Helping Toddler Be Gentle with Babies


An NPN reader asks our natural parenting mentors:

My son (two years 9 months) is a rough kid. He likes to throw, hit, jump, climb, kick, run . . . anything active, and he is not gentle when he does it. He has two younger cousins (one year and 10 months) and a new brother or sister on the way in February. I love that he is so active, but he doesn’t seem to understand the concept of being more gentle with the little ones. He seems to get that they can’t do everything he can, but not that he can’t play with them the way he does his older cousins. He is only around them a few times a month, but with a baby due in February, I am concerned about how rough he is. Any suggestions to guide him to a safer way to play with the babies?

Here is what our natural parenting mentors had to say:

Acacia: First of all, I applaud you for wanting to support your son’s active personality! It can be a challenge to guide a child who seeks out so much physical interaction into more gentle forms of touch. He will get there!

Chances are a consistent amount of rough housing with an adult will help. William Cohen wrote a wonderful book called Playful Parenting that includes a chapter on rough housing. He outlines 10 rules or guidelines for rough housing, three of which I think particularly apply to your situation, but you should check out the book, too. It’s full of golden advice for kiddos who are so physically active.

First, provide basic safety with rules (no hitting, kicking, biting) and remind your child many times of those rules. If a rule is broken, hold your child gently but firmly and remind him of the rule. However, try to stay engaged while maintaining safety instead of stopping all play. Cohen says that this “gives us the chance to help children who are impulsive or aggressive to gradually control those feelings.”

Also, look for opportunities during rough housing to increase confidence and sense of power. You can do this by using the right level of resistance and by giving encouragement. When I rough house with my 3 year old son, I pretend to be surprised that he’s so strong and can knock me down or egg him on to step it up a bit. Lastly, provide the right level of resistance to your child’s needs. When we play fight, I can feel if my son’s just into a little light tossing around, or if he has some aggression to work out and needs to go with me full force. Wrestling around or rough housing with an adult who is practicing restraint will teach him how to control his physical exertion based who he is playing with.

Darcel: Maybe you could show him how to play gently with a few dolls or animals. Whenever you are around the smaller children and he wants to play with them, remind him to use soft hands.
Also, explaining why they can’t be rough with the babies seems to help. Show him through your actions how to be gentle with babies. Gently touch him, stroke his cheek, rub his back or gently play with his hair.

Is there a way you can make sure he gets most of his rough play done before you visit with the younger children?

Maybe you can model appropriate ways to play with the little ones. For example, one game he can play with the younger babies is rolling a ball across the floor. That way he still gets to play with them, but in a more gentle way.

The book Raising Our Children Raising Ourselves by Naomi Aldort is an excellent resource on parenting. She also has a great free newsletter you can find by visiting her website.

She has a couple of chapters in her book on how to introduce siblings into the family, how your current child may feel about their new sibling, and how to help them through their feelings about their new sibling. I hope they will help you!

Amy: The place to start with guidance is where you’re coming from as you guide. It’s natural to be protective of little ones – they need protection to survive and thrive. It can also bring up some strong feelings of angst towards the child who is being rough or aggressive. The fact that you recognize your son’s need to be physical demonstrates your desire to guide with love, compassion, and direction towards what you feel is appropriate.

Kids often rough house for connection, to experiment with power, exercise, or due to something out of balance with the body such as the need to eat or frustration/over-stimulation. Observe your son to see what factors may contribute to rough play so you can be aware and help him learn body awareness as he grows. With an almost three year old, re-direction and boundaries create two-way communication. Consistent redirecting energy to more appropriate activities such as jumping, dancing, rolling on the ground, chase on hands and knees, or anything else physical that is not harmful will take care of many instances. Some kids need more physical activity than others, and being proactive to allow that physical expression helps everyone in the family. Write a list of activities you can direct your son to when you notice his energy is increasing and you think he may become rough. This way you are prepared for directing him if it arises.

It’s just as important to notice where you are in relation to how you respond emotionally. If you’re upset, take a few breaths into your body to focus on what and how you want to guide your son. If you need to touch him to remind him to be gentle or redirect his energy, make sure you do so when you can be gentle. This is where the saying “be the change you wish to see” becomes very important. If we meet aggressive energy with the same, we create more.

Boundaries teach someone how they can treat us or another. In that sense if he seems to be hurting someone you can say something like “people are not for hurting” then show him how he can play in a way that doesn’t hurt. You can also say to yourself the boundary you wish to communicate and let your action do the talking, such as demonstrating a gentle way to play. When we focus on what we don’t want we see more of it, so be sure to have in mind the behavior you want to see and be willing to teach it as many times as necessary. He’ll get it.

One of the most important statements someone made about my first child when I had the second was, “She’s just trying to love him.” Children connect through play and at times it can seem or turn rough. Watch your own reactions to see if your son is trying to connect and how you feel about it. Similarly, you may consider that aggression is a call for love and as your relationship grows with your son you can meet that call to guide from your heart.

Enjoy your growing family!

Photo Credit: Dionna at Code Name: Mama

3 Responses to Helping Toddler Be Gentle with Babies

  1. TopHat  

    One thing I have emphasized in teaching my daughter to be soft with her brother is that the rules for being soft with him are the rules for being soft with everyone. I’ll pat him gently and say, “We are soft with the baby,” turn and pat myself, “We are soft with Mommy,” turn and pat her, “we are soft with you.” I do this to help her feel included and that we all live with the same rules and that the baby isn’t an exception: we are all fair.

  2. Acrophile

    We taught our first DD some signs when she was about 7 months old. “Gentle” was the BEST SIGN EVER! It *is* what it says. The sign is done by gently stroking the back of one hand, from fingers to wrist, with the fingertips of the other. If you use your child’s hand to do the sign (as many books recommend) you will be teaching him what ‘gentle’ *is*, not just a word. He will see how it feels, and you can remind him, by taking his hands and saying “Gentle” as you do the sign. Later, after he really learns it, you can remind him by saying “Show me the sign for ‘gentle’. Now remember to be gentle with the baby.” This worked very very well with our older daughter toward our younger one, and with both toward our cats. I often tell people “If you only teach your baby one sign, teach them ‘gentle’.” There’s no clearer way to teach the concept, IMO.

  3. pocketbuddha  

    I’ve been struggling with my 15mo. He’s honestly not THAT rambunctious really. But he does have a habit of throwing toys and yanking my glasses off my face. I find myself repeating ‘gentle gentlt gentle!’ all the time and it just didn’t feel right that I should be. I feel like I am nagging him. I don’t ever roughhouse with him really, it’s not my style & we prefer to do other physical things like running, jumping, and dancing.

    It never occurred to me until reading this that he does occasionally NEED to blow of some steam and rough housing with him isn’t going to teach him aggression like I’d though, but rather teach him boundaries and explore his own power.

    Thank you for making me think about my approach, maybe his occasional aggressive actions (which were confusing me because they were rarely if ever about anger or frustration) are his way of telling me that our play times are missing a little bit of friendly wrestling.

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