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.
And also these perspectives:
Ask the Parent Coach: 7 Ways to Help Your Child Adjust to a New Baby by Susan Stiffelman
Sibling Conflicts by Lisa Sunbury
Dealing With Sibling Aggression by Amanda Morgan
(Photo by Sakena on Flickr)