“It’s almost as if he’s never gotten over having a sibling.” That insightful aside was made by a parent in an online discussion group who was requesting advice from the group for handling her 5-year-old’s disagreeable and sometimes aggressive behavior toward his 3-year-old sister. For me, her comment nailed the issue perfectly.
The transition children must make after the birth of a sibling tends to be bumpy, painful, and long, a grieving process that is unique to each child in each situation. While feelings may seem to go underground for some children who might fear they’ll lose their parents’ acceptance otherwise, the process is never easy, nor is it seamless. A disruptive, dramatic life change such as this could never be. It certainly isn’t for us as parents, and for children this adjustment is even more sensitive and difficult to navigate.
So, the more we can be aware of the gravity of this transition, and then remember to welcome, accept, and try to empathize with the mix of feelings our children express, the healthier and more fluid it will be. And, ultimately, the more room our children will have in their hearts to genuinely and deeply love their siblings.
The grieving process tends to show itself in two interconnected ways:
1) Messy, disruptive displays of negativity, aggression, defiance, limit-pushing behaviors and impulses, all of which often seem to come out of nowhere. It can be hard for a frustrated or overwhelmed parent to connect the dots back to the transition itself.
2) Emotional fragility, tantrums, sadness, whining, pouting, petulance, and overreaction.
In all of the above cases, children need us to have as much patience and trust in their process as we can muster, while still setting reasonable behavioral limits. The biggest challenge is to normalize the behavior for ourselves so that we’re not surprised or offended by it. With the right perspective, we can approach any situation from a place of being consistently on our children’s “side,” helping them with their “mean” or unsafe impulses rather than judging them, losing patience and reacting emotionally ourselves. We won’t and don’t need to be perfect as long as we keep placing ourselves back on track.
Gretchen shared with me how this process played out in her family:
“I have been following you since I had my first daughter nearly four years ago. Treating babies and toddlers with respect makes perfect sense to me. As my daughter grew older, I learned a lot from you about the way my responses to her behavior can impact her emotions, development and understanding of herself and others.
We had our second daughter six months ago, and at first all was fine. Then after about 3 months I noticed a profound change in my eldest. She became very emotional, crying deeply over what seemed like trivial things, listless, and lacking in energy and incredibly moany (whining) a lot of the time. I knew this was her coming to terms with the huge shift in her family life and verbalized this to her, saying it was okay to feel sad and angry and scared that things had changed. I reassured her I loved her as much as I always had. I worked hard to remain unruffled and not get angry. Sometimes I did feel myself getting drawn in to trying to rationalize with her in the moment and would then have to take a step back to remember this wasn’t about the way I cut her toast, or that I had chosen the wrong book to read. I did on occasion lose my patience, but I would apologize after, saying I was sorry for being angry. I knew that wasn’t what she needed. As the weeks passed, I started to really worry – where was my happy, funny, curious, energetic little girl? Would she ever return?
And then, just like that, she came back to us. She has mourned the change and loss of what she had before and now seems to have assimilated this change and embraced it. She laughs and jokes, walks and runs with joy. She can play independently again and is an absolute joy to spend time with. Thank you so much for showing me light in the dark times. Thanks to you I felt confident that my approach was helping her and that she would come back to us.”
A BIG thank you to Gretchen for allowing me to share her story!