Advice about Cousins

Archived Q&A and Reviews

Worried about my 13-month-old and his aggressive 3-year-old cousin

Jan 2008

My 13 month old son is a pretty independent, happy go lucky child who plays very well with most kids. My sister in law who has a 3 year old, a 16 month old and is expecting her third baby next month has recently moved to our town. Her 3 year old son is a very aggressive child who will hit, kick, punch, throw toys, scream and pretty much do whatever he wants whenever he wants. My SIL's ''disciplinig'' method consists of her telling her child that his behavior is ''not nice'' and pretty much leaving him to continue to do whatever he wants. I have witnessed this for the past 2 years and he shows no signs of outgrowing this behavior. Now that my 13 month old is around him, I am afraid of how the 3 years olds behavior is affecting him both physically (he has pushed him, punched him on numerous occasions) and psychologically (picking up bad habits). I try to be super vigilant whenever my son is around him but of course, there are times when I just can't get to him fast enough or miss something. I also can't completely cut off contact and my stricter methods of discipline are not welcome by her or her family. In fact, my inlaws already think that I don't like this child because I don't play with him or tolerate his behavior. Advice on what to do? Overly concerned mom?

Sounds like a difficult situation, but I think you are right to be concerned. How about some filtered honesty in a conversation with your SIL? You acknowledge that you have different parenting styles, you explain that her son is bullying your son (how would she feel if the situation were reversed?), or perhaps you stretch the truth a little and tell her that you're witnessing some odd behaviors in your own son and would prefer to keep the two boys separated for awhile, or that you would prefer your son to have more variety in his social circle. :) At the end of the day, I believe you have to do what you think is right for your son, even if it means causing conflict for you/family, etc.
Wow! It sounds like your SIL is UNDERSTANDABLY overwhelmed -- 2 kids under 4 with a 3rd on the way. That is a lot to handle. I had 2 under 2 for a while and it was not easy. I was exhausted. Until kids are three (and even older in boys) the day to day care of a child is grueling -- you know, you have a child. Try doubling your workload, throwing in some older kid emotional issues, and then top it off by making a new set of lungs. Both kids are probably pretty mobile so, think about how tough it is to chase two kids different directions while big as a barn pregnant. That is not an easy task my friend.

My advice to you is to offer kindness and sympathy, because it isn't too long coming that you are going to need the same from her. Instead of criticizing your sister-in-law, why don't you ask her if you can drop her off dinner or have her younger child over for a few hours one morning. It is tough when you have just one thirteen-month-old to grasp how much those little creatures change in just a short period of time and to understand the physical and emotional exhaustion of the parent dealing with more than one child when one has hit a challenging age.

Your description of your own child sounds pretty typical. My kids were downright AWESOME at 13-months. From two until three...well, not so much. They were still awesome kids, but awesome kids who could throw temper-tantrums (younger one), hit kids who looked at toys that they had played with three days ago (older and younger), screamed if dinner wasn't served on a pink plate (younger), etc. You probably cannot imagine that in less than a year your child is going to be face-down in a supermarket kicking and screaming because you won't let him have a blue spoon or some other irrational need du jour. But, it happens to every kid that I've met to varying degrees. Some kids hit, some kids bite their moms, some kids scream and flat out refuse to co-operate for HOURS, etc.

You may want to pick up a copy of ''Two - tender or terrible'' and its follow-on for threes by Louise Bates Ames. I always try to keep abreast of those books in my children's current age and one year up and down. It helps me understand what is normal for their development and that of their friends (and everything you describe about your nephew is normal, though at an upper end, but reading the books will also tell you that it probably is due to adjusting to a new sibling -- he was still a baby when a new baby came along and was shoved out of arms and now another one is on the way...oh what fun for the eldest...I'd be mad as heck if I was him, too)

And finally, you are a good SIL for wanting to resolve these issues. It is hard sometimes to understand where another Mom is coming from when you have never walked in her shoes. I remember wanting to throttle another parent when an older boy hit and then pushed down my sweet then-15-month-old. The Mom was nursing a baby on the park bench. Her reaction was along the lines of 'oh, did Johnny hit her? Hey Johnny, play nice' all muttered without enthusiasm. Fast-forward a year and that same exhausted Mom on the bench nursing a baby was me watching my now 2 1/2 year old grab her shovel back from a much younger boy (she hadn't played with it in ten minutes, so law of the playground says it was okay for him to pick it up) and then pull his hair. It was a Eureka moment then that I realized that I really should never judge another Mom, because I don't know what they are going through. -don't judge other moms

In my opinion, you are not an overly concerned Mom. You are protecting your baby from a violent and undisciplined child. Unfortunately, he is related to you so it makes the situation a little sticky. I take it from your post that you've already tried talking to her rationally, etc etc so....Bottom line: would you allow any other child to behave that way in your house? If you had a playdate or visit from a neighbor's child and he hit, kicked and screamed, would you have him over again? I realize this is difficult but you're the parent and need to do what's best for your child, even if it means stepping on inlaws' toes. Your SIL needs to be told that although she thinks his behavior is acceptable, it's not acceptable in your house. If she disagrees with your discipline methods or won't control him when they visit, she can keep him home. I know it's a tough line but it's the only way to teach both your SIL and her son that you mean what you say. Best of luck to you, I can only imagine how difficult this is for you. Hopefully she'll get the point quickly and start paying more attention, especially with another baby on the way. Take care. Tough love advocate
Have you given this 3 yo a toy? Next time he acts up tell him you'll take that toy away. And then do it if he breaks the rules. There's also some good rule books for kids ''Teeth are for eating'' etc. enforcer

My 5-year-old being hurt by 11-year-old cousin

December 2003

My 5 year old son is being hurt by his 11 year old cousin and he won't tell me how. This is the second time I've picked him up and he tells me something happend, but won't tell me what. This time he said his cousing covered his mouth while choking him when he started to cry because he didn't want to get in trouble. When I asked him ''get in trouble for what?'' He said he doesn't remember.

Does anyone know how I can get him to talk? I need to know how to handle this situation, but until I know what happened I won't know what to do. I don't want to over react, but I want to protect him.

I must state that despite what I am about to write I believe that what occured had no ''negative'' affects. Also, please don't read this and panic, because although today this kind of behavior or action would be looked at as ''criminal'', I have heard that it is just the natural process of growing up. The thing I would be most worried about is whether your son feels/believes that he is being physical abused or hurt, and does he still want to go to his cousins house. To me those are the issue which need to be determined and the acted upon. You do not mention any reactions/comments from the aunt/uncle. Have you not asked them?

Also, in not trying to cause panic or fear, It could be just a game the kids are playing, but of course that is for you to decide. What happened to me was ''sexual experimentation'' today I believe it would be called molestation or abuse, and perhaps it was but it was consensual. Also, I was not as young as your son, but the influence did come from an older boy. Please remember, what your son will be most affected by and remember is your reaction to what is happening. Finaly, there are a million different ''things'' which could be going on between the two kids, so prhaps the best thing to do is not have your son go his cousins house.

This may seem obvious, but you have to keep your son away from his cousin until you figure out what happened.

A possibility would be to confront the cousin, pretending you know what he did but giving him the opportunity to confess first.

Do not wait until your son tells you ''everything'' that his cousin is doing to him. You need to act -- now! You already know your son's cousin is choking him and threatening him -- these behaviors alone should be enough to set off alarm bells. Perhaps what is actually happening is even worse -- such as molestation. It is clear that your son hasn't ''forgotten'' what has happened to him; he is terrified to tell you because his cousin has threatened him.

The first thing would be NOT to leave your son alone with his cousin any more. Aren't there any adults supervising them? Can't you talk to the cousin's parents about the fact that their son is choking and threatening your son? Do not make your son endure this a moment longer by making him keep going over to spend time with someone who chokes and threatens him (and possibly does worse). You need to intervene immediately to halt this behavior. Your son is depending on you.

Please don't take any chances. I received similar treatment/abuse from both my older brother and my male cousins. My advice for an immediate solution is to keep your son AWAY from his cousin. They should not be alone unsupervised. An 11 year old could really hurt a littler kid. The boys in my family closed me in a suitcase and left me in an incredibly hot room and did other stuff that could have easily killed me and I would NEVER, EVER tell on them b/c I was too scared. You may want to address the issue in other ways as well, but whatever you do, please keep your son safe and don't leave him alone with this cousin.
I am really sorry this happened to your son. This sounds really serious. It seems like your son needs to see a play therapist. Play therapy is a gentle form of therapy in which children are able to talk about what troubles them. The second thing is that your son is being subjected to a dangerous situation by being left with someone who hurts him. He should NEVER be left with his cousin, unless perhaps you are in the same room with them the whole time. The story of your little boy saying his cousin was covering his mouth while chocking him really indicates how serious the older boy is about scaring your son into not talking about how he is hurting your son. By covering his mouth, he is saying ''you will not speak,'' and by choking him, he's saying, ''or I will kill you.''

Your question ''how can I get him to talk to me'' is a hard one to answer. Your child is really scared, and with good reason. Little children don't like to tell their moms about being hurt or abused, because they know it will make their moms feel sad. The fact that his abuser is part of the family makes it even harder for your soon to talk to you about it. Your son needs to talk to a trained therapist. If you can't afford to pay for this yourself, apply for the Victim's Witness Protection Program through the Alameda County D.A. office.

This sounds like a very dangerous situation to me, and I would stop putting your son in harm's way immediately. Do not let him be with his scary, bullying, abusive cousin. Deal with the boy's parent as you wish, but do not allow your son to be alone with this boy. Even though you don't know what else is going on, what you already know is a collection of behaviors that should NEVER HAPPEN TO A CHILD.
It sounds like a very unsafe and scarey situation to me. First, I would not let your son visit with his cousin anymore, until you get to the bottom of this. Then, I would talk to the cousins mother AND the cousin about this, directly. Get deatils and be persistant. You are not over reacting, follow your instincts and help your child, he needs it.
I find your situation very alarming. I think you should be sure that your son is NEVER alone with his cousin, not even alone in a room with him when other people are in the house, and never outside together without adult supervision.You should absolutely believe him when he tells you his cousin hurts him, even if he doesn't tell you what happened. The cousin may be threatening your son that he'll hurt him further if he tells. I would talk to the cousin and to his parents and make a VERY big deal out of it. Too often abuse issues are not taken seriously because the adult thinks the child isn't telling the truth or the child is exagerating. Please do something about this now, for your child's sake. concerned parent
Why don't you ask whomever is watching them at the time?
It sounds like your son is in a shared care situation with his 11 year old cousin? If so, I would take him out immediately! Your email made me shudder. It's quite possible it is innocent but why take the chance? Obviously the caregiver is not providing enough supervision. You may never find out exactly what happened (I don't think it's necessarily a good idea to badger your son until he talks or suggest ideas which may disturb him more), but choking and covering someone's mouth is NEVER acceptable, and your son should be removed from this toxic situation.
Firstly, I would like to add to everyone else's advice that I think it would be very dangerous for you to leave your son alone with his cousin again. I don't know if any adults were around at the time, but if they were, they clearly weren't protecting your child enough, or even seeing what was going on. This is not a good situation for your child - please keep him away from his cousin.

It can be extremely embarassing, shameful, for a child when they are hurt by another. (As it can for adults!) It may well be that your son is ashamed of what happened, and is finding it difficult to tell you for this reason. It could be this, as well as fear, that stops a person talking about abuse. I don't understand why it is embarassing or shameful to be attacked - and yet it is so. Perhaps we feel inadequate, weak, ashamed of our failure (perceiving it as that).

In any case, I would not pressure your son to tell you what happened. Just be open to him if he should begin to talk about it. Listen if he does, and try not to react with horror or anger, in front of him, but reassure him. Play therapy could help - but also, if you watch him playing yourself, you may well see in his play hints of what took place.

Good luck - and please don't let your child go near this cousin. Trust your instincts and trust your son. Janice

Older cousins a problem at holiday get-togethers

December 2001

We just finished a long Thanksgiving holiday visit with family, including 2 nephews ages 8 and 9. My nearly 3 year old delighted in seeing his big cousins, following them around, and imitating everything they do. The problem is that I have different views on parenting then do their parents, and there are a lot of things that my nephews did that I do not want my son to do, and which were of course not appropriate for a 3 year old to do. For instance, the big boys watch a lot of tv, including violent or scary cartoons, spend hours playing shoot-em-up video games, play with guns and swords, call each other names, and refuse to join the family for meals. In addition, they were not big on please and thank you. On the other hand, they were often quite sweet with my son and he enjoyed their visit a great deal. My son misses his cousins, but has also been imitiating some of their less than stellar behavior. We will be seeing them again over Christmas, and I am concerned about my son learning things that are not acceptable to us. (I know that we will no doubt have to deal with gun fetishes, battles over tv, and the like at some point, but I'd like to put that off as long as possible). Is there anything I can do to allow my son to have a good relationship with his cousins, while letting him know that some of the things that they do are not acceptable in our house. I do not want to criticize my nephews or their parents, especially in front of my son. Nor do I want to tell him that big boys can do things that he can't, since first he will simply insist that he is a big boy, and second, I don't ever want him to be impolite or to watch hours of tv on end. Any suggestions on striking a balance between being supportive of the relationship between the cousins, and letting my son know that we consider some behavior inappropriate and unacceptable?

Just thought I'd add a different perspective on the feedback. I grew up in the family that had more rules than everybody else (always on good behavior, no gun play, no army toys, etc etc.). My parents were very strict, and I was very aware of how strict they were when we were with friends or family. I still think they were a little over the top, though I really respect their choices, particularly for things like no guns, and only after I grew up did I realize they were also essentially making a political statement.

For some reason, which probably wasn't concious choice on their part so much as probably just didn't want to deal with it, they really weren't as strict with us when we went to visit other people. I think this was the best thing they could have done. They may have explained from time to time, very simply, things like, we don't play like that at home, or every family makes their own choices. But never made a big deal out of it. The differences were really obvious and not confusing at all: the kids in that family get to watch TV, play with guns, make a mess in the backyard, choose whether to eat with the rest of the family. We don't play with those things, we eat with the family, and we eat real food, not dessert only, etc. But they didn't necessarily restrict us, which made it easier for us kids to do the visiting, and it was like a breath of fresh air: we get to be a little freer, a little looser, etc, at other people's homes. Yay! It didn't change who we were, and I LOVED playing with guns and army toys at other people's houses simply because we didn't have them (plus those are probably ways to learn about and act out power roles). I thought it was cool to be able to watch TV, run around, not worry about my behavior. But as a grownup, I'm really not into any of those things, and the extended family members who kept their TVs on all the time are not really appealing to me. Bottom line is, keep the important boundaries but loosen up on the others: don't use family or friend visits to teach moral lessons to kids. It's REALLY hard to be the kids in the family who always get in trouble for everything, while everybody else is having fun. Kids know parents' preferences, and they know which rules are generally enforced.