We forget sometimes that wonderful events, like a new arrival in the family, can also be pretty stressful. If you look at the scale of life’s most stress-inducing events, the arrival of a new baby is up there with death in the family, divorce and losing a job. And often the one who feels this the most is the older sibling of the new arrival. So how can we help them to cope with this world-changing adaptation to their family?
Accept that this is stressful event. We sometimes become so focused on the positives that we forget that there are downsides, and we forget to discuss these downsides with our existing child. The age of the child will determine what kind of discussion you have, but it can be helpful for a while before bringing up the subject of the new baby to discuss how in life all things have an up and a down side to them. Then when you bring up the topic it can be a continuation of this and you can ask your child to help you to figure out the ups and downs of having a new baby.
Children cope better with all changes if they have some background information. Read them books and watch movies about families having a new baby. Discuss with them the reality of a new baby. We sometimes want to brush over this and just focus on how fun it will be for them to have a new playmate, forgetting that children process the world very literally – a child may assume that they will be able to play soccer or snakes and ladders or hopscotch with the new baby from day one and then become bitter and disappointed when confronted by the reality of a crying, sleeping blob!
Take a look at your current situation and how your child is getting their needs met. We all need some certainty, variety, to know that we are significant and loved, to have growth and challenges and a sense of contribution. Once you know how they’re currently meeting these needs, look at which needs will be challenged when the new baby comes and start finding alternative ways to meet these needs beforehand. For example, if their need for love and attention is currently all being fulfilled by you and you know you will have to divide your attention, start having a grandparent or friend come round and spend extra time with them long before the baby is born so that this becomes an alternate source of love and attention that they are used to and happy with.
Think about where your child will be when you go to have the birth. Will they stay with a grandparent or aunt or friend? Start making this a regular occurrence long before your due date so that they can become comfortable wit the arrangement and even have it as something they look forward to.
Start implementing waiting times. There will be times with a new baby where your older child will have to wait for something while you are feeding or changing or putting the baby to sleep. Get them used to this beforehand. A realistic waiting time will differ depending on your child, but you can safely say that they can handle about one minute for every year of their age. Ask a one year old to wait a minute, a two year old to wait for two. Start doing this regularly when they ask for something or need your help so that they are used to this and don’t blame your lack of immediate attention on the baby.
Once the baby arrives, make sure that you set aside special one-on-one time EVERY DAY with your older child. They will need some extra love and attention. Keep in mind that the baby does not know what it is like to be an only child and will not fuss if they don’t get your undivided attention – your older child will. And never say that you can’t do something because of the baby – find another reason.
A very helpful exercise to do as a family is to all take turns saying what you do and don’t like about the new baby. This gives your child an opportunity to vent feelings in a safe and open way and reinforces your discussions on the good and bad in all things in life. It can help for parents to go first and to genuinely be open about things they don’t like (for example, dad may say that he doesn’t like the baby taking away all his time with mom) – this shows the child that it is ok to have negative feelings, that he/she is normal, and won’t get into trouble for feeling resentful or angry or unloved. Children who are given an opportunity to express their negativity are less likely to act it out in destructive ways.
Getting used to a new sibling can be tough, and even if you implement all of these suggestions you may still find your child becoming angry, resentful, jealous, sullen and even regressing in behavior. Know that this is perfectly normal and be patient. Punishing a child for acting out on feelings they don’t know how to process or express only adds to the negativity. When in doubt, add some extra love and kindness. Good luck!