How to help the child whose parents have recently adopted a baby 

THE TEACHER'S STORY

WALLY ENTERED THE CLASSROOM GRUDGINGLY, coaxed every step of the way by his mom. I thought, "This is a good reminder that the first day of school can be a little scary, even for an experienced preschooler."

"Wally, you wanna make a garage?" his pal, Sam, called out from the block comer. Wally didn't respond. He seemed afraid to leave his mom's side. I tried to encourage him to join the group at the water table, wondering what had happened to the confident child I knew last year.

When Wally walked toward the others, his mom reminded me that they had recently adopted a baby girl. Suddenly Wally was splashing water everywhere. I hurried toward the table, but he was gone. He knocked over Sam's block building and grabbed another child's toy car. I reached his hand just before it entered the fish tank and gently guided him toward the door. "What in the world is happening to him?" I wondered again, after catching my breath. Could this all be about the new baby?

The next morning, Wally arrived with his mom and immediately began pleading with her to take him home. I could see she was thinking seriously about it, knowing she had to leave soon to relieve her husband who was with the baby. Then Wally got involved in looking at a new pop-up book with two other children. He said a cheerful good-bye to his mom, but a few minutes later, he was in tears. As I patted his back, I asked, "How's the new baby?"

"Her name's Sophie, and all she does is cry and eat and get her diaper changed all the time."

Later, when Wally's mom arrived to pick him up, he raced around the room, refusing to go with her. I wondered, "Is he reacting to the new baby or to starting school again?" How can I work through this situation when I'm not certain what's bothering Wally?

THE PARENT'S STORY

WE THOUGHT WALLY, OUR 4-YEAR-OLD, WOULD BE thrilled to have a little sister, but even before we brought Sophie home this summer, Wally began to have bouts of being whiny and grumpy. Now he's in a bad mood almost all the time. Whenever I bathe or feed Sophie, he gets irritable. Once he asked me for a bottle for himself, and just the other day, he said he wanted to be powdered.

Yesterday, he kicked the crib, and then he took Sophie's music box and wound it so tightly that the spring broke. Today I became even more worried when Wally pleaded to stay home from school. Last year, he loved going to school! How can I help my little boy be his old self again?

Dr. Brodkin's Assessment

Wally's behavior is not out of the ordinary and probably won't last very long. School was fun before Sophie's arrival, but now he imagines that while he is away, the baby is stealing his place in his mother's heart. He protests at home by whining and breaking her things, and he splashes water and disrupts things in school. Together, the parents and teacher can help Wally to enjoy school again.

What the Teacher Can Do

Wally's teacher should encourage gradual separation, if the parents can manage that. With a parent or other family member nearby, Wally is more likely to concentrate on school and not think of what he may be missing at home.

The teacher should offer him as much one-on-one time as she can. She might encourage him to use words and dramatic play to express his feelings rather than impulsive behavior. Now and then, she may point out that babies aren't able to enjoy the special activities that he enjoys.

What the Parent Can Do

Mother and son should spend some time doing things they used to do before Sophie came along. Wally's mom should let him know that she accepts his feelings. "I know you're upset about how things have changed since Sophie joined our family, but you and I can still have our own special times together."

If Wally wants to try some of the baby's powder after his bath, or even a bottle, that's O.K. Being babyish gets boring especially for a 4-year-old whose life was always fun and stimulating. Dad may take him on a trip to the zoo or a soccer game. Inviting a friend from school will bring school and home closer together.

When Sophie begins to coo and smiles at her big brother, he's likely to give her a wink on his way out to do important things, like build a fort with his pals. ECT