Introducing a new sibling can be a challenge for your older child or children. Positive Parenting expert Kelly Bartlett shares strategies to make the transition smooth.
Adding a new baby to the family is an exciting time for families. Children especially feel that eagerness as they hold their new baby brother or sister for the first time; they finally get to see who has been inside of mom’s growing belly all these months!
Their initial enthusiasm may fade, though, as the weeks go on and the reality of a baby’s needs sets in.
Most parents see changes in behavior in their older children sometime during the first year after a new sibling is born. Parents may see a once-agreeable child acting out, becoming defiant, or beginning to show behavior struggles at school.
It’s completely normal and healthy
This is normal; a child’s natural growth compounded with the stress of adjusting to a new family member can be overwhelming. It can cause her to think differently about herself and to behave differently as she tries to find her place in the family. When you’re introducing a new sibling, an older child’s place in the family has changed, and she has difficulty understanding that it’s not a replacement, but simply a re-adjustment. Like everything in child development, this transition takes time.
According to Dr. Jane Nelsen, parent educator and author of Positive Discipline, what kids need most is a sense of significance and belonging, and this need is often most persistent after the birth of a new sibling.
Nelsen says, “Significance and belonging are what all children and adults strive for; we want to know that we matter and that we have an important place in the world.” To a child, that ‘world’ is his family, and the arrival of a new sibling can disrupt any sense of security that he had in it. When he no longer feels that he belongs, those feelings are inherently reflected in his behavior.
Dr. Nelsen says, “A misbehaving child is a discouraged child.” Misbehavior is the result of a child’s subconscious belief about himself that he is unloved or unimportant.
He may act out to try to reconfirm his parents’ love, or try to reestablish his own sense of significance. “It is important for parents to realize that a child’s difficult behavior is the result of feeling discouraged about his place in the family. Rather than being punished, that child needs to be encouraged,” says Nelsen.
And there are many ways to offer it.
Offer plenty of verbal encouragement
The most recognizable form of encouragement is the use of verbal statements like, “Thank you for helping me make dinner. I really appreciate it!” or, “Wow, you sure worked hard on that Lego tower. That was a lot of work,” or, “You must feel so proud of yourself right now!”
Encouraging words like these are more effective than statements of blanket praise like, “You’re such a good sister,” as they focus on the child’s efforts and help her develop an internal sense of pride.
Offer emotional encouragement
A less obvious, yet vital kind of encouragement is the validation of feelings. Anytime a parent validates a child’s feelings—whether those feelings are positive or negative—they are telling that child, “It’s OK to feel that way; it’s normal,” and children need to hear this.
It lets them know that they’re unconditionally accepted in the family: exactly what a newly older sibling needs. Parents can help children feel secure by allowing, articulating, and accepting all of their feelings—pleasant or not.
Help your older child build self-confidence
When kids begin to act out after a new baby comes home, what is most likely happening is that they are mistakenly thinking that they must regain Mom and Dad’s attention to secure their place in the family. The message coded in their behavior is, “Notice me! Involve me usefully!”
It’s not uncommon for your older child to start saying, “Look at this!” or “Look at me!” more often when a new sibling comes into his or her life.
Parents can give even very young children jobs to help out; opportunities to be noticed and become involved.
They can help set the table, wash the windows, prepare food, shop at the store, get themselves dressed, take charge of their routines, help themselves to their own snacks, pour their own drinks, wipe the table, and many other age-appropriate tasks. These are the kinds of activities that give kids confidence and help them feel like valued, contributing members of the family.
Give one-on-one encouragement
When a new baby comes home, give your child a gift: the gift of time. The best gift for an older sibling is simply a parent’s regular focus connecting with them during this difficult transition (and beyond).
After the birth of a new sibling is a perfect time to start scheduling regular “special time” together, during which the child leads the play for 15-20 minutes every day. It is a daily opportunity to ensure some valuable one-on-one time with older children, and kids look forward to this regular part of the day with each parent. It communicates to a child, “I’m here for you. You are important.”
When children become new older siblings, parents can help kids feel secure by understanding and responding to the motivation behind their behavior—that instinctive pursuit of significance and belonging—more so than the behavior itself. Children need to be encouraged to realize their place in the family. They are significant and they do belong, and they need to know that.
Latest posts by Kelly Bartlett (see all)
- Small Person, Big Changes: Introducing a New Sibling - January 28, 2019
- Easing Empty Nest Transitions - August 28, 2015
- Simple Tips for Setting Effective Screen Time Limits - June 19, 2015