Dear Doulas and team,

I have a 15 month old son and a 3.5 year old nephew with some delayed learning and behavioral issues due to some medical circumstances. My nephew is almost always whining, screaming, or upset about something and I find myself wanting to remove my son from the room so he doesn’t pick up his cousins behaviors and/or bad habits. I have unintentionally offended my sister by doing this and feel terrible. Am I wrong to believe that my son could pick up on these behaviors, especially right now when he’s started mimicking people? Should I continue to remove him from the situation? I know my son is going to have his own behavioral moments but I don’t want him learning certain behaviors from his cousin.

The Concerned Mom Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Dear concerned mom,

It makes sense to think it is possible for your son to learn undesired behaviors from watching his cousin, because kids do learn a lot by role modeling. An important thing to keep in mind in this situation is that your son is also very perceptive to everyone’s behavior and learning from everyone he sees, not just from his cousin. If your little one is spending time with other children of various age groups whose behavior is more calm and if you and other family members are demonstrating the kind of social and emotional skills that you hope he will learn, it is unlikely that the behavior of one child, even a child he spends time with regularly, will strongly influence your son’s behavior.

I imagine that spending time with your nephew could be a powerful learning opportunity for your child, as well. Even a baby as young as 15-months learns a lot from a parent or caregivers gentle words in a difficult situation. If you are with your nephew and he acts out in ways that you do not want your son to emulate, here are some things you could say to try and help him learn from what is happening.

“Oh, I see Cousin is having a hard time. He must be having very strong feelings. I have strong feelings sometimes, too, and when I do I try to take some BIG breaths like the wind (or go for a walk outside, get a hug, hide under my blanket, cry with my stuffed animal, etc.).”

“I feel sad when I hear Cousin cry and shout. I want to help him but I am not sure what to do. I am going to send him some love.”

“How are you feeling while Cousin is crying/screaming/etc? What would help you feel good right now? Would you like me to hold you or read you a book?”

I also encourage you to open up dialogue with your sister about how the whole family can be supportive to her little one and to her. The more you share open feelings about this family challenge, the better you will all be able to come up with plans that work for you in coping with it. It might help your sister to know that you are open to staying present with your nephew when he is having a hard time, but that you also want to role model good self-care and coping skills to your son, so you want to make sure that she knows that leaving the room when you need to is not a judgment, but one way that you are taking care of yourself and your child.

Family counseling could be an excellent support for you, your sister, your kids, and other family members in this situation. I offer family counseling services at the Homegrown Families Health and Education Center, and I would be glad to offer a free phone consultation to discuss this situation further. I can be reached at 828.696.6393 or

Good luck with this challenge!

Justina Prenatt, LPCA

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