Adding a second child to the family changes everything. The postpartum time produces a whirl of emotions that envelops everyone in those first tender months after bringing your new baby into your family. In our instinctive drive to keep newborns from harm, we often become overzealous. Thus, without being aware, we protect the new baby, but not her sibling’s feelings, driving a wedge between them from the very beginning. The words and actions we use to shield our infants inadvertently seem defensive, accusatory, and negative to our older children, who often do not, or cannot, communicate the hurt. Siblings may perceive that they should be happy at such a time but may be perplexed as to why they also feel sad.
All the confusion an older sibling is feeling, coupled with the unintended negativity from parents, in turn, can discourage siblings from getting to know the newcomer and may plant the seeds for dreaded “sibling rivalry.” It may also drive our older children to act out in ways that we see as “naughty” but are merely desperate pleas for attention and equal billing.
To help her adjust to the change, your child needs reassurance about your love, an opportunity to talk about her feelings, and an understanding of the challenges ahead. Here are some key points to keep in mind during this challenging adjustment:
1. Have reasonable expectations. A new baby causes a major shift in the family dynamics. No matter how much the older child may have wished for a baby brother or sister, the reality of this shift in the parents’ attention and affection is felt as a loss. Children often feel grief, sadness and sometimes anger or guilt, but mostly they are fearful of losing their parents’ love. Overwhelmed by this tumultuous blend of emotions, which are nearly impossible for children to understand (much less articulate), they act out their pain through irritating behaviors that are sometimes aggressive. Mood swings can be extreme.
Parents might be shocked to discover an unpleasant side to their child they hadn’t known existed, especially if they expected her to be a loving, adoring and helpful big sister during this adjustment. These behaviors are bound to push parents’ buttons, yet since the child is experiencing an emotional crisis she needs the assurance of her parents’ love and empathy more than ever.
2. Encourage children to express feelings. Explain to your child that when a baby is born, older children can feel left out. Babies cannot wait to have their needs met, so frequently he will have to wait for you. Decide upon a phrase that he can use at moments when he is upset. For instance he can tell you, “I feel left out” or “I need attention”. Reassure him that when he tells you this, you will give him extra hugs and help him to feel better.
Point out that it is natural for an older child to feel angry about the new baby. If he does, he can say, “I feel angry”, but he cannot hurt anyone. Giving him the permission to talk about his feelings and the phrases to use, empowers him and reduces his need to protest through negative actions. The truth is that the more you can openly accept and acknowledge, even welcome your child’s negative thoughts and emotions, the more space you will clear for your children to form a genuinely loving bond with their siblings.
4. Avoid guilt-inducing comments When parents are expecting baby number two, friends and relatives will often comment to the firstborn child, “Oooh, bet you can’t wait to be a big sister!” But by then it’s already begun to dawn on the older child that ‘big sister’ isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. They’ve sensed that the focus of everyone’s attention has shifted away from them. Their future feels uncertain and it will only get worse. They need someone who understand their pain and can assure them that their mixed feelings (especially the negative ones) are perfectly valid, or they are likely to turn these feelings inward.
5. Explain to your child the reason you are having another baby. She needs to know that you are not replacing her. You might say, for instance, “We decided to have another baby so you could have a brother or sister and you will never be lonely.” Next, describe the positives of the experience ahead. For example, you might tell her that when she comes home from nursery school she will always have someone to play with in the back yard.
6. Point out that she will have a special role. As the baby grows, she will teach him important things, such as the alphabet and counting to ten. Tell her that the baby will adore her very much because she can do so many amazing things.
7. Plan ahead. Explain to her that the baby will need to eat frequently. (It is often difficult for children to observe this intimacy without feeling left out.) Talk about what she can do when you’re feeding the baby. For example, she can help you by handing you a diaper to burp the baby or she can sit next to you and you will read her a story. Elicit her ideas too. She might propose that she make you a surprise drawing while the baby is eating. Assure her that you will be a team and work together.
Children will always have a reaction to the birth of a sibling at any age. If you are aware of the issues involved, prepare your child for the change and develop a partnership with her based on open communication, she will adjust more easily and the whole family will enjoy the family’s wondrous newcomer.