I am dealing with terrible morning sickness and can hardly manage anything at this point. I know I am going to be ok eventually, but my three year old daughter seems really mad at me for not spending very much time with her. I don’t want her to feel abandoned but am not sure what to do?


Answer: I think the first thing to remember is that a new baby coming in to the family (even if it is just in your tummy right now) is a big adjustment for everyone even if it is a very happy and planned event. The entire family needs some time to adjust to the new reality.


            I am very encouraged by the fact that you have already made the link between your daughters “mad” behaviour and your pregnancy. This is the first step in helping your child deal with scary and difficult feelings, and a much better alternative than just placing her on the naughty mat, chair, or stool as a way of solving a “behaviour” problem.


            In therapy, we talk about “reframing” problems so that we can better understand what is really going on underneath “acting out” behaviours. These acting out behaviours are used by children, and also adults, when they are not able to use words to express what they are feeling. So, I would reframe your daughter’s acting out behaviours (e.g. yelling, pushing, and tantrums) by saying that her “mad” behaviour is her way of saying “I am worried you will not be with me anymore because all of your love and attention will go to the baby.”


            The important thing that I tell the parents I work with is that we do not need to insulate children from all difficult experiences, but we need to “put words on them” so that we can help soothe the underlying anxiety they are feeling. This is certainly true in the case of soon to be expected siblings because it is also very healthy for children to have to accommodate other siblings (and parent’s) needs into their daily experience.


            I would suggest that when you and your daughter have some time together that you simply talk to her about what you think she might be feeling. You might say, “Do you feel sad that Mommy is sick and I can’t play with you as much as I normally do?” Don’t worry if you don’t get much of a response, the words are sinking in. When she is getting mad, you can say “You are mad because the new baby is taking up a lot of my time.” Then just add simple things like, “I am always going to be right here with you” or “I have enough love for you and the new baby, you don’t need to worry about me going away.”


            Of course you need to choose the right words for your child’s age and how you normally speak with her. The basic idea is that if you respond to; and soothe her underlying feelings and anxiety, her behaviour will improve. But even more important, your daughter will learn something that will help her throughout her life. That is, that she can express her feelings directly, a caring person will respond and she won’t need to act out by being mad and punitive against others.