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Middle Child Frustrations

QUESTION: I have three sons -- a four-year-old, 27-month-old, and five-month-old. My 27-month-old can be very stubborn. He is just starting to talk and when he gets frustrated with a situation he will scream and throw a fit. I have tried restraining him, diverting his attention, soothing him, using time-outs, and removing him physically from the location. Nothing seems to work. This behavior began before the new baby was born. What I can do?

ANSWER: Your son is two-years-old and a middle child. This stage of his life ushers in the developmental crisis between equally strong, but divergent needs. Particularly "spirited" children are especially likely to dissolve into tears over conflicting desires for independence and dependence at this age. His position in the family as the middle child exacerbates this frustration.

Any outbursts your son may have been prone to in the past will naturally increase at this time. It is his job to challenge boundaries and yours to neutrally enforce them. This is a very trying time for him and for you. It may help to realize that absorbing his anger at this age will help "tame" his disposition in years to come.

Consider the fact that the competing needs of a baby brother naturally exacerbate his need for increased attention. Also, his dependency needs do not get met as often. If possible, choose times to indulge him when he is not having a meltdown. Carry and cuddle him, and let him be your baby for five minutes each day. Giving him these "baby" cuddles may help him feel special, as well as satisfy some of his unmet dependency needs.

Likewise, consider that his independent cravings -- which are strong at this age -- are naturally thwarted by a big brother who can do so much more. It is sometimes difficult for a second child to feel competent about his own developmental achievements, when an older sibling is so very adept! I remember my own son, a second child, upset that he could not ride a tricycle at 15-months-old, even though his older sister had not mastered it until she was two-years-old. In fact, until he was six, he continually asked me if I was sure he was not a midget.

Carve out special time with him, again when he is not already upset, to support his unique independence. Make his achievements the focal point of your attention several times throughout the day. Marvel at the towers he builds with his blocks, remark on how smart he is to recognize new words and help him develop a new skill he can be proud of, like helping you with the dishes. It is easy for a middle child to feel overshadowed because the older one can always do it better and the younger one can always use more help.

It is also possible that your middle son has a different temperament than either you, or his siblings. This may make it harder to recognize his unique needs and easier to scapegoat him in the family because he is the one you understand the least. Be careful here! You would not be the first parent to fall prey to this natural vulnerability.

Be alert to the fact that older children may take advantage of a younger sibling's frustrations. Sometimes, they even "set up" a younger sibling for a meltdown.

Because your son is "spirited," he is protesting, rather than suppressing his own needs. The healthy part of this message is that he is calling out for help.


Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter.

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