Q&A: major tantrums from big sister-to-be

Remember the lovely Jessica, who is expecting her second baby in a few months? She's back with a follow-up:

"Since you gave me such great advice about preparing for a second child, I'm hoping you will take a stab at my current parenting dilemma--out of control tantrums by my almost 3-year old daughter.  Summer recently had a discussion about this on her blog, so I know that I am not alone.  It seems like most children go through this stage at about three and that it is all associated with their increasing need for independence.  I understand and am fine with this being just a developmental stage like any other  What I need help with are some more effective practical coping strategies, because I feel like I am trying what others have suggested and the problem just keeps getting worse.

Here's what I am doing:
(1) Granting reasonable requests (i.e., Yes, you can have an apple),
(2) Trying to involve her in things to make her feel like she has more control (i.e., You are having trouble biting into that big apple. Do you want to pull up a chair to the counter and help mommy cut up the apple?  You can get out the cutting board and put it right here so that I can slice it.),
(3) Not trying to reason with her when she flys off the handle for no reason (i.e., NOT SAYING, however tempting, but you just wanted me to cut up the apple and yes, it does taste the same cut up as it did whole, etc.),
(4) Calmly removing her from the situation, putting her in a safe place like her room, and ignoring her while she screams, kicks, hits, and generally throws herself around for 45 minutes about the apple while telling myself and my husband this is just a phase, this is just a phase over and over again,
(5) Mild bribery (i.e,  Saying, if you can calm down and stop screaming about your apple and join Daddy and me at the dinner table, you can watch your Leapfrog video after we finish dinner),
(6) Resisting going out to the store to buy a new whole apple because I just cut up the last one in the house, or alternatively somehow skewering the apple back together with toothpicks if it will make my previously cheerful preschooler stop screaming, because I shouldn't be giving into her and rewarding this type of behavior.

I wouldn't mind keeping this up if I felt like it was working, but I think every day it has been getting worse, and the things she is getting upset about are getting more and more ludicrous and impossible for me to head-off.  For example, this morning we had a 30 minute fit because I got up out of bed before she did and used the bathroom first.  She wanted to be first, even though she was still asleep when I committed this crime.  She also is pretty violent with these tantrums and OFTEN either starts one out by punching me or kicking at my 7.5 month pregnant stomach, which is obviously unacceptable.  And it's not just that she acts out with me.  She does it with my husband, my sister (who she sees on a daily basis) and is starting to do it at preschool, but to a lesser degree.  Also, since her screaming can easily carry on for 30-45 minutes, it’s making it hard for me to leave the house with her, and it is making us late for appointments, etc.  To avoid being late, I often wind up gently physically forcing her to do things she doesn't want to do, like get dressed, etc. which only makes the screaming and kicking worse, but is occasionally necessary to make it to school on-time.

She is normally an extremely active child, very verbal, and while naturally strong-willed, usually quite thoughtful and pleasant.  She is eating fine, her diet includes very little sugar or other things that could be throwing her off, her sleep routine is good, and she still takes an afternoon nap almost every day.  She's been going through a bit of a growth spurt, but other than that I can't think of anything physical that would be turning my baby into a hellion.  But she is one at the present time and I am not sure what to do about it!  Please help!"

Now I'm feeling guilty. Because I should have warned you that this could happen as your due date got closer and closer.

When I was at about the same stage of pregnancy with El Pequeño, we took a sibling preparation class with El Chico geared to kids in the 2.5-5 age range. One of the things we were told was that kids whose parents were expecting another baby had no idea what having a sibling would be like, so they built it up in their heads as a horrible, scary thing. The closer the due date got, the more wigged out the kids would get, and they'd start behaving worse and worse (and worse). Everyone in the class looked around and said slightly different versions of the statement, "I'm so glad to hear it's normal because I thought my child had suddenly turned into an uncontrollable monster."

The timeline we were given about sibling feelings as a new baby approached was this:

* At the end of the pregnancy or adoption wait, the potential big sibling will get more and more stressed, imagine more and more horrible things, be completely unwilling to talk about them, and start acting out by having crazy tantrums.

* When the baby comes, the big sibling will realize that babies are, essentially, pretty boring. The big shock will be that everyone still loves the big sibling and that things aren't all that different. Many of your friends and family members will even be kind enough to bring a present for the big kid when they come to see the baby, so the big sibling will get new toys. The sibling relaxes and things are calm for about two weeks.

* After two weeks or so, the big sibling gets bored with the baby and tired of all the attention the baby's getting*, and wants the baby just to go away. The big sibling may even verbalize this desire for the baby to go away. We were told to let the kid talk and validate his or her feelings. I remember El Chico telling me he didn't like El Pequeño because he cried all the time. When I said I didn't like him because he cried, either, El Chico was shocked and said, "But Mom, we love him! He's just a baby!" It's important to let the big sibling express negative feelings and not try to tell them they love the new baby if they don't feel like it right then.

* The big sibling will resent the new baby and might act out. Depending on the age of the big sibling (and how willing you are to allow the sibling to express negative feeling without repercussion) the acting out may be mild pushback on things you ask combined with some benign harrassment of the baby (hugging just a little too hard, licking, etc.), or it may be more serious (actually trying to hurt the baby, throwing tantrums, etc.). The big sibling may also have some nightwaking and bedwetting, even if s/he's been night trained for a long time.

* Once the new baby gets mobile (scooting or crawling) the baby will start to be more fun for the big sibling, and they'll start to interact more and the bad behavior should decrease.

So far we've found these predictions to be dead on in our house, and it sounds like it's happening to you, too. Your daughter's behavior sounds annoyingly textbook for a potential big sister.

Since this is an event-delineated problem, you really only have to tread water until the baby comes. I think you're doing exactly the right thing by combining limits, distraction, and giving her situations in which she has (the illusion of) control to try to make it through the days with her. You don't want to just give up on the discipline, because that would be shooting yourself in the head foot and would make your days even worse, but nothing you do at this point is going to make her behavior stop or diminish much. So don't feel lke you're doing something wrong or missing something that could fix it. Just try to stay on as even a keel as possible, and hope the baby comes earlier rather than later.

To be prepared for the new baby coming, I'd suggest getting a really good front carrier (Ellaroo, Mobywrap, Hug-a-Bub, etc.) for the new baby so you can still play somewhat with your daughter. Also think now about lining up help for the first few weeks after the baby's here. You won't need the same kind of help you did with a first baby (when you're so freaked out you almost forget how to brush your teeth), but you will need someone to play with your daughter while you're working out the nursing, changing your pads, changing the 12th poop blowout of the day, etc.

Hang in there. It's extremely tiring when you're huge and exhausted to have to deal with escalating tantrums and unreasonable requests from your older child. As confusing as having a newborn and a preschooler is, I still found it way easier than the few months before having the second.

*Why do so many people think the best way to pay attention to a new big sibling is to ask "So how do you like your new brother?" or "So how do you like being a big sister?" It's just like that old chestnut "But enough about me. How do you feel about me?" If you're looking for something to ask a new sibling, try "Have you gotten any new toys lately?" instead. Kids love to talk about their toys.