In this episode: Janet responds to an email from a parent asking how to prepare her 3-year-old for an enormous transition, in this case the arrival of a new sibling. Since her daughter brushes off direct questions about her feelings, this mom has decided she can’t really grasp it yet, but she’s anticipating limits and patience testing. She wants to know: “Is there any way I can help her prepare and make this transition less drastic?”
Transcript of “How and When to Prepare Your Child for a New Sibling (or Any Big Transition)”
Hi. This is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled. today’s podcast, I’m responding to an email from a parent who is in a big transition. She’s expecting baby number two, and she would like to know how to help prepare her toddler, who’s three years old, for this huge life change and make this transition as comfortable as possible for her child and her family. Here’s the note I received:
“Hi, Janet. You’ve literally changed my parenting experience when my daughter was 15 months old and I was at a loss for how to handle her testing. You are truly a gem. Thank you for sharing all your knowledge. She will now be turning three, and we’re expecting baby number two. My question to you is are there some ways I can prepare her for this huge life change that is about to be bestowed upon her? It seems pretty over her head so far. When we bring it up to her or people ask how she feels about becoming a big sister, she kind of just brushes it off and moves on to another subject. I’ve just assumed she can’t really grasp it yet and have been just keeping things pretty normal and don’t bring it up too often.
But as it approaches closer, I can’t help but wonder if I should be trying to get the message across to her more, that there will be another tiny attention-needing human joining our household. I know we are all in for a huge adjustment, and I know there will be huge limit and patience testing. Is there any way I can help her prepare and make this transition less drastic for her, or is this just something we’re better dealing with as it rolls our way? Should we just let her bask in these last couple of months of her being an only child? Any advice or words of wisdom are greatly appreciated.”
I love how this parent is already quite aware that she will probably be dealing with some limit and patience testing and that this is a huge adjustment for the whole family. It’s really important to get that perspective, because we want to go into this understanding that our children will be in a difficult period emotionally and that that will show up, very likely in their behavior, but that it won’t be as clear-cut as a child saying, “This is hard for me, and I’m not feeling so good about all of this.” It would be easier if it could be that direct! But in fact, it will show up through testing limits, even more emotional moments, and maybe melting down over seemingly small things that go on.
If we know that, we can at least realize that this is normal. This isn’t a sign we’ve done something wrong as parents; this isn’t a sign that we have a problem child on our hands that we need to worry about. Understanding that this is normal and to be expected will set us up to face these challenges more readily, because one of the things that really brings us down as parents and makes everything harder is when we start judging our child and ourselves and worrying.
The feedback I’m going to offer this parent does apply to any kind of big transition that our child and our family might be dealing with: moving to a new house, starting a new school, maybe it’s some kind of change in the family structure. Having a new child is one of the most common ones, but all of these kinds of transitions are difficult for young children. Why is that?
Well, think about it. They are developing so rapidly. They have such an internal transition going on, and it’s very hard for them to process that when they feel like they’ve lost their footing on the outside and everything doesn’t feel settled and solid for them.
That doesn’t mean that we’re bad parents or should try to avoid transitions like these. It only means that our perspective will hopefully be in place so that we can hold space for all the feelings that come up. The behaviors, we’ll obviously be limiting for safety and appropriateness, but the impulse to do those behaviors and the feelings behind those behaviors, we will ideally welcome. We’ll have a bring-it-on attitude towards them.
That starts as it always does, with us allowing ourselves to have our own feelings. The more we can get in touch with the feelings that we have inside, the loss of what was, the sadness… I know when I had my children, I have three children, there was a real sense of loss. I felt so blessed to have another child, and there was so much joy in that as well, but the loss of the relationship that I had with my older child was real, and it was important for me to let that feeling sit with me and be okay with that, let myself cry about it or feel sad.
It’s the same, but more so, with young children who put everything out there in such a healthy way. They put it all out there. They discharge the feelings almost as quickly as they feel them.
The number one way to prepare for the transition to another baby or any big transition is for us to work on our perspective. It sounds like this parent who’s reaching out in her note already has that perspective, so I only want to encourage her more that, yes, expect, as she says, a huge adjustment, expect huge limit and patience testing.
Then in terms of what to say or how to prepare her child, I believe in speaking to what’s going on as soon as children are aware of it. Children are so much more aware than we give them credit for, and they sense something amiss as soon as the parent starts to feel uncomfortable, have these pregnancy symptoms that are maybe emotional or just a bit more tired.
They also hear every person who says, “Aren’t you excited?” Everybody’s looking at each other with shiny eyes and feeling those feelings. Children receive those.
This perspective that I’m talking about, this usually begins when the parent is expecting. It’s not something that just suddenly happens when the baby is born. I often hear from parents who say that their child’s behavior started to be a problem, and when we count back the months, it was actually while they were expecting that it started, and the parent hadn’t put that together.
I know this is controversial, and some people will tell you the opposite, that you should wait, but I would bring up to my child right away what’s going on. That might start by communicating with my child that I’m a little more tired these days and that maybe my child has noticed that I don’t seem as patient, explaining that there’s something going on with my body, I’m not feeling well, and I want to speak to that.
Then if other people are getting excited, and since your child might be aware of that, I would also say, “Did you notice that grandma was very excited talking to me? What we’re talking about is that it seems that there’s a baby growing inside me and that you might have a little sister or brother. It’s going to take a long time, and it will grow bigger and bigger and bigger, but, of course, we want to let you know. If you have any questions or thoughts about it or feelings about it, I would love for you to share them with me.”
I would be responsive to your child’s interests, but I would also provide very honest, direct communication about what you know. I would say things like, “We don’t know exactly what this is going to be like, but this is what we do know. This is where the baby’s going to sleep. This is what babies need.”
I don’t know if this parent is already noticing some more fragility in her child’s emotions or limit-testing, but it does usually begin way before the baby actually arrives. That reminds me of another note that I also wanted to share because it fits right into this.
“Hi, Janet. I love the advice you give. It’s been very helpful. I’m a mom of a two-year-old and currently pregnant. I’m due in a month. Ever since I was about three months pregnant, I’ve been losing patience with my son. I’ve been yelling and losing my temper with him, but more now that I don’t have a lot of energy due to pregnancy. I feel very regretful afterward and apologize almost all the time after reacting that way. This is not something I want to be doing. I’m concerned because I will be breastfeeding my daughter once she is born, and my hormones will still be out of whack, and I will continue this behavior. Do you have any advice for me?”
Yes, so my advice to this parent is to understand that her child’s behavior is very, very normal. I would look at where she’s losing patience because it may be that she’s falling into worrying that she’s doing something wrong, her child is behaving in ways that are alarming, or he’s doing this to her. She’s taking it personally maybe. All of those things can just amplify our discomfort and maybe lead us to yelling and losing our temper more often. Oftentimes, we do blame ourselves, we do take our child’s behavior personally when they are only doing some healthy processing of their own uncomfortable feelings, which doesn’t make the day-to-day easier maybe, but it helps us to breathe, to exhale, to let go and know that our child is going to be all over the place.
Yes, our hormones and emotions play a part as well. I love that this parent says that she repairs with her child, that she apologizes, but I’d love for her to give herself a break and not have to feel so regretful and wrong about what she’s doing because her behavior is normal as well.
These are times to get through. There will be joyful moments here and there, but I would mostly see this as a time to be in this uncomfortable zone and to, as much as possible, welcome that. We’re in this transition, and it’s supposed to look like it’s looking. It may seem like our child is falling apart and that we’ve become the worst parent ever, but it’s all very healthy.
Back to this first question, I just want to go through other things this parent has asked, some ways to prepare her for this huge life change. I would prepare yourself by getting your perspective in place, and then I would prepare your child with the specifics that you know as you know them in an honest way, not trying to jolly it up or make it all positive. I would let my child know that when the baby comes, or even before the baby comes that it’s normal for you to feel some days maybe excited about it, other days scared or angry or sad, that all those things are normal for children in this situation, and every child feels some of them, to give your child that peace of mind about their feelings.
That doesn’t eliminate, of course, them having these feelings, but what it does is it takes away that layer of fear that can be created under everything else for a child, which makes it so much harder for them to get comfortable. They know that their behavior is not what their parent wants. They know they’re disappointing their parent. They know they’re doing things they shouldn’t be doing, and they don’t even know why they’re doing it. That’s the part that really adds fuel to the discomfort.
That part we can take care of. We have the power to not create a situation where there’s fear on top of fear on top of fear. We give that sense of security. I don’t want you to hit. I don’t want to do this, you know that, but I understand that you feel like doing it. That message it gold for a child in a transition.
She says it seems pretty over her head so far. Yes, this is a big, heady, mysterious experience. I think it is for all of us, but we have a frame of reference, we can contextualize, we understand what’s going on. But what is it going to feel like to have a second child or what is it going to feel like to be in that new house in that new neighborhood if that’s the transition? It’s a mystery for us and a million times more so for a child. Speaking to all those elephants in the room will help at least with that layer of fear that’s underneath.
This is what we know for sure. We know this, this, and this, but yeah, there’s a lot that we don’t know, and that mystery is, again, one of the reasons that children start to fall apart behavior-wise during the pregnancy. They know there’s this big change coming, but they don’t really know what it is or how it’s going to feel or what’s going on. But they sense their parents shifting a little, they sense people excited, people are saying to them, “Oh, you’re going to be a big brother, big sister. How does that feel?” Gosh, I don’t know, it feels really scary. How is it supposed to feel? People are acting like I’m supposed to be all excited and really positive. Ugh, that makes me feel like there’s something wrong with me because I don’t feel like that. I feel really scared.
This parent says, “When we bring it up to her or people ask how she feels, she just kind of brushes it off and moves on to another subject. Yeah, I feel you’re expecting me to feel something that I don’t feel, so let’s just avoid that one. I think that’s where that’s coming from. Again, I think if we look at ourselves and ask ourselves how do we feel, we feel a whole mix of things about this experience usually, and children can’t understand that mix of emotions that they have or much less articulate it. It’s hard enough for us to do that.
This parent says, “I just assume she can’t really grasp it yet.” Yes, absolutely. “And we’ve just been keeping things pretty normal and don’t bring it up too often.” I wouldn’t bring it up too often, but I would bring it up. I wouldn’t try to avoid it.
She says, “As it approaches closer, I can’t help but wonder if I should be trying to get the message across to her more that there will be another tiny attention-needing human.” Yes, I would definitely give her that message and all sides of it, the good, the bad, the ugly, every side of it, the realities that you know.
She says, “Is there any way I can help her prepare and make this transition less drastic for her, or is this just something we’re better dealing with as it rolls our way?” Both. I would help her prepare with honesty and a setup that’s letting her know clearly that you welcome any feelings she has about this. You would love her to share them, but you know sometimes she won’t be able to, and she’ll just have this impulse. You’re there to help her when she can’t help herself. You’re always going to be on her side. Nothing will change that.
Then really, following through with that, which is the hard part, of course. It’s always to say these things. It’s hard when our child’s uncomfortable behavior is so unappealing and makes us angry and makes us feel impotent in our abilities to fix it or make it better. When children misbehave, for a lack of a better word in this moment, it is always a sign that they are uncomfortable on some level. They are not in balance. They’ve lost their footing, but they need us on their side in these times more than ever.
I really hope that helps.
For more, you can find both of my books available on audio at Audible, Elevating Child Care and No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame. You can get both audio books for free with a 30-day trial membership by using the link in the liner notes of this podcast. You can also get them in paperback at Amazon and an ebook at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Apple.com.
Thanks so much for listening. We can do this.