It happens surprisingly often. Parents requesting my advice give an extensive, detailed account of the difficulties they are having with their child, and then just as they are wrapping up, they’ll casually slip in a bombshell: “There’s been a recent new addition to the family”. Or they’ll mention parenthetically that they’re delivering in a few weeks. Aha! That explains a lot. In fact, just about everything.
Becoming a new parent can be overwhelming. A second child can be doubly overwhelming. It means contending with our own feelings and those of our older child who — no matter how much he or she wanted and adores the baby — can experience the new family dynamic as a loss of the life she had before and a threat to her secure place in the family and in her parent’s hearts.
Sometimes our children’s pain and fear will be easy to notice and acknowledge, because they are whiny, fragile, melting down or waving big red flags at us through their limit-pushing behavior. But the older the child, the more self-control he or she has usually developed, which makes it more likely emotions will be hidden under the radar.
I explored these issues and offered suggestions in my post Helping Kids Adjust to Life With the New Baby (and shared personal experiences with new baby difficulties in The Easily Forgotten Gift). As typically happens on this site, several of the responses in the comment section of the “Helping Kids” post were more enlightening than the post itself.
One particularly insightful mom, Pam, shared a profound experience she’d had in reference to a suggestion I made to casually bring up the subject of negative feelings about the new baby with the older sibling as often as possible: “It is my view that the children who seem more accepting and tolerant of this huge life change need even more encouragement to express negative feelings than those who overtly struggle. No matter how positive any change is there are also elements of fear and loss. For all of us. If these feelings aren’t addressed and expressed, they are internalized. You may have a well-behaved child, but chances are good she’s suffering inside.”
Pam: My son was born in November. My older child is six and adapted to her new role as big sister beautifully. I was even jealous because she seemed to connect with this little baby in a way that I didn’t feel I did, and I hadn’t expected she could. She was thrilled to be a big sister. Finally!
In January, she started complaining about sore throats. Usually they’d pass, and we chalked them up to allergies or just a flukey feeling.
One day, driving home from school, she started complaining about her throat again. We started talking about her throat, trying to get the root of this problem. She said to me, “Sometimes I feel like crying, but I don’t know why and I don’t want to.” My amazing child had been fighting this lump in her throat, overwhelmed with unarticulated feelings of loss and change.
Well I knew that feeling well! We’d tried for years to have this new baby. I was flooded with feelings of gratitude and joy that our efforts (IVF and surrogacy) had paid off, but I mourned for our old life of “just the three of us.” I shared my own feelings with her, and I continue to still. We redoubled our efforts to reassure her of our love and her importance in our family. It was a powerful and educational experience for me.
(Huge thanks to Pam for sharing your story and tender photo!)