s in brief moments at a time.
Take turns taking naps on weekends. Sleep deprivation can rob you of the ability to remember things, to weigh decisions wisely, to regulate your emotions, and to see the humor in the events of your day. Try to remember to be present and attentive for each child and for each other, even if just in small bursts.
When close adult attention is at a minimum, the physical environment becomes more influential in how each person’s needs get met. Think about where you and the children need things to be. For example, the baby and you need a comfy place for frequent feedings and supplies for frequent diapering. The older boys need playthings most of the day. Combine these needs in one space so that you might converse with an older child (or coach him through a conflict with his brother) as you physically take care of the baby. Remove things that cause trouble – not as punishment but as prevention. If certain toys or objects inspire roughhousing, make them disappear.
Plan your outdoor time and space similarly, with shade in mind for the baby and room for the older ones to safely romp. Basic outdoor inventory includes beach balls, toy vehicles and riding toys that could be left out in the rain, and sidewalk chalk. Summertime is perfect for water play. Dress the children in their swimsuits and bring out plastic tubs or large mixing bowls, a turkey baster, empty yogurt cups, a dedicated sponge, wide paint brushes, and other items for creative play with water from the garden hose. Set up basic rules (i.e., spray water away from people, or alternatively, Mommy fills the tubs and turns off the hose when the tubs are full).
Life is tough when your only playmate is your younger brother and parents are tied up with a new baby. He may have a lot to be angry about. Six-year-olds are characteristically dramatic and independent, so try to avoid escalating a minor disgruntlement into a power struggle. Tune in to his point of view and show sympathy for his frustrations.
Does your six-year-old have a preferred way to express his emotions? Give him access to: music for dancing off his stress, paper and crayons for drawing his demons, puppets or stuffed animals for acting out his dramas, a pretend microphone (could be a hairbrush) for singing out his blues, or just your ear and comforting words for him to unravel the tensions he is experiencing.
Help him look forward to fun things in the future, when some of the conditions he is angry about no longer exist. Maybe you can write up a list of people to visit or have over when it’s safe to do so. Maybe you can calendar some places the family, or just you and he, can go to, when the baby can be left with a sitter, when he and his friends are vaccinated, or when other conditions that make him angry today have been lifted as obstacles to his happiness.
Anger is a legitimate emotion when we are blocked from what we need.
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