Imagine a sudden entry of a new employee in your office. The newcomer is younger to you but has the same designation and work profile as yours. She seeks attention from your colleagues and praises from supervisors, which were hitherto only yours. The office has been rearranged before she arrives, and your desk has been shifted [without your knowledge or consent] to make space for her. When the employee finally arrives, a party is thrown for her. You are a part of the party but all eyes are on the new one. Worse, you are all the time asked how much you are enjoying having a new partner. Feeling bad reading this? Well, this is exactly what a child goes through when she gets a new sibling if parents don’t prepare her for it.
Having a new baby in the family may be one of the toughest things a child has to deal with. Many parents overlook how significant their attitudes and consequent actions can be in helping the child smoothly sail through these tough times. Let us sense, understand and imagine the possible life-situation the child may experience.
Look at me
When informed about the arrival of a new sibling, every child has unique emotional and behavioural reactions, depending on her age and maturity. The child may feel isolated, insecure or ignored. She may feel that the new baby is a substitute that her parents are bringing because she doesn’t behave well or love them enough. Children may not be able to express their emotional turmoil in words. These feelings then get manifested through non-verbal behaviours. The child may act-out at the arrival of the new sibling by throwing temper tantrums, crying without reason, or showing aggressive behaviour towards family members/herself/the newborn. She may regress [behave younger than she is]—insist on being fed, refuse to eat or ask help getting dressed [if she normally dresses on her own]. Often, children try to seek attention—they become disobedient or cling more. They feel jealous and resentful of the new one, because of which they boast of activities like dancing/ talking, which the newborn is unable to do.
However, not all older siblings behave in this manner. Quite a few of them also take pride in becoming an elder brother/sister. These children assume a sense of responsibility and become protective towards the younger one. They also become independent in routine activities like dressing and eating. They even try to entertain the younger siblings by playing with them, singing rhymes or songs to them or making funny faces.
It’s never always one scenario or the other; children may go through mixed feelings of like and dislike, intimacy and distance, protection and hurtful behaviour, anger and warmth towards the new member of the family. Parents have an inevitable role to play in helping the older child deal with these life-circumstances.
Are you ready?
It is important for parents to evaluate their own preparedness about the idea of having a new baby in the family. Often a well-planned entry of the child puts the parents in an accommodative mood and sets them ready to work through the process taking the entire family along. An unplanned pregnancy may affect the parents’ adjustment, consequently making successful transition difficult for all. It is important that parents are themselves convinced about their decision so that they can convince those in the family. Difficulties in this regard need to be addressed.
Step by step
Once you are comfortable with your decision, you can then plan the transition process together. You also need to understand that the change might be a difficult one for your first child and you need to do something about it and not wait for time to do the healing. Putting in conscious and informed efforts gives best results.
- The first thing you need to consider is the age and maturity level of the child. Based on this, explain the situation to the child in a language she understands without confusion. Remember, it’s important that the child comes to know of the arrival of the new member from the parents and not from someone else.
- Give her the freedom to ask questions and express her feelings openly. Don’t reject, discount or demean her revelations in any way. Encouraging such expression will help you gauge your child’s thought process and identify areas where you need to help her adjust better.
- Ensure that at all times your verbal and non-verbal behaviour depicts warmth and understanding towards the child.
- Involve the child at every step in the process of redecorating/rearranging the home in preparation of the new child. Encourage your first child to make choices and participate.
- Keep the child updated on the mother’s health by consistently informing her about the mother’s health, her needs and her diet.
- Communicate how valuable the child’s cooperation and support is for the parents. Reward her by thanking her, praising her efforts or giving her gifts every time she cooperates. The child needs to be reassured of how unconditionally you love her and that the love will persist.
- Talk about the time when the child was a toddler. Show her videos or pictures from that time. Share your parenting experiences with her. Try and explain how exciting and memorable the process was and that now with the entry of the baby, the older one also has a role to assume and memories to gather and cherish for life.
- As the delivery date draws closer, as husband and wife, you will need to mutually plan the role the father and significant others will play, while the mother is in the hospital.
- During this time, plan activities well to keep the older child occupied. Involve her in the preparation such as packing the mom’s hospital bag and welcoming the new-born.
The child is bound to have mixed feelings towards the big change in the family. Be patient and try to understand what she is experiencing. Your consistent efforts are critical for everyone’s physical and psychological wellbeing. If you fail, the transition will be a rough one for your first child and can trigger sibling rivalry even before the new child arrives. But if done right, the child will be more eager than you to welcome her new sibling home.
If the older child is still a toddler…
Then your approach will be different. In that case, use more pictures, actions and behaviours to make her understand her role. This process may be difficult to execute, especially as toddlers need the care and closeness of parents.
Use the ideas or words that the child understands and help the kid associate those words with pictures/flash cards of infant, family, and home [in real or cartoon-form or animated form].
This was first published in the November 2011 issue of Complete Wellbeing.