Four-year-old Zachary usually bounces into our room. But on the first day after vacation, he dragged his feet. He came in with his Aunt Carolyn, who told me his mom was at home with the new baby.
"What a special gift-" I started to say. But before I could finish, Zach rushed to the water table and splashed water everywhere. Next, he knocked over Pat's block tower. I wondered what had happened to our agreeable Zach.
The next morning, Zachary's mom brought him to school. At first, he pleaded with her to take him home. Soon, however, he was petting the hamster and calling out a cheerful good-bye. But when he saw his mom's car pull away, tears rained on his sneakers.
On a hunch, I walked with Zachary to a quiet corner. "How's the new baby?" I asked.
"It's a baby sister."
"Oh? What's her name?"
"Ginny," he said scornfully. "And all she does is cry and eat and get her diaper changed!"
Zachary scowled while his classmates related their vacation news. And later, when his mom arrived, he raced around the room and refused to leave with her. Clearly, Zachary is having a rough time.
THE PARENT'S STORY
I was so glad to leave the hospital in time for the holidays. We thought we'd prepared our 4-year-old for the new baby, but we weren't as successful as we'd hoped.
Before Ginny was born, Zachary was cheerful-but no longer. Last week, he stood in the living room and screamed as visitors fussed over Ginny. And when the three of us went to a department store to exchange gifts, Zachary urged me to leave her there. "Someone else can buy her," he said. "We don't need a baby!"
Although I tell Zach all the time how much I love him, Ginny needs a huge amount of my attention. Maybe Zachary's not convinced that there's enough love to go around.
Dr. Brodkin's Assessment
Although Zachary's behavior is disconcerting, it's not unusual and probably won't last long.
Before Ginny came along, Zachary had the exclusive devotion of his parents. School was fun, too. But now he imagines that while he's away, Ginny is stealing his place in his mother's heart. He's furious at the tiny interloper, but senses he can't hurt her without getting into trouble. So he protests with aggressive behavior, which makes him feel less helpless.
Working together, Zachary's teacher and parents can help him to adapt to the changes at home and to enjoy school again.
What the Teacher Can Do
Although Zachary isn't a newcomer to school, gradual separation from his parents during this period of adjustment will help him. The teacher should urge his parents to arrange for one of them, or another family member, to stay in the room for a while each day, until Zachary feels calm and secure. With a significant adult nearby, Zachary is more likely to concentrate on school and not think about what he might be missing at home.
The teacher should also make a point of encouraging him to use language and dramatic play, rather than impulsive behavior, to express his feelings. She can read books about babies at group time and encourage discussion among the children.
In addition, Zachary's teacher and parents should be sure to foster the friendships he's been forming since the start of the school year. And the adults might make a point of telling Zach that babies can't do all the fun things 4-year-olds can.
What the Parents Can Do
It's important that mother and son find time together to do some of the things they enjoyed before Ginny came along. Dad or Aunt Carolyn might stay with Ginny, while Zachary and Mom read a story. When they're together, Mom can say, "I know you're upset about how things have changed since Ginny was born, but you and I can still have our special times."
Strengthening the father-son bond is important, too, so Dad should also spend time alone with Zach. Occasionally inviting a friend from school to join them will liven up a trip to the park and bring school and home even closer together.
In the coming months, Ginny will start to recognize and admire her big brother, and that's likely to make a world of difference. When she coos and smiles at him, he'll begin to realize that there are some benefits to having a baby sister after all.