So, you're bringing home baby #2. Congratulations!
Today I want you to delve into the experience of your, up-until-now, only child. Let's role swap! Read this next paragraph and imagine your feelings:
Your child comes to you one night and says, "I love you SO much, I've decided to have another Mom (or Dad)!" Your child then brings home what can only be described as a replacement parent, a younger, updated model. Your extended family swarms around and can't wait to meet this new family member, who is so much more interesting and cute than you are! Your child suddenly has less than half as much time available to interact with you. "Sorry, the new parent just needs so much of my attention and love!" Your child is also tired and cranky all the time because of the new demands, far less loving and patient with you. You are also now suddenly expected to "be a good role model" and everything you do and say is under the microscope, while the new parent seems to get a pass on bad behavior every time. If you get into any arguments with this new family member, you are expected to "be the bigger person," allow them to win, and be extra generous and forgiving: "They are still learning." And on top of all of this, you are expected to love this stranger and forced to wear a t-shirt proclaiming just how much you love them.
Hopefully this little exercise has helped you realize that your child may struggle, a LOT, with this new addition! Wouldn't anyone? Add in the fact that your child's brain is still developing- they don't have the same impulse control and emotional regulation skills as you, an adult- and things can get messy. Children may express their feelings less than perfectly in this adjustment period: regressing to "babyish" behavior, defiance, meltdowns, and angry outbursts.
Here are 5 things you can do to help your child with the transition:
1. Reserve special one-on-one time with your child each day, even if it's only 5 minutes.
The new baby will threaten your child's feelings of security. You child may be wondering at this time, "Do my parents still love me? Is there enough love, time, attention, food, toys, etc. to go around now that I have competition?" Giving your child the gift of very focused, devoted and special attention will strengthen your attachment and help them settle back in to knowing they are loved and safe.
2. Empathize with your child's strong feelings about the new baby. Stay steady yourself.
It is normal for children to experience a wide range of emotions about a new sibling, from love, curiosity, and protectiveness to jealousy, anger, and hatred. What they need most is a parent who can hold their experience, who can calmly say, "You're feeling like it just isn't fair that the baby gets to stay home with me all day and you have to go to school! You're feeling sad and worrying that you might not be so special to me anymore. Of course you are feeling that way. It's so hard! So so so hard!" They need a bigger, stronger, wiser parent who can help them hold and organize these feelings, so that they aren't overwhelmed.
Parents can get pretty freaked out by a child's normal sibling rivalry, wanting to force happy sibling relationships. It can be easy to jump to the worst possible conclusions about this. You might think your child is trying to make family life difficult, behaving like a monster, or will never learn to love their new sibling. None of this is true. Stay steady. The most important reframe for any bad behavior is shifting from blame and taking it personal: "My child is choosing to be difficult to hurt me," to curiosity and some distance: "What about this situation is difficult for my child?"
Healthy sibling relationships are not forced. Never tell a child, "You don't hate your brother, you love your brother!" This dismisses your child's very real feelings and sends a strong message that they cannot trust you with their experience and instead must hide their feelings. Then the jealousy and anger "goes underground" and can rear its ugly head in behavioral problems later on.
3. Reinforce the specialness of your child's role in the family, without adding extra pressure or shame.
It's not a child's job to be a role model or to teach younger siblings: That's a parent's job! Punishing a child because of a younger sibling's behavior adds a layer of stress and responsibility that is unfair.
You can encourage your child that they do know more than the new baby in ways that promote feelings of specialness and competence: "Wow, you know how to drink from a cup all on your own; Your sister is still learning how to use a bottle. One day she will be able to drink from a cup like you."
There are several excellent picture books that promote the development of "big brother/big sister" identity. My favorite is called You Were the First.
4. Maintain strong routines, rituals, and traditions for your child.
As during any major transition, increased structure is so helpful because your child can relax, feeling secure and safe, knowing that "some things never change." Increase the normal amount of routine you have in your life during this time. Add in a picture schedule for your child. Verbally review with your child what is coming up next: "Next we will brush our teeth, then read 2 stories, then turn out the light." Your child also may need extra support with transitions during this time.
This is a time of great change for everyone in the family, and parents from the U. S. are typically stressed, sleep deprived, hormonal, isolated, and running on empty during this time. You can't pour from an empty cup! So do what you need to love on yourself. This is the very best thing you can do to support your children. Here are some self-care ideas if you need a starting place. Take care of your sweet self and those little ones!
Danielle Maxon is a child therapist and Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the State of North Carolina. She has been strengthening families in North Carolina since 2011. In August of 2015 she created her private practice, Under Wing Therapeutic Services, PLLC, which offers parent-child play therapy, parenting support and individual counseling for children under 12. Danielle specializes in the treatment of complex trauma, including profound neglect, orphanage experiences and adoption; gifted and twice exceptional issues; and special sensory needs. She particularly loves helping exasperated, hopeless families and "therapy drop-outs."