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!)
This is a wonderful story to hear. It feels dangerous to express any feeling about a new baby other than joy–maybe exhaustion, but to admit that you ever mourn for a previous time? And yet, who wouldn’t? As I think about having a second baby, part of me wonders if I’m not about to ruin the lovely thing my partner and our child and I have, even though I want another child quite badly. What a courageous gift to share those feelings in an age-appropriate way with your child–to exorcise the shame in having a perfectly understandable ambivalence about an intense experience.
Thank you for sharing this. We had a new baby last year and I think I leaned a little too heavily on “big sis” (she was six) to help with this and that (like I did at her age).
I’ve really reined that in this year but I can tell it still weighs on her – as she complains about stomach pain when she is feeling anxious or has to go to bed and doesn’t get to hang with me as much at night.
I’m learning to create that routine you talk about so that she and I can create times she can depend on to be with me. It’s hard when there are three!
Thanks for all you do, Janet. Seriously. Reading this blog has changed.my.life. I would even go so far as to say it’s saved my parenting experience.
Another excellent essay touching on the central issue facing humans–our imperfection. Our executive self tries to do the right thing and “keep it together.” That’s good and necessary but can blind us to the vast reservoir of burbling magma in our hidden self. I love that the sore throat was the veiled cover for a lump in the throat. Leading a joyful life requires listening for and speaking the language of the hidden self.
Funny that my post for August 22 was on this very subject from the point of view of the mother of a 12-year-old:
Thank you, Janet. You always have your eye on a deeper issue.
I have a 17 month old and an almost 3 month old. My 17 month old has been having tantrums a lot lately and I’ve chalked it up to his age. Is is possible that at this young of an age he can be affected the same as these older kids? He seems to love “his baby” and we’re working on being gentle, although he’s not so good at it yet. But I don’t think he is purposfully rough.
a few days ago, I was giving my 6 month old a bath that I heard my 6 year old son burst into tears ! when I came out of the bathroom, my husband told me that our son just started crying with no specific reason !
I went to talk to him and between sobs he told me that the only reason for his crying was that he was bored! He had never cried out of boredom before!
Now, after reading this great post, I think I know what was the main reason for his tears.
thank you for helping me understand my kid better
Thank you so much for this article! I am currently 36wks pregnant with my second bub and my biggest worry to date is how much I am about to change my 2.5yr old daughters life. She is very understanding and excited, but I know I am about to turn her world upside down and am feeling very guilty about it.
Your articles on the topic are giving me a lot of insight into what it will be like for her and what I can do to help the situation.
I’ve found it helpful when my daughter expresses her frustration with her younger brother to share my own experiences having younger siblings. One day she said “Little brothers are so annoying!” and instead of getting on her case I just said, “Yep, they sure can be sometimes” and told her some stories of things her uncles did back in the day. I think sometimes it’s too easy to forget how much of an upheaval a new baby is for little ones!
My almost 3-year-old is going through this now and we’re having a hard time getting her to talk about it or admit to her feelings. We’ve been following your suggestions on sibling relationships and I’m sure they’re the reason she isn’t so resentful of her brother (yet). She is nothing but loving to her baby brother (3 weeks old), but has bouts of what she insists are “happy tears”. We keep trying to tell her that it’s okay to have sad tears, too, but she puts on her biggest (too big to be real) smile and says, “I’m happy crying, mommy.” Breaks my heart. And I know how she feels. I’m grieving the loss of “just the three of us”, too.
I wouldn’t try to get her to talk about it or admit her feelings, because I don’t believe that at almost 3 she completely understands them herself. I would warmly accept her happy tears and know that it is very, very positive for her to express them. Congratulations!
Im so greatful for this, As I sit here 33 weeks pregnant with my second child im constantly over joyed and saddend at the same time. I wanted children for a long time, and when i finally gave birth to my first son i felt so complete. I literally have no words for it, my son is literally my happy place. for weeks now i have been asking myself why dont i feel as happy as i did the first time and its not that im not as happy its that im mourning life as we know it. my two year old is having a lot of emotional breakdowns and its been hard reading this gave me great insight
I had similar feelings of mourning when my second child was born. I mourned the “best friend” feeling I had with my daughter, I mourned the “two of us” feeling we had. I mourned our night-time cuddles. I actually felt really sad about it in the weeks following the birth of my son (I am sure the hormones didn’t help). If I felt that sad, and I could name and understand the feeling as an adult – my daughter must have been feeling at least just as sad, and must have a harder time dealing with them.
Love this – I had thought our amazing 2& 1/2 yr old had been fine with our new arrival – no jealousy, loved her brother etc But one day she came in to me (after reading one of her random books with her/ which also referenced the following) ‘Mum sometimes I feel left out too’ – I was floored, but delighted that she felt she could get it out! Since then she seems a bit more comfortable to express the little thoughts she has when times are a bit tougher (reflux/crying baby!)
Sometimes the body expresses what they can’t tell. For about 12 months (from my last term of pregnancy until my son was 9 months), my 2.5 yo daughter wouldnt poop more than once a week. We tried everything (medicines, special diet) but it just wouldn’t improve anything. Until I realized that she just didn’t want to let of the 2 of us (like I did too). She had a lot of challenging behaviour and limit testing and was expressing her negative feelings a lot during that time, and we welcomed everything. But the most striking to me was the poop thing. And it resolved by itself when she started accepting and loving her little brother.
It’s so relieving to read the struggles parents have experienced With their second child, and know i al not the only one feeling so sad And missing my older boy. My second is two weeks Old, and my first one is two.
One thing i am not sure about is how To get my two year Old To express his feelings, he is toó young To understsnd what’s happening. Janet ,
Ladsbury any suggestions to address this with a two year Old?
We have a similar story but I have a 9yr old and a 3 month old. Man, has it been hard! Not only does my 9yr old have all his pre-teen emotions but also 2 yrs ago I lost a baby over half way into my pregnancy. My son was excited. We had the baby’s room ready and clothes bought. So while he is extra grateful for his new sister especially since the loss, he is also fearful he isn’t as loved and We won’t care for him because of her. It’s so hard to navigate what to do to help him.
I’m currently 6.5mths pregnant and my partner has an older son who will be 6 about 2 weeks after baby is born. We have had stalking issues from the boys mother about a year ago, police have warned her on a couple of occasions but haven’t taken any further action. I now leave my partner and his son alone when access comes as I feel terrified the stalking will escalate and I could be hurt if the mother finds out about the coming baby. The mother also found where we live and introduced herself to a neighbour in the building who now “reports” our movements to the boy’s mother and this scares me for my safety. She also moved about 6 weeks ago from another district to 2 streets away. 4 mths ago my partners son stoped speaking to me (and another close relative whom the mother has also stalked their family)and even with cajoling my partner’s son rarely speaks to me at all, care of his mothers wishes. I live with my ill mother and rarely go to my partner’s apartment as I’m scared for my safety. My partner comes to my place instead. We were planning on waiting till baby is born to introduce the siblings as early in pregnancy we asked my partners’ son what he thought about babies and he straight out said he doesn’t like them. I’m aware he can not be left alone near the new baby but don’t know the best way to handle this situation. My relationship with the boy was happy, comfortable and trusting until his mother stopped him speaking to me and would block access to my partner (contravening the court orders), if she thought I would be present. Please advise some suggestions here as I would like the siblings to have a relationship and a bond, not jealousy and negative feelings. We have been in a custody battle for the boy the last year as the boy needs additional assistance since his mother does not provide him with learning opportunities and we are concerned for his welfare. Has not been an easy road for anyone and the boy now prefers his mother as she allows him what he wants not what he needs. Please help, please also keep this anonymous. Most grateful.
I am having similar experience with my almost 4 year old. He doesn’t like to admit his feelings even though I encourage him to: “It’s ok if you feel scared” to which he replies, tearfully, “I’m not scared!”. It would be the same response of when he’s sad, or upset. We also have a 6 month old. I love our baby so much but I also feel like I’ve turned my son’s life upside down. He no longer seems secure or confident. It really really makes me feel so sad for him.