Dealing With Sibling RIvalry
When brothers and sisters fight, parents may wonder if their children will ever be close. They fear that their family experience will never be warm and loving. But quarreling between siblings is natural. It may be more obvious in some families than in others, but there is always some tension between children in every family.
All children want to feel loved. There are times when a child becomes worried that the affection shown to a brother or sister means there is less for him. This is especially true when a new baby arrives. It’s a major event that always affects the other children. Your older child is likely to be full of questions that he or she can’t yet put into words. She may have worries such as, “Do my parents love the baby more than me?” or inner questions like, “Why did they have a new baby?” It’s natural for your older child to feel uncertainty, and even jealousy or anger. Very young children haven’t yet learned to talk about their feelings. So they need you to tune into their way of expressing these kinds of feelings. They need to feel your understanding.
Parents often wonder about the best time to tell their child the news. If you’re pregnant and past the first trimester, your child can pick up on changes. He may overhear you talking to friends, or you may be more tired and cranky. That’s a big change for him, so it would be good to prepare him. It’s time to begin to talk about the new baby that is in your belly. First, just give him the news. Think of a marker in time–like a holiday he knows or a family birthday–and tell him the baby will come after that. Allow him a little time to get used to the idea and to ask questions. If after a few days he doesn’t ask, then you can bring it up again. It’s best to let him tell you what he wants to know. His questions may surprise you.
Don’t be disappointed if your child doesn’t exactly share your excitement. He has his worries that the baby will be taking his place. Just remember that this is natural. You can certainly talk to him about the fun part of having a new sister or brother. But don’t push it too much. Keep in mind that your child may have mixed feelings about it and he needs to have those for awhile.
If your child says he doesn’t want a new baby, you can talk about how most kids feel that way at first and that he will always be a big brother. He may be clingy and moody for a while. It may be hard for him for a while, but the positive side is that having a young sibling will give him a chance to learn about give and take with other children. The important part is that you show him that you understand and accept his feelings, then he will feel safe in talking about them with you.
When you’re closer to your due date you’ll want to think about preparing him for the next stages, like when you go to the hospital. Some hospitals have sibling tours, they can help. It’s also important to decide who will take care of him while you’re giving birth. It should be someone he trusts and feels very comfortable with. The most important thing is to tell him your plan ahead of time.
Preparing your older child in advance for the arrival of a new baby is a way of letting him share in it. This can help lessen his anxious feelings that the new baby will take his place. You might ask him if he’d like to draw a picture to send to you and the baby at the hospital. Be sure that when you call him from the hospital you let him choose whether or not he wants to talk to you. Don’t let it get you down if he doesn’t. He just needs time.
Some children may want to visit their mother in the hospital. Prepare for your child’s visit by putting the baby in her crib before he arrives so that he can see you sitting up, ready for him. Have a special toy or treat at the hospital for him. Then gradually you and your older child can look at the baby together.
Once the baby is born, it’s important to realize that your child will have mixed feelings and that accepting these new changes in his life will go slowly. Once you tune into his feelings, you can discover some reassuring ways to talk to him. Negative feelings toward the new baby can occur at anytime, right after the birth or several weeks or months later. You might notice changes in sleep patterns, waking up at night, reluctance to separate from you or go to daycare, and he may even begin to act like a baby himself (talking baby talk and reverting to crawling). You may feel as if you have to split yourself in two.
It’s important for you to know that all of this is typical. Keep reminding yourself that this is a transitional time–he needs to get used to the new situation and so do you.
There are different ways to help your child through these difficult feelings. It’s important to find time to be alone with your older child that is not rushed. It’s hard to plan your time, but try to work towards a regular schedule so that you can fit in some time alone with him. If someone can be with the baby it will make it easier for you. Even ten or fifteen minutes twice a day without the baby would be very important for any older child. It helps to call this his special time and it’s just for you two to have fun together. During this time, do what he likes to do, like singing together or making play dough. You might be able to use those times to draw him out about how he feels about having a new sister or brother. But don’t push too many questions.
It’s hard to schedule and plan with a new baby, but whenever you know you’re going to have to give the baby your full attention, try to prepare your oldest and find some activity for her. When you know you’re going to feed or bathe the baby, you can tell her, “I’m going to feed the baby in a few minutes. Let’s find something for you to do while he’s nursing and then we can plan what you and I will do when he’s finished.” We know it’s not always possible, but checking in with her will help her wait until you can get back to her.
It may feel hard to be there for your oldest the way you used to be and you may feel upset and overwhelmed. Sometimes it’s easy to get mad at her. It’s normal to feel that. After a while you’ll find your rhythm. It’s okay to tell her you miss the times alone with her. But that doesn’t mean you need to apologize. If you just tell her you know how she feels it will help more than you think. When you talk to her about what has changed in her life and what hasn’t, you will help her to manage her feelings. It’s a way for her to grow.
If your older child becomes aggressive towards the baby, you will need to respond firmly to protect them both. But while hurtful behavior must be stopped, it’s helpful to acknowledge the older child’s feelings of anger or jealousy. Direct punishment is not helpful. It may suppress angry feelings at the moment, but these have a way of popping up in other ways that can be destructive.
Sometimes your older child may be very loving but may go too far and get rough and poke the baby. You may be afraid to leave them alone together for fear that she may hurt him. That happens a lot. It’s just another way she’s showing how hard it is for her. These are times when you may try to draw her out a little. Let her tell you what bothers her about the baby. Try to be sympathetic to her feelings instead of punitive. Tell her that if she feels angry at the baby it’s not O.K. to poke at him, but it is O.K. to tell you she’s angry. Tell her when she gets a mad feeling towards the baby she can use words, but she mustn’t hurt him. You can tell her its okay to say to the baby, “You make me mad.” Usually, children are relieved if their feelings can be put into words and they know that parents recognize both their negative and positive feelings.
Listen to her. Ask her what makes her want to hurt him. If she hints that she wishes you didn’t have him, don’t argue her out of it. Just say you realize she wishes that, and she’ll get used to him after awhile. A girl or boy, your child might also have some feelings when the baby is the opposite sex. He may feel that that makes the baby special. It can be helpful to draw out a child to talk about feelings when a new sibling is the opposite sex.
When children resort to baby talk, it’s best to let them know that it’s better to just say what they are talking about or tell you what they want to do. It’s always important to encourage the older child when she’s gentle towards the baby, when she’s cooperative or when she learns ways to help you. And it’s particularly important never to tease about jealous feelings.
When both children are older, rivalry is acted out in different ways. Sometimes parents forget that their children need a break from each other, just as adults do. They might get on each others nerves and need a parent to separate them and redirect them. Each of them need reassurance that you understand their feelings. It’s really important not to make comparisons between them. Try to find a way to spend some time with each of your children separately and protect this time so each gets your full attention.
A new baby brings big changes for the whole the family. We hope these suggestions will help you throughout this challenging time.
If you would like guidance on this or any other non-medical child development question, and you live in the Los Angeles area you can call the Warm Line free of charge at 310-310-8646. A child development specialist will return your call within just a couple of days.
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