Children Sharing Divided Attention

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Taken from Growing Concerns -- A childrearing question-and-answer column with Dr. Martha Erickson.

I recently started providing child care in my home for two children, ages 1 and 3. I thought it would be good for my own 3-year-old daughter to have other kids around, but she has suddenly become very demanding, whiny and babyish. She doesn't want the other kids to play with her toys and sometimes becomes aggressive with them. She even wants to use a pacifier and drink from a bottle, things she gave up months ago! How should I respond?

You're describing behaviors that many parents have seen in their children after the birth of a new baby. And even though the children in your care are not your own, the impact on your daughter is much the same as if they were. Probably for the first time in her life, your daughter has to share your attention--and her space and possessions--with other children. For a 3-year-old, this is a lot to handle. At this age, children are still very self-centered and not yet ready to adapt to the needs of others. It's hard for them to share things or attention without a lot of adult guidance and coaching. Without sophisticated language and reasoning skills, they may not even know--and certainly can't express--the feelings they experience when someone invades their turf and draws mom's attention away from them. So they revert to the things they know--whining, fussing and looking for comfort in the ways they did when they were babies. Especially with a 1-year-old on the scene, it is not surprising that your daughter is wanting a bottle and a pacifier. As she watches you nurturing the baby, she probably wants to be a baby too, to get all that special attention again.

*It will take time and patience on everyone's part to get through this period of adjustment. But there are a few steps you can take to help your daughter adapt.

*If possible, set aside some toys to be "day care" toys and some to be just for your daughter to use, either when the other children aren't there or in part of the house that is kept private for your family. It is hard for children to have their homes become public space, so keeping some "turf" just for your daughter may help her feel more secure.

*Before the children arrive each day, have a brief private time with your daughter--perhaps to read a story or sing a song together. During that time, let her know the positive things you will expect from her that day, for example, being gentle with the baby, playing nicely with the other child and using words to tell you what she needs. Then, throughout the day, let her know how pleased you are each time she does those things.
If she wants to use a pacifier or drink from a bottle, don't make an issue of it. Instead go along with it by saying, "So, you feel like being a baby right now. That sounds like fun!" Put her juice in a bottle, snuggle her up in a blanket and play out the drama. (Be prepared for the other 3-year-old to get into the action too, which would be just fine.)

*Point out the benefits of being an older child. Highlight those things that 3-year-olds can do that babies can't. For example, she can talk, climb, ride a tricycle, draw pictures and help make cookies.

*Understand that for awhile your daughter probably will need extra assurance that she is still your girl, so allow for special times in the evenings or on weekends when she can have you all to herself. In time, she probably will become more relaxed about sharing you with the other children and may even come to enjoy it in the way you had hoped.

Editor's Note: Dr. Martha Farrell Erickson, director of the University of Minnesota's Children, Youth and Family Consortium, invites your questions on child rearing for possible inclusion in this column. E-mail to or write to Growing Concerns, University of Minnesota News Service, 6 Morrill Hall, 100 Church St. S.E., Minneapolis, MN 55455.
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