Our relationships matter most.
I personally have vivid memories of when my little sister was born—I was four and she arrived two days before my fifth birthday. To say I had lots of emotions surrounding her arrival is an understatement. I’m sure many of us have had similar reactions and memories surrounding the arrival of siblings. The homecoming of a new baby is an exciting, challenging, and dramatic change in a home. For months the older sibling has heard about this mysterious “new baby” — quite an abstract concept for a young child to comprehend. A new baby in a home will rock an older sibling’s world and cause a slew of emotions and behaviors to bubble up. At the heart of conscious parenting is deeply trusting in our children, respecting them and welcoming all emotions.
Below are four key points, following the respectful parenting model, to help guide caregivers when introducing a new sibling into the home:
- Reframe expectations
It is helpful to start by setting realistic expectations for ourselves and recognizing that our littles will be processing strong feelings in regards to a new baby. One way to do this is to eliminate what I like to call: the “shoulds” from our vocabulary, both verbally and internally. The “shoulds” are expectations we impart on our littles regarding how we (or society) believe they should act (in certain situations). Some of us might have the expectation that our kids “should get along” or they “should love each other.” These are perfectly understandable feelings we have as parents and we work to help our children nurture those relationships… but that deep appreciation and respect needs to be born from within, not imposed. In reality, when we release ourselves from the expectations of how our littles “should” behave when welcoming a new baby into the home, the transition will be a little easier.
Many littles will show a side of themselves that the caregivers have not seen before. It is common for older siblings to exhibit grief, sadness, anger or guilt. Some littles will be too young still to articulate their emotions; therefore, they will act out. The behaviors can vary from child to child—a few common ones are:
- Aggression towards the new baby or parents
- Aggression or acting out at school towards teachers or classmates. *Note: acting out at school could signal feeling unsafe to express emotions freely in their own home
- An increase in limit testing behavior
- Regression in behaviors: bed wetting, frequent potty accidents, reverting back to “baby” behaviors
- An increase in crying, whining, and tantrums
A common emotion is a feeling of fear or loss—the older sibling could feel fear of losing the love and affection of his parents to the new addition. Depending on the age, littles might be unable to articulate their emotions and their experience will come out in the form of behaviors. It is important to remain empathetic and have realistic expectations when the challenging behaviors present themselves. Remember, the older sibling had the attention of both adults for some time and now, for the first time, the majority of the attention is directed elsewhere.
- Adjust our perspective
This is as simple as putting ourselves in our littles’ shoes and seeing the world from their point of view. This tiny human rocked their world—parents are more tired and have less time to offer the older sibling. In their excitement when meeting the new baby, family and friends will acknowledge baby first and ask questions such as: “how do you like your new baby brother/sister? Are you taking good care of your brother/sister?” The older sibling suddenly has to “be more quiet,” “be gentle,” and “not jump so close to the baby”. Perceiving our littles as capable of understanding these new demands but also allowing for grace when they are unable to is important. In instances of challenging behaviors, remembering to reframe our perspective and not see our child’s behavior as bad, but instead as a cry for attention, connection, and love.
Some practical ways parents can adjust their perspective are:
- Avoid labeling behaviors as “bad” or “good” or children as “misbehaving”
- Be aware of labeling our littles both verbally (out loud) and internally (ex. in our minds when we call our son/daughter a “jerk”)
- Avoid associating the behavior with your child. Ex. “My child is mean” versus “my child is feeling mean”
- Being proactive and providing quality one-on-one time with the older sibling. This could be as little as 10 minutes a day of just observing play or participating in a favorite activity of the child’s choice
- If the older sibling acts out, observe the behavior with curiosity and without judgement. Try not to pin labels on siblings (ex. Victim, aggressor, bully, helpless, etc.)
- When possible, put words to your little’s feelings, say out loud what you objectively observe (sportscast). “It looks like you are angry at baby sister. You feel sad because you want to sit with mommy”
- All behavior is a form of communication. What are our littles trying to communicate to us about their feelings?
- Accepting and validating emotions
This is big. Many of us we grew up unable to truly express our emotions. Many times, subconsciously, we might repress our child’s emotions by using shame, guilt, or withholding love when our child expresses his big feelings. With the new baby in the house, we might be tempted to use phrases such as: “Big kids don’t cry. You are not a baby, stop crying. You are okay, no need to cry.” Unknowingly we are repressing the emotions bubbling up inside our kids. In today’s society it is common to feel an urgency to fix everything and reduce hurt and pain. The new baby will likely cause an upsurge of overwhelming emotions the older child will need to process. When we come from a place of love, empathy, and acceptance our little can rest knowing that no matter how ugly their emotions or behaviors get, their caregiver is there for them and will continue to love them. This means letting our littles express the full range of their emotions. We want to send the message to our kids that all feelings are okay, even the worst ones. Give your child the peace of mind about their feelings, it doesn’t eliminate the feelings, but it takes away the layer of fear.
Some ways to help validate and accept our children’s emotions are:
- Be empathetic: “I understand how you are feeling, I have felt that way too”
- Validate feelings: “You have a right to feel that way”
- Identify feelings: “It sounds like you are ______.” or “That must feel ______.”
- Be present: lowering the body position to the same level as the child, make eye contact (if the child allows), provide physical contact (if the child allows), avoid any other distractions
- Be curious: “Tell me more about how you are feeling.”Or simply “Tell me more.”
- Listen intently: with younger children, less, simple language is better. Simply listening to crying and being present can be enough
- Encouraging emotions
It might seem counterintuitive to encourage negative emotions but the more we encourage our children to express them in a healthy manner, the more space they will have in their heart to form a bond with and love their new sibling. Inviting the expression of even the most negative feelings offers a healthy release for our kids. As soon as possible, begin talking about what is going on with your little. Encourage discussing the negative emotions surrounding the arrival of the new baby. Many of us have heard stories of older siblings asking their parents to: “return the baby to the stork.” This is a perfect example of the negative feelings bubbling up and is a great opportunity to explore them further with the older child.
It is important to note here the difference between allowing our children to express their feelings versus physically acting on them. Our job as parents is to show our children how to express their anger without doing any damage. Being present and close when the siblings are together and ready to calmly and confidently set limits is essential to prevent any harm to either child. Occasionally this might mean being proactive and physically removing the older sibling from the situation to avert any harm from happening. Allowing our littles an outlet for releasing these negative emotions is another way to help them cope. Ask your child to show you how he/she is feeling using a pillow, stuffed animal, drawing, with their body, or verbal outlets (such as screaming). As contradictory as it might seem, when we acknowledge bad feelings between siblings, eventually it can lead to good feelings.
Below are simple phrases to use when acknowledging negative emotions:
- “It is really hard being a big brother/sister. You don’t want to be an older sibling.”
- “Sometimes you don’t like your baby brother/sister. You wish she wasn’t here.”
- “You are angry at mom and dad. They are spending more time with the new baby.”
- “You are angry at the new baby. You want to hurt the new baby.”
- “You have two feelings about your baby. Sometimes you like him/her, and sometimes you are angry at him/her.”
- “You don’t like the new baby. I can’t let you _________ to the new baby.”
- “It looks like you are having a hard time, I can help you.”
- “I can’t let you hurt the baby, but you can show me how you are feeling.”
- “Mom and dad still love you even when you have these ugly feelings. You are a part of this family just like the new baby. Mom and dad love you no matter what.”
Welcoming a new baby to the family is an exciting, dynamic moment that will undoubtedly bring challenges to both siblings and parents. Despite the slew of emotions that will overwhelm both parents and children, use these feelings to foster a deep connection and respect for each child. As parents we cannot mandate that our children love each other, but we can support our littles as they navigate their new world of sibling-hood. By allowing each child to fully express their emotions surrounding the new baby we are opening the doors for a relationship with their new sibling.