My daughter turned 3 just six weeks before becoming a big sister for the first time. Three years old is a momentous stage; your child is truly coming in to who they are, they’re asserting their independence, they’re developing opinions, and they are navigating this big, wild world all while trying to make sense of these larger-than-life emotions. So, to say the least; turning three and then experiencing the biggest change to her life within two months of each other was pretty major.
No matter how cliché it sounds; a sibling is truly the best gift you can give your child. It is so important to foster a healthy relationship between siblings and it can sometimes feel like an overwhelming task; a dance between two developing personalities. It is a constant work-in-progress, and it requires a lot of daily effort on the parents’ side.
When my son was born, my daughter didn’t have outward reactions of jealousy towards him. There were times when she was loving towards him and times when she pretended he didn’t exist. She did, however, ‘regress’ in certain behaviors. She would ask for help in daily tasks which she could previously do independently. We were prepared for this, though, and we didn’t grudge her any babyish behavior if it helped her feel more secure. Now that he is mobile, things are different. He tends to love going towards her blocks creations and this obviously upsets her. It takes a lot of mediation and careful words on my part to ensure the frustration isn’t overwhelming for her.
Here are some ways to help your older child ease into life with a sibling:
1. Adopt the right mindset
The biggest determinant of future sibling relationships in my opinion is how the parents react to the sibling dynamic. Constantly reprimanding your child or shaming them for behaving in an unwelcome way towards their baby sibling will weaken the bond they have. Being told things like “you’re the bigger one”, “don’t be a baby”, “you have to love your baby sibling” will only serve to push a child in the opposite direction. Children (especially toddlers) can feel completely thrown off by the arrival of a new sibling, and with their still-developing brains this can mean a lot of unintentional outbursts on their part. It’s important for you as the parent to be in charge of preserving the relationships; between you and your child and between your children themselves. Doing this becomes a lot easier once you understand that a child cannot be in control of their behavioral responses as often the emotional side of their brain takes control over the rational side. Finally, prepare yourself for these challenges by simply expecting them as part of your daily life.
2. Involve your child in preparing for baby
Apart from simply reading some books about welcoming a new sibling, a great way to include your child is to have them help with all the things to do before baby comes. My daughter helped me wash the baby’s clothes, pack my hospital bag, and choose which blanket and rattle to buy. She also created a black and white piece of artwork which was used as a high-contrast visual stimulant for our newborn; and she was very proud of that.
3. Give your child the ‘helper’ role
Children as young as two can actively participate in taking care for baby by taking dirty clothes to the hamper, fetching clean diapers, choosing outfits for baby, and ‘reading’ to baby. Involve your child as much as possible in caring for baby so that they don’t feel left out or neglected. Always show your child you appreciate their invaluable help by genuinely thanking them and pointing out how their help makes things easier for you.
4. Understand your child’s unique emotional state about the situation
Some children relish feeling like the older sibling, the one who is more worldly than their newborn counterpart! Others simply want the security of feeling like they are a baby again. Understand which of the two it is that drives your child and act accordingly. My daughter (even though she loves being the helper), doesn’t like the idea that she isn’t the baby of the family anymore. It wouldn’t have helped anyone if I tried to ‘encourage’ her in her big sister role by telling her things like ‘you’re the big sister!’. I simply cuddle and rock her any opportunity I have, whilst saying things like ‘you’re my little baby, I love you so much.’
5. Use positive affirmations
There’s something I’ve only recently learnt about young children: they tend to internalize your comments and statements and really adopt them as part of their psyche. So instead of telling my daughter things like ‘you need to be caring towards your brother’ or ‘you have to love each other’, I say things like ‘Haya is such a loving sister,’ ‘Haya loves caring for her brother’ when she shows love towards him. This serves to reinforce the idea in her head and (not so) surprisingly, the next time she does something sweet towards him, she tends to say to herself ‘I am a loving sister’.
6. Validate their emotions
Imagine if you were genuinely upset or stressed about something and your spouse or best friend simply petted you and said ‘you’re fine’, ‘don’t make a big deal out of this’. Frustrating, right? Children need to be respected and have their emotions validated as much as adults. So, pointing out to your child that this is hard situation for them really helps them feel as though you are on their side. Even in the midst of big emotions and outbursts, it is important to go down to your child’s level and say things like ‘I will always love you, I know this is hard, it is not easy having to share mommy and daddy with someone else’. This will often be just the key you need for your child to fully express themselves to you. They might say things like ‘I wish it was just you, me and Daddy again. I wish baby brother was back in your tummy!’ My daughter said this and while I did initially feel overwhelmed by these sentiments, I simply validated them. This will often open the floodgates of tears, which is a good thing as it will help your child process having a new sibling more and accept it as the new normal.
7. Explain about baby’s psychological development
Children surprisingly can understand a lot about baby development! Now that my son is mobile, it was hard for my daughter to understand why he kept gravitating towards all her awesome block creations! She thought he was just out to destroy her hard work. By explaining to her that he doesn’t want to destroy it and that it’s just his way of exploring something he finds very cool, she actually felt complimented. It helps to throw in some dialogue in a baby voice along the lines of, “This is awesome! I wish I could build something this cool!”. I also often casually talk to her about the stages of child development and how this is a phase all babies must pass through so that they can become cool playmates.
8. Make time for some one-on-one bonding with your child.
It’ll be much easier on your older child to accept baby if he/she doesn’t have to resent the baby so much for taking you away.By making space during your week for one-on-one time with your child, you fill their love cup. This special time doesn’t have to be anything elaborate. During quarantine, I’ve simply gone for a drive-thru ice cream or some baking in the kitchen with my daughter as bonding time. I also make sure I don’t label it as ‘special-time’ as I don’t want her to associate the absence of her brother as ‘special’! I simply suggest doing something together without pointing out that it is time with just me.
9. Have a dedicated space for your older child where they can be alone with their toys.
This could be a small gated off area of your living room, or even your child’s own bedroom. By giving them a space where they can be completely play to their heart’s content without risking a baby exploring their toys