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Baby Steps: Share and Share Alike

Q. I have a 1-year-old son. Recently I cared for another toddler in our home. My son became jealous and sad whenever I read books or played with the little girl. His frustration grew until he pushed, pulled, and bit her. He was very territorial. How should I handle this situation in the future?

A. It is perfectly normal for your child to act territorial: After all, it's his territory on which the new toddler is infringing. Not only is he being asked to share his toys and his home, but you as well. This is a lot to ask of a 1-year-old, particularly one who hasn't had to deal with siblings or other children in the home before. The situation is even more confusing if the visitor is someone he's never met. Imagine if someone you'd never seen before inexplicably came into your home, took a snack from the fridge, and then settled down to read a story to your son.

It is, therefore, normal for your son to feel jealous. If you behave as though his feelings are bad or wrong (by getting angry, for example), he will be twice as upset because his feelings are distressing you. You need to find ways to structure the situation so that he continues to feel special to you, while still meeting the other child's needs and setting limits on aggressive behavior.

If you are going to care for another child, you might want to have that child visit with her parent first, so that your son can get to know the newcomer gradually and still have you there for him. You could also try to have initial meetings in a neutral place, such as the park. The point is to familiarize your son with the other child without making him share his whole world with her from the very beginning.

You can also limit the new child's access to your son's things. You might have a basket of toys that are available for the other toddler's visits, and leave your son's favorite toys in his room. You could even ask that the visitor bring some toys of her own. But you shouldn't expect your son to understand the concept of reciprocity yet -- that just because he is playing with her things doesn't mean that she can play with his.

Try to offer activities that are fun for both of them, such as blowing bubbles, splashing in a pool, or listening to music together. If you are putting the other toddler on your lap to read to her, offer your son a space as well, and make reading a group effort ("Show me the cow, now!"). Exciting games that depart from your son's normal routine will serve to differentiate the time when the other toddler is there while also making it appealing to have a guest. Conversely, if there are one-on-one activities that are special to your son -- whether it's peek-a-boo or a lullaby -- keep them sacred unless he initiates sharing them. Find other quiet ways to let him know that you are still his mommy, whether it's a squeeze or a look.

If he bites or hits when he gets close to the visitor, calmly let him know that that is not acceptable and remove him from the situation. Don't reward the behavior by giving too much attention to your son or by reducing attention to the other toddler. If the two are playing side by side and a controversy develops, don't expect that they'll work it out on their own. They are still too young to resolve their own conflicts effectively and will need your help.

It may be exhausting for you, but if you can, stagger their naps so that you can have a little time alone with your son (assuming the other toddler is there all day). Otherwise, make the visit short. Believe it or not, a long day with a guest is even more tiring for your son than it is for you. And sharing is a challenge, no matter how much you try to do to make it tolerable. So after your visitor leaves, make sure to spend a little cuddle or play time with your son to remind him how much you love him.