Navigating the New Sibling (With Confidence and Love)

When adding a second child to the family, I believe it our primary goal as parents to maintain a quality relationship with our first. Intense feelings of fear, loss, betrayal, anger, and resentment are to be expected for these older children, commonly expressed through limit-pushing behavior that might be directed at parents, peers, and/or the new baby. None of this is easy or looks pretty – emotional pain is never pleasant to witness — but the discomfort eventually eases if we can consistently assure our kids they have our empathy, protection, and love. Safety and understanding are demonstrated through our actions and words.

Actions (which are actually more about tempering our reactions): We don’t react angrily or with blame when our older kids are acting on their overwhelming feelings. Instead, with the realization that this is normal behavior, we let kids know we’re there to stop them and set limits, while encouraging (or at least allowing) them to express these feelings safely and appropriately. (Note: screaming, tantrums, and meltdowns are age-appropriate modes of expression for young children.)

Words: We acknowledge the feelings and desires our child expresses, no matter how unreasonable they might seem. We also find quiet moments to acknowledge the difficulties in this big transition, which reinforces for our kids that: 1. Their feelings are normal and expected; and 2. We get them, or at least want to get them. We’re on their side, committed to staying connected.

Amy allowed me to share her story:

Liam was 2 ½ years old when Harry was born, and like most toddlers he had a hard time adjusting to being a big brother. Because Harry was born 5 weeks early in an emergency C-section, Liam had more reasons than most to feel resentful about the intrusion on our little family. After all, I had left the house expecting to be back in an hour and disappeared for 4 days, and then was there-but-not-there as I cared for a preemie, first in the NICU and then at home.

Liam adjusted as you would expect any toddler to. He suffered quietly at times, withdrawing into himself and becoming intensely focused on one thing or another. Then he would test limits in the most ridiculous manner; pushing and pushing something seemingly trivial until he had an excuse for a full-scale meltdown, when he would collapse sobbing in my lap. I struggled and felt terribly guilty and inadequate. The only thing I could do was continue to empathize and let him have his outbursts, but it was painful for both of us.

There’s one day I remember particularly clearly. We had had a rough morning. Not a terrible one; there weren’t any major meltdowns or temper tantrums, but Harry had needed a lot of attention and I was tired, and the combination meant that Liam was feeling left out. I finally got both boys down to sleep (at the same time!), and had some blessed time to recover my cool before Liam woke up.

The moments after Liam wakes have always been a special time for us. He generally feels a little groggy and snuggly, so we sit on the couch with his favorite blanket and cuddle and talk. He was especially snuggly that afternoon, and fortunately Harry was still asleep. I sat on the couch with Liam in my lap, snuggled against my chest with his blanket held tight to his cheek. I’d been looking for an opportunity to talk with him about the strong feelings he I knew he was having, and decided that this was my moment.

“We had a tough morning this morning. Harry needed me a lot, and you didn’t get as much of my attention as you wanted,” I said. Liam just looked at me and then looked away, saying nothing. “Being a brother is hard,” I continued, “You didn’t ask to be a brother.” His blue eyes were huge as he stared up at me, and he didn’t give any outward reaction to what I was saying. I was starting to feel a little silly and to wonder whether I was saying the right things, but I forged on. “I think sometimes you don’t like being a big brother. Maybe you don’t even want to be a brother. That must be hard. It’s hard because you don’t get enough of my time. I think you don’t want to share me with him.” I continued in that vein for another minute or so, and Liam didn’t say a word. He continued to alternate between staring at me with wide eyes, and looking off in the distance at nothing. I eventually decided that enough was enough and that I’d probably said what needed to be said. Maybe he would feel like talking about it later. I moved on to other, happier topics. “I really enjoyed watching you ride your bike today. That was a lot of fun.”

Liam is never talkative at these times, but this long silence was a little unusual. I stopped talking and decided to just sit with him for a bit. After a few minutes of silence he said softly, “More talking.” I looked at him. “More talking about what?” “More talking about you don’t want to be a big brother.” At 2 ½ he still referred to himself as “you”, so this was more than just parroting back what I had said.

I kissed the top of his head and reiterated what I’d said before, adding that I would always love him and that he would always be my little boy, and that he was still very important to me. I told him that it was okay for him to feel sad and mad sometimes, and that there was nothing he could ever do to make me stop loving him. Despite my pausing frequently for him to respond, he was silent throughout my little monologue. When I was finished we sat again in silence, his cheek against my chest with his blanket pressed up to his face.

“Want to play with the truck,” he said, and climbed out of my lap.

I wasn’t sure what to think of this exchange, except that I knew it had been the right thing to do. We spent the next hour or so as we usually do, with Liam playing on the rug and me coming in and out as I did some household chores. While he played I heard him say to himself three or four times, “You don’t want to be a big brother.” After a while I sat down next to him, and when he said it again and looked at me I said, “It’s okay if you don’t like being a brother right now. Being a big brother is hard.” Then I told him again that I will always love him, and talked about how Harry wouldn’t always be a tiny baby; that there would come a time when he and Liam could play together, and that Liam could teach Harry to play peek-a-boo, to play with a ball, and to go down the slide. For the first time that day, his face lit up. “You can teach him to climb the climbing wall!” he said. I agreed, and we went on with our afternoon as if nothing had happened.

I’d like to say that things turned around for us that day, and that having that one conversation led to Liam’s full acceptance of our new family. But of course that isn’t how life works. It certainly isn’t how life with a toddler works. It is true that after that day I felt like something loosened in Liam. He seemed to accept my hugs and kisses a little more readily, and to be a little more likely to climb into my lap for comfort rather than pushing limits to precipitate a meltdown.

Now, almost a year after Harry’s arrival, Liam is still adjusting to the changes that having a brother has brought. As time goes on, I’m realizing that opportunities like that day are pretty rare; there isn’t often a moment when his receptiveness to that kind of conversation aligns with my ability to have it. Helping him come to terms with this new reality is more about small opportunities: gently and compassionately enforcing limits when he tests them, or holding him in my lap and empathizing when he has a meltdown over something seemingly trivial. But occasionally opportunities for a bigger conversation do come up, and these days I feel more prepared for them and confident I’m doing the right thing. I’m ready.

Nurturing a relationship is a process and a journey, and Amy and Liam are well on their way.

For more, I recommend Siblings Without Rivalry by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish (one of my all-time favorite parenting books) and my book, No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame

And also these perspectives:

Ask the Parent Coach: 7 Ways to Help Your Child Adjust to a New Baby by Susan Stiffelman

A Call for Sunshine and Enlightened by Nadine Hilmar

Sibling Conflicts by Lisa Sunbury

Dealing With Sibling Aggression by Amanda Morgan

 

(Photo by Sakena on Flickr)

15 Comments

Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. Except for the added NICU struggles, I could recount many similar conversations with my two year old (whose brother is now two months old)
    Using your suggestions, Janet, have made our transition to four a lovely and wonderful time for all four of us, rather than tumultuous and a struggle. Here’s what our typical exchange sounds like:
    My two yo says, “Hit Simon!” (His baby brother’s name) and I acknowledge, “You feel like hitting Simon?” (In a totally neutral tone) He says, “Yes.” And I say, “Thank you for telling me how you feel. It’s okay to feel that way, but I won’t let you hurt Simon.”
    Then we devise a plan depending on what’s going on.

  2. avatar Mary Anne says:

    I would like to offer another perspective. I rarely comment on articles and please excuse any typos since I am typing on my phone. I am pregnant with my fourth child now, so I’ve navigated the new sibling period several times before, and I usually take a different approach. In my my mind, adding a new child is a completely joyful occasion, and even though there will always be complications, I talk it up far in advance as the happy event it is. Kids can pick up on any feelings of uncertainty and negativity that you feel (about the situation, of course, not the baby) and they will react accordingly. I’ve heard my method referred to as the “our baby” style of sibling preparation. Talk up how “we” are having a new baby, how sweet he or she will be, show them the tiny clothes, etc.

    When the baby comes and you are inevitably busy, acknowledge how you don’t have as much time, but focus on how big brother or sister can help take care of our baby, how much baby loves him or her, and how you’re so proud of the older sibling. And of course make sure that the older child still has some time with you on his own. It’s always a rocky transition just fitting in time for everything, but I’ve never found that my kids blame it on the new sibling. In fact, the baby is usually in danger of being smothered with too much love!

    It’s not always loving and happy around here, of course, but this one thing for me has always gone really smoothly. I think it’s just vital not to give the older kid ideas of what he might be feeling. A two and a half year old, especially, will eventually feel what you project to him, and although there will always be tantrummy phases, I think it’s a mistake to always link them to the new sibling.

    Kids are getting restless so I better wrap this up and hopefully I expressed what I meant to say adequately!

    1. Mary Anne, thank you for taking the time to comment. You express yourself very clearly! Yours is a valid approach and the one most parents seem to take. It certainly makes sense to focus on the positive.

      I have a different view, based on my education and experience… I strongly believe that there is more authentic joy and light for everyone when we aren’t afraid to openly acknowledge and accept the darker side of things…and there is always a darker side. I agree about not projecting, which is why I suggest framing these discussions with children as “what children often feel in these situations”, and would broach the subject calmly and casually. This does not cause children to feel anything they don’t feel; it only eases their minds about feelings they already have.

      As I imagine you realize, children commonly “smother with love” because it is a “safer” and more acceptable (to their parents) way of expressing their negative feelings and aggression. My belief is that we should bring these feelings out into the open, so children aren’t left feeling guilt or shame.

      1. avatar Mary Anne says:

        Thank you for your kind response! I can certainly see where you’re coming from. And although we may disagree on this, I have to say that I explored your site a little more, and the idea of RIE parenting (which I had never heard of before) and I absolutely loved some of the ideas. I especially identified with the concept of not disturbing babies and children while they are playing and learning at their own pace. So many parents I know are so focused on “teaching their children to play” and guiding them through every little step, while I’ve always felt that it is much better to let them work through things at their own pace. Plus, it’s so rewarding to watch the things they come up with on their own!

        1. Yes, isn’t it?! For me that is one of the joys of parenting. I know how I play, but observing my children was much more fun and taught me so much about them.

    2. Mary Anne, I think it’s wonderful that that approach has worked so well for you and your children.

      I had the same reservations when I started doing this kind of emotion coaching with my son. I worried for a while about what would happen if I labelled his feelings wrong, or just plain misread the situation. Would I give him ideas about things he could be unhappy about, or make him even more unhappy by bringing it up?

      As it turned out, well before the age of 2 1/2 he was perfectly comfortable telling me when I got it wrong. I would say, “You’re sad because of X.” And he would look right at me and say, “No!” If I’m unsure, I’ll typically ask him. “Are you upset because you wanted the blue cup and not the red one?” He doesn’t hesitate at all to let me know what’s really going on when I get it wrong, and I think it’s because through this process of naming and accepting feelings (even the big, negative, scary ones), he’s developed the vocabulary to discuss them and learned that I won’t be angry or disappointed with him just because he’s having big feelings.

      I really believe that I’ve given him a valuable gift of unconditional love and acceptance with this approach.

      1. avatar Mary Anne says:

        I appreciate your response, Amy! You all are the nicest commenters ever, even though I just blew in here and started commenting without reading a word about RIE parenting beforehand! I do agree about acknowledging negative emotions and not glossing them over, but I feel also that there ought to be cues from us on what is a big deal and what isn’t .For example, I do acknowledge at a doctor’s visit that it will hurt, etc. and how we can work through it and help them feel better. But in smaller day to day occurences I want to help them learn to adapt by sometimes telling them that “you get what you get”.

        I mean, I know everything is a big deal to a two year old, and that’s normal. I do want to validate their feelings, but at the same time, by the time they are four or five I tend to start telling them to put on their big girl (or boy) panties and just deal with it, because that’s how life is. All the while realizing of course that mom shouldn’t be as tough as real life, you know? I mean I do give lots of leeway.

        I realize, based on reading some other articles, that you all take a different approach, and I appreciate the new ideas I’ve gained. I will definitely be reading up some more.

  3. Dear Janet,
    I go throw this every day with my 2 year old boy and my 6 months baby girl. A challenge indeed. In my case I find it hard to manage the guilt I feel (I know I shouldn’t but well…. we know how guilt works) of not being able to spend with him the same time I used to. I have your book and read it anytime I have the chance and it has helped us a lot. But I wonder if you can recommend to us a lecture about this and other feelings and how we can avoid that those interfere on the process of adapting to a new situation. Many thanks, Estela

  4. I appreciate this article. I am going to have a second baby in two months and am very concerned about how my then 20 month will handle the transition. I feel guilty because I won’t really be able to help him understand why things have changed, he is just so young. Any ideas for a younger toddler?
    Thank you again for sharing your insight and knowledge.

  5. thanks for this article. I see how dealing with her younger sibling keeps on bothering my older daughter. We constantly work on it trying to do what you write about in the article. Sometimes I am afraid he will never become her friend, and that I need to work harder.

  6. Janet,

    My wife and I love reading your posts and recommend them to everyone. We have a 20 month old son that had colic for almost 9 months ( it was awful) now he is a champion sleeper and healthy! We recently added another little bundle of joy to our family and he is now 2 weeks old. And as it turns also has colic ( how did this happen to us again, I ask myself daily) and this has been super hard on the older brother. Mom is in the room all day consoling the screaming baby and I am trying to manage the house and my job and take care of my sweet little baby boy! He gets very upset when I am holding baby and does not like seeing mom with him either. He doesn’t get to spend time with the little one as he is always either crying or feeding.

    Any help or advice will be greatly appreciated! We absolutely love this parenting style and treat our boys like the little humans they are with clear and open lines of communication!

    Thank you so much!!!

    1. Hi Anthony! My advice is that this too shall pass… Just acknowledge the feelings both children are having and keep doing what you’re doing. Try to alleviate yourself of the responsibility of soothing the emotions and, instead, focus on letting them be… while you acknowledge to your baby or your son.. .”I hear you are having a very tough time with this!” Don’t try to make it better. Accept and support what is. That is a powerful way to connect (though it might not feel so good to you in the moment). These experiences will bring you closer if you can let go and let them be. Congratulations!!!

  7. Any advice as to when to discuss with a 2.5 year old? I’m 7 months pregnant and he sometimes kisses my belly but doesn’t know there is a baby coming. We are together all the time so even leaving for the hospital might be confusing.

  8. This was beautiful to read but also scared me a lot… We have just one child and are thinking about the second one, but when I see what kind of a negative impact and trauma for the first child a sibling can be I start thinking that for my child’s well-being it might be better to stay our only child. Also it’s hard to imagine that I could ever love another child as much I love my first one and I’m scared that with having more kids the connection that you have with each one is not so close and special…
    Can anyone relate? 🙂

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