Question: A 3-year-old plays "kill the bad baby" when mom is pregnant in her first trimester. What is the meaning of this behavior? What should mom/dad do?
Answer: Well, siblings are wonderful things for children. But they're also threats. And sibling rivalry is not just an imaginary phenomenon.
I like to relate this to my own family.
When my daughter was turning 3 and she found out that we were having twins, she played a game, "Bad Baby." So she put two baby dolls on the floor and she would smash them and say "bad baby, bad baby, bad baby." Which was kind of horrifying, and I tried to stop her and my wife actually had to refrain me from doing that and remind me that I'm a child psychiatrist and this is play.
The message is that play is the work of the child. Kids work things out by play just as we work things out in conversation and brainstorming, they work it out in their play.
And sure enough, in the second and third trimester, she was playing "Feed The Nice Babies."
And she became, when the twins were born, a really wonderful and dutiful and helpful sibling, pinching them occasionally and getting into a little trouble, but for the most part being a very good big sister.
So what's the moral of the story?
The moral of the story is: Allow kids to play, allow kids to work things out. As long as it's not jumping into reality. If they're actually harming or threatening other kids or family members, that's different.
So what did we do that was actually right here?
We allowed the play to continue. We didn't scold her. We actually commented, "You know, you're very angry at those babies." Just a comment. And then "You're very nice to the babies" when she was feeding the babies.
In short, play is really important for children. Think about fairy tales. Fairy tales can be quite gruesome, but they do help children work through their anger, through their fears, through all kinds of situations. In fantasy, it's the use of the imagination for the advancement of development.