So you’ve made the announcement. You have another addition to your family on the way and everybody is thrilled for you…except for your first child. Sibling rivalry can rear its less-than-charming head soon after the news is broken, and you’re confronted with difficult behaviour, sulking, tantrums, or accusations that insinuate you’re leaving your older child in your dust, as you speed off into a new exciting version of family life.So you’ve made the announcement. You have another addition to your family on the way and everybody is thrilled for you…except for your first child. Sibling rivalry can rear its less-than-charming head soon after the news is broken, and you’re confronted with difficult behaviour, sulking, tantrums, or accusations that insinuate you’re leaving your older child in your dust, as you speed off into a new exciting version of family life.
It’s a big change for both you (the adults) and your existing child. The family dynamics are going to change forever. And your existing child is right about one thing at least – they will no longer be the beneficiary of all of your child-rearing attention. In most people’s lives the sibling relationship and it’s influences on children, comes second to parental influence. Parents aren’t everything that influences a child’s development, but they are instrumental in setting the tone for the manner in which sibling influences are navigated.
Here are some steps you can take to make sure your little person feels less threatened.
1. Give your child an answer to “why?”
If your child isn’t told why there’s going to be a new baby in the house you can be sure that he/she is going to come up with reasons of their own. Their version is less than likely to put a positive spin on things – they’re going to believe that they are being set aside for the new model.
Here’s the easiest reason that you can give to dampen the sibling rivalry – you wanted to give them someone to play with so that they are not lonely. He/she will have someone to play games with, to help build Lego with, to play dress up with, play tag, you name it. What you’re now telling him/her is that you didn’t conceive child number two to spite him/her, instead you did it for them as a sort of gift. And, it can be one of life’s biggest gift, a sibling connection is the most enduring one of life, and it is only our siblings that share the same childhood with us.
2. Make an early introduction
As soon as your pregnancy becomes visible introduce your child to the idea that the baby is real and is on its way, as you head towards the end of your pregnancy a countdown calendar they can tick off can be helpful. You can also show them sonogram/scan pictures, and let them interact with your growing tummy. This helps ease them into the new family situation instead of having a baby be (virtually-speaking) thrust into their face when it arrives.
One method to help ease the introduction is to have your child help set up a birthday party for the new baby while it’s still baking inside mummy’s tummy. Your child gets to plan the whole shin-dig – the decorations, what type of cake you’ll have, they can even choose a present. You can buy a special present from the baby, to give to your older child when they meet, or at the party they have helped arrange.
3. Start the baby-learning early
Chances are your older child isn’t really going to have much of a concept of what infants are even if they’ve been one themselves. Your child is going to need to know about how fragile they are and how much care and handling they need. This serves two purposes. First, they’ll learn that they need to be gentle with the new baby. Second, they’ll learn about just how much work it takes to care for an infant, giving them an idea ahead of time of why they aren’t receiving as much attention as they used to (rather than them deciding it’s because you like the baby better).
If you have friends with babies, see if you can spend more time with them, with your older child. Show your child pictures of themselves as an infant and point out how they have grown up into someone who is an important and much loved member of the household – the baby will grow up and demand less intensive care in a relatively short time, just like he/she did.
4. Explain that love is not finite
Sibling rivalry is really about the fear of a scarcity of a resource – love. In your child’s mind all the love you have for them is going to be have to be sliced up like a pie so that the new child can get some too. Explain to them that your (and their daddy’s) love isn’t going to be diminished by an extra family member, that’s not how it works.
You can reinforce this notion by setting time aside specifically for them, both before and after the baby’s arrival. Note that this doesn’t mean you have to leave the baby aside, you can still be holding the new arrival while you have tea time, or play a board game with your older child. If you do have the baby while you’re doing this, then make yourself physically available by sitting on the floor or close to your older child, so they can easily reach you.
Try to make time to spend one on one with your older child, maybe go for a walk to the park, or to the shops, while the baby sleeps, or dad takes the baby for a walk (in another direction). It’s a good idea to alternate this, so dad does the one on one time when you’re busy looking after the baby. Again it can really help if this starts during the pregnancy, so your older child does not associate all the ‘sudden’ changes with the arrival of the baby, and therefore feel resentful. It doesn’t have to be a long time, or be a super duper unique activity, it could be TV show, painting nails, reading a book, walking the dog, the key is that it provides your child with the one to one nurturing they need at this emotionally tricky time.
5. Give your child positive examples
Do you have a positive adult relationship with your own brother or sister, which your child has witnessed? Point out how much fun you and Aunt or Uncle X have when you get together – and point out to your child that they are going to be able to have that same fun relationship growing up with their own little brother or sister.
6. Explain how big sisters/brothers are super amazing and important
Your older child can have a huge positive impact on the life of the new arrival. Someone is going to have to teach the new child how to put on their shoes, get dressed, how to count, how to use a knife and fork and so on. The more your child helps the baby learn how to navigate in the big world, the more that child is going to adore her, and they’ll be amazed at the variety of their own skill set (great for their self-esteem too). Maybe your older child can be directed to entertaining the baby. You can specifically create a moment where you ask them to read or sing to or make funny faces for the baby. It’s a pretty amazing feeling for a child to pull a smile out of the new baby, which makes it a win-win situation for you aswell.
7. Give your child a sibling rivalry outlet
There will be times when your child is going to get angry. It’s a natural reaction. However, you don’t want that anger channeled into something physical that is directed at you, their friends, or the new baby.
Have a talk with your child and make sure that he/she understands that it’s perfectly fine that to feel angry or sad sometimes, and that you have noticed they he/she feels like they are being left out, and this applies both before and after the baby’s arrival. Encourage your child to tell you out loud when they are having these feelings, because you’re going to be so busy with the second child that sometimes you won’t be able to notice their emotions without a little help.
Give your child specific examples of phrases they can use to let you know that they are having these feelings like, “You haven’t played with me all day” or “I feel lonely.” You may want to make a list with your child.
Reward your child’s verbal expression of feelings with hugs or play-time devoted specifically to them, while negating their desire to physically act out against someone in order to their needs for attention met.
That said, children can sometimes have an emotional explosion, especially if they struggle to understand and manage complicated feelings. Be prepared to have to deal with any outbursts, in some case maybe even physical ones. Make it clear that this behaviour is a huge no-no, be very clear that the rough stuff is off limits – no hitting, pinching, biting, bonking on the baby’s head with a toy hammer, pulling her eyelashes, whatever the case may be. Use your usual methods of discipline to deal with this behaviour, be that a time-out or something else. It may also help to model how the baby should be handled, and give your child a go at gently pattting or stroking the baby while you’re there to supervise the interaction.
Once that’s settled return to the verbal model, encouraging your child to express herself to you (not to the baby) what she’s feeling. If she has trouble help her along, put her feelings and what you see of them into words like – “You’re upset because you see me holding the baby so much, and I sometimes don’t get to give you as many hugs.”
8. Include your existing child in your plans
One of the best feelings in the world is to feel needed. It’s true for you and it’s true for your little ones. So to curb that impending sibling rivalry make sure that your existing child is included in helping to come up with ways to make the new family dynamics work. Turn the sibling rivalry into something productive by getting together with your older child to make a list of all the ways he/she can help you with the baby. Give your existing child integral tasks, maybe they can be your personal Little Helper. When you’re changing nappies make it their job to fetch a new nappy or wipes. Your child will feel important playing a central part in keeping family life running in a smooth way.
9. Give your child gifts
Your friends and family are probably going to go nuts with bringing you the cutest little baby clothes, shoes, hats, cuddly toys. All these gifts aimed at the new baby are likely to stir up some sibling rivalry for your older one. Close family and friends may consider bringing a small gift for your older child. You could also stash away a couple of little presents for your older child. When the new baby gets a bunch of goodies pull out one of the presents for your child to even things out a bit. You can also have your older child help out by opening the presents for the baby, and telling the baby what the gift is.
With a consistent approach, that gives your older child a smooth transition into the changing family landscape, life will settle down, and everyone will become comfortable with their new roles.