Why do some children have a hard time adjusting to a new sibling?
Here are a few truths about kids:
1) They thrive in environments that are predictable and in which they feel a sense of ownership and control.
2) They are hard-wired to seek closeness and attention from their caregivers–this is the basis of secure attachment.
Here are a few truths about introducing a new sibling to the family:
1) It shakes things up, changes the routine, and adds an element of unpredictability and newness (and sometimes even chaos, at least at the beginning).
2) Parents’ attention and time is now divided, and while there is always enough love for everyone, there is not always enough attention for everyone in a given moment.
So understanding how these truths can feel at odds with one another, it makes sense that a new child in the family can make an older sibling feel like their world is turning upside down and the things they relied on to feel safe, secure, and calm are now not always available. And that is going to lead to a lot of really big feelings, which will likely get translated into behaviors that feel out of control.
So what can we as parents do to help our child cope with all this change and all this newness? How do we set them up for success, and lay the groundwork for effective coping and a close, compassionate relationship with their new sibling?
I would break it down to 5 major categories:
- Confident Boundaries
- Fill Them Up
- Take Care of YOU
This one is two-fold:
1) Mentally and emotionally prepare your child
2) Prepare their environment to accommodate and buffer them from as many changes as possible.
Mental and Emotional Preparation
It is best to prepare your child for a new sibling by talking to them about it…a lot. This does not mean talking endlessly or intrusively about it–quite the opposite!! It means that you must become a sensitive observer of your child and look for opportunities to fold information about what is happening into conversations, play, mealtime, caregiving moments, etc. We want these exchanges to feel genuinely authentic and attuned.
If your child is showing disinterest or resistance to the topic, take that as a sign that now might not be the time to have that conversation and casually move on. But when your child is in an open and curious mood, you might take that opportunity to share with them about what is happening in the family.
This might look like letting them know that your family is growing and a new sibling is going to be joining the family. If you’re pregnant, help them to understand that there’s a baby in mommy’s belly. If you’re adopting, help them learn about the story of their new baby sibling.
Read books about the lives of big siblings and of babies. Talk about them when they were a baby. Talk about the things that will be different (“you will be moving into a new bedroom,” “sometimes you will be spending more time with grandma and grandpa.”), and talk about the things that will be the same (“daddy will still always put you to bed at night,” “you will still have the same bed and the same toys.”).
Talk about their “big sibling” responsibilities and how they will get to help. Talk about the fact that they will have lots of different feelings about their baby sibling. This one’s especially important, and I will elaborate more on this in the section on validating.
Preparing the Environment
Things will change when you have a new baby, no way around that. But helping your child find anchors in as many places as possible will help them to not feel unmoored by what is changing. This means controlling as much as you are able to, and introducing change slowly over time.
So start early! If you will be transitioning your child into a new bedroom, for example, begin that transition months before the new baby comes if you can. Same for potty training, moving homes, changing childcare, etc. Obviously, some things will not be able to be done too far in advance, and that’s fine, but make it a priority to build in time for whatever your family can do in advance.
Whenever possible, invite your child to be involved in what will be changing in their environment.
For example, invite them to participate in activities related to preparing your home for the baby, like folding and putting away new baby clothes. If they are moving into a new room, ask them for their input on aspects of the room (give authentic choices: small, low stakes, predetermined options that you are comfortable following through on whatever they pick. So you might ask, “would you like a blue or grey blanket on your big boy bed?” and not “What color do you want to paint your walls?” because if they say neon yellow…).
These opportunities to be involved and have a voice help children develop a sense of ownership and agency over these new changes, which will likely reduce resistance and frustration down the line.
When we introduce a child to the idea of a new sibling, it’s important to remember that children–just like grownups–can have very conflicting and seemingly contradictory feelings all at once. And, just like for us grownups, when this happens it can feel disorienting, confusing, and uncomfortable.
Your child can feel excited for a new sibling, scared that things will change, envious of the baby, angry that he has to share your attention…the list goes on and on. And whichever emotion is at the forefront of your child’s awareness can flip on a dime, and you might notice intense and rapid switching of moods and demeanor. This is very normal! This is very healthy!
Knowing what you might expect in your child’s emotional reactions will help you to connect with them empathetically, with curiosity, and with confident containment rather than with frustration, punishment, or shame.
It is very normal as parents to want our children to be happy and to love their siblings.
But in reality, being made to feel happy or being forced to love one’s sibling rarely has the desired effect. The truth is, our children are likely to feel authentically happy (at times) and also authentically angry (at times) about having a new sibling.
So when your child says “I hate my baby sister!” rather than trying to move them through the negative emotion (“Ok, enough pouting, let’s put on our happy face”), convince them out of it (“Oh no, you love your sister!”), distract them (“Hey! Look! She’s smiling at you!”), or shame them (“Don’t say that, that’s mean!”), it is often more effective to acknowledge that his intense language is his way of communicating to you that he is having a big feeling, and to validate that big feeling (“Wow, you must be feeling really upset if you’re saying that!”).
In focusing on the feeling rather than the language, you are showing them that you are more interested in what’s happening in their internal world than a particular behavior in the moment–you’re communicating that you see them and that you value them.
If we can approach our children’s feelings with the goal of understanding them rather than changing them, they will feel safe to have whatever feelings come and not be motivated to deny, repress, or cut off a particular feeling to maintain a sense of closeness with you. This is critical as it sets the framework for emotional wellbeing throughout life.
It is helpful to anticipate these big emotions and help a child “cope ahead.”
This might look like imagining with your child all the different feelings they might have beforehand and playing around with how they might cope with each one. Explore with your child what they might do if they were feeling sad, or mad, or lonely, or jealous. Normalizing these feelings can take the sting of shame out of them when they hit.
Another key strategy is to help a child begin to wrap their minds around the concept of conflictual feelings and to tolerate sitting with those feelings without necessarily jumping to “fix” them or turn them off. This skill will come from us modeling to them what “not fixing” looks like–which may be a new and challenging skill for us too!
This might look like sitting on your hands the next time they are struggling with getting a block tower to stay up, or not immediately opening something for them, but noticing aloud “oh man, that’s hard, you’re trying to get that block on top but it keeps falling off, [PAUSE]” or “you really want that open, it’s hard to get on your own [PAUSE].”
Allow them to sit with the struggle and with the frustration. If they can tolerate that, great, keep going–validate, narrate, keep sitting on your hands. If they start to get increasingly upset, acknowledge that: “I know, you really want me to help you, I am right here, I’m not going anywhere.”
You will know when they have reached their maximum tolerance, and then you can step in and offer the smallest meaningful level of intervention (so with the blocks, you might put your hand on the bottom block to hold the base steady, rather than putting the block on top for them). This builds confidence in their ability to not just solve problems on their own, but to know they can survive the feelings of frustration and distress that come with struggling.
CALM & CONFIDENT BOUNDARIES
All feelings are okay, but what about behaviors?? Here’s where an important distinction comes into play. It is always okay to feel angry, it is never okay to hit. We want to help our children know where the boundaries are so they feel contained and know that their caregivers are in control, not them–this knowledge allows children to relax and feel calm and confident too.
When a child crosses a boundary, it’s helpful to remain calm and clear: “I won’t let you throw your toys while your brother is in the playroom” or “I won’t let you touch your sister’s face” and then physically create a barrier with your arm or hand to gently prevent them from engaging in that behavior.
If things continue to escalate, make sure the baby is safe, and then calmly move them away from the baby and communicate that you can see they aren’t able to stay in control right now, so “I’m going to help you to stay safe and I’m going to move you to a different space.” If you can, stay with them until they can calm down or have another caregiver stay with them and help them to regulate themselves.
Shaming, punishing, or isolating them is unlikely to help them to feel connected to the family when connection is what they are craving most (and what is driving the problematic behaviors in the first place), so be mindful of finding ways to build connection rather than disconnection so that the child does not get stuck in a negative feedback loop with the behaviors leading to more disconnection, leading to more or escalating behaviors, etc.
[If you need more resources for this kind of discipline and regulation, check out janetlansbury.com]
Every family will have their own set of boundaries that they are comfortable with, but as a general rule, try to keep the boundaries around behaviors related to safety and not control for the sake of control. The less you have to say no, the more effective it will be when you say it, so choose your boundaries wisely and intentionally.
FILL THEM UP
When you have a new child, you are going to feel stretched so thin. It’s really hard. And, in whatever ways you are able, it is very important to find special 1-on-1 time with your older child(ren).
Let’s talk a little bit about quality over quantity–this is really about being efficient and effective. 10 minutes of 100% undivided attention with no agenda other than authentic connection is worth more than 100 minutes of divided attention.
Find whatever ways work for your family to build in and maintain aspects of routines that are meaningful for your child. For example, if you always did bathtime, maybe you find a way to preserve that time and mindfully engage in it as not just utilitarian clean up time, but playful, silly, connected time that happens to take place in the bath.
Much of FILLING THEM UP takes place during caregiving routines
Caregiving routines are intimate and they happen predictably multiple times a day and become like anchors for children throughout the day. Keeping this in mind, another important FILL THEM UP strategy is to anticipate the parts of a child’s caregiving routines that might be changing (will dad be taking over bedtime? Will grandma now be picking her up from school?) and to start introducing those particular changes far in advance of the baby arriving.
This has two benefits: 1) your child has a chance to get used to them before many of the other big changes happen, and 2) your child does not come to associate these changes with the presence of the new baby and potentially become resentful.
TAKE CARE OF YOU
It is very common for parents of second (or third, or fourth) children to experience guilt related to having to divide your attention and the realization that you just can’t be everything to everyone at every time. I think it is very important to give ourselves some grace and to respond to ourselves with the same attunement and compassion we are striving to respond to our children with.
When we feel guilt, or have thoughts that we are letting our child(ren) down, or we are doubting ourselves as parents, it is really important to remind ourselves that we are doing a good enough job; that we are enough; that we are allowed to struggle.
A mom friend of mine shared this thought with me after I had my second child (and was feeling my fair share of guilt):
“Your first child gets your undivided attention, your second gets your expertise and confidence as a parent.”
There was something about this statement that just melted my guilt and my shame in that moment. It allowed me to see all the things I was giving my children, and not just the things I wasn’t. That subtle perspective shift had an enormous impact on my sense of self as a mother and on my relationship to both of my children.
It is also critical to be realistic about how much support you will need during this transition.
But remember, it is about quality over quantity. Give some real thought to what authentic support feels like to you, what you would like to have help with, and what you would like to keep boundaries around.
It is okay to say to helpful friends and family “Thank you for your generous offers to come visit, but we are going to be nesting at home for the first two weeks and aren’t going to have any visitors.” [**This was true pre-COVID and is especially true now]. It is also okay to say “Thank you for your generous offer to come visit, we would love some help with the groceries (or the laundry, or the big kids, or whatever else you ACTUALLY need help with!). You get to ask for what you need, you get to say no, and you get to call the shots.
It is also worth noting that it is okay to take some time for yourself.
With all this talk of how to manage more kids, you might be thinking about how there could possibly be time for that. There won’t be. And you will have to make time for it anyway.
You cannot fill up your kids if you yourself are empty. It’s simple physics. So think about ways, no matter how small, to take moments for yourself. And when you get them, make the most out of them–be present, be mindful, have gratitude (and thank yourself while you’re at it, you’re amazing.)