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Birth of a Sibling

Recent question and answer:

“Hello, I love your advice! Do you have any new ideas about bringing a new baby into the family? I have a daughter who just turned two and a new daughter who is a month old. As one would expect, some days are good and others are not. I’m just wondering how I can make it easier for my 2-year old to understand and deal with her new sister. We did books and shows before her sister was born, but that doesn’t seem to take away her anger.”

First of all, let your daughter be angry. She has been replaced and feels as you would feel be if your husband brought home a new wife. Do not let her act on her anger (my husband caught his 2-year-old son about to clobber his newborn brother with a toy hammer!) but let her express it.

Whenever a child exhibits strong emotions all parents need do is tell the child, “I understand how you feel.” You do understand why your little girl feels the way she does, so tell her you understand. It helps if you can share a story from your own childhood about how you felt when a younger sibling came along. (Or make one up, be creative.)

Strong negative emotions like anger are difficult for parents to deal with. Our usual practice is a form of parental denial. We desperately want the child’s anger to go away but it doesn’t help to say things like, “Sweet big sister, you are not angry at the baby, you love your baby sister.” Such words can make things worse because the child knows she is angry but Mommy says she’s not. This is confusing for a child who doesn’t yet have a vocabulary to express herself. It may actually lead to escalation of her anger, or attempts to act out on her anger, because she wants to convince you of how she feels.

Actually, although you followed the conventional wisdom advice about preparing the older child for the birth of a sibling, telling a child about the baby-to-come can have a downside. We, and all the picture books about the new arrival, stress how much fun it will be to have a playmate. True statement. But newborns won’t be a playmate for quite a while so the older sibling may get angry. Your daughter may have thought the baby would arrive ready to play with her so she is disillusioned and disappointed.

There is another step after reading books about the arrival of a new sibling we don’t usually think of. Parents should give the child an opportunity to think about feelings as well as facts. (“How will you feel when Mommy is busy taking care of the new baby? “How will you feel when your new baby takes away your toy?”). Two is pretty young to expect a discussion about feelings but at least you can bring up the idea that things will be different around here pretty soon. Also be informative. Show the older child where the baby will sleep and where the baby’s clothes and toys will be kept. Explain about breastfeeding and how much babies cry. Remind her you picked her up when she cried.

Now, even though you are busy recovering from childbirth and caring for a newborn, it’s important to spend time with your daughter, one-on-one special time. Focus on the things she likes or needs to do right now. You hold the baby a lot, so hold her, cuddle her, rock her. Also do grown-up things baby can’t do like bake cookies and go on the swings. Consider getting her a baby doll so she can dress and “feed” it. Ask for her help caring for the baby and make it easy (if you place the diapers on a low shelf she can bring them to you and be praised for doing so).

Don’t overdo the bit about loving her maturity. “It’s so nice to play with you because you can talk!” To quote what I said in my first parenting book, “A child who is getting parental praise for maturity may be shaken to see that no amount of mature behavior elicits as much parental attention as the infant’s infantile behavior.”

When your elder daughter knows you still love her and will still spend some time with her, her anger will dissipate. Will it ever go away? Some sibling rivalry always persists at some level, but by college I bet your girls will at least tolerate each other or may actually be friends!

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