Ask the Expert: How do I get my five year old to act his age?
Baby love: close physical playful games that involve lots of hugs are important. Photograph:Getty Images
Q I have two sons, a five year old and a 16 month old. When the younger was born we were happily surprised at how well our first child took to the new situation. Everything was going well until the baby was maybe five or six months old. However, since then, the five year old has been acting like a baby more and more.
He uses baby talk and points to ask for things and gets easily upset if you don’t do what he wants. He says things like he wants to be a baby ,and he gurgles and babbles when he meets other people (which is embarrassing).
However, he mostly does it around his father, in the evenings and at weekends. He gets very clingy and won’t go to the toilet or get dressed on his own and won’t let him take the baby out on his own.
At this point, we are finding it quite disruptive and impractical to family life. Not least because my husband and I have had different approaches. My husband tends to indulge the behaviour because it makes life easier and he believes he is feeling insecure, while I want to ignore it or offer rewards for good behaviour and instigate quality time.
When you throw in one set of grandparents who indulge it and another set who try to talk him out of it, I feel he is getting very mixed messages about his behaviour and not likely to change.
He has just started school so I am concerned that his normal intelligent, curious self will not come across and that he will be isolated and won’t engage with school in the best way.
I am a stay-at-home mother and am still breastfeeding the one year old, if this makes any difference.
Have you any suggestions or insights into this phenomenon?
A Though his “babyish” behaviour did not start until his new brother was five months old, it is probably best understood in the context of his competing with his brother for attention. The arrival of a new sibling has an enormous impact on an older child’s life, which is changed forever. They have to learn to share the world and their parents’ attention with another person and this is not easily achieved.
Frequently, they feel that their younger brother or sister is getting more attention and may judge that their parents favour him or her because he/she is more charming or cuter than them. At an unconscious level, your son might feel that if he copies his younger brother’s behaviour, he might gain your approval or “win you back”.
Once this pattern is reinforced and he gets some attention for it, he is likely to continue to seek you out in this way.
Agreeing expectations with your husband
As you rightly say, a central issue in your situation is the fact that your husband and you have very different ideas as how to respond to your son’s “babyish” behaviour which can lead to conflict between the two of you and a confusing message to your son as to what is expected of him and how he can gain your approval.