Preparing for and Adjusting to a New Sibling (page 5)
Q: I am pregnant with my second child and due this summer. My two and a half year old daughter is very excited about the new baby, but doesn’t realize how much her life is going to change. What are some things that I can do to help her prepare for and adjust to her new baby sister?
A: You’re on the right track already, anticipating the emotional ups and downs your older child will experience. You may want to take advantage of the sibling classes recommended by your obstetrician, midwife or birthing facility, and there are a few excellent books at the end of this article to read and discuss with your older child. But her daily interaction with you is of prime importance. Here are a few suggestions that will help you and her to prepare, and then adjust, as your lives change.
Every child has intense feelings of need at times.
Every child has longings for more time and more closeness with her parents. These longings are a big part of why it’s hard to want to go to bed at night, hard to get dressed to go to day care or to Grandma’s, and why it can even be upsetting to see Mommy or Daddy talking, cuddling, or spending time on the computer or telephone! Every child needs a chance to air her feelings about wanting more, indeed, about wanting all your time and attention. It’s these feelings of need that will erupt during your last months of pregnancy, and when a new sibling arrives.
It’s these feelings, stored away and managed most of the time, that cause mischief when a new baby arrives. Your child’s storehouse of “I don’t get enough attention” feelings already has some upsets stored in it from past moments when she longed for you. You’ll want to help her reduce the amount of stored feelings she carries before the baby arrives, and help her with the new feelings that your attention for the baby causes.
With your support, your child’s feelings dissolve as she cries.
This means that you have a golden opportunity to help her when she becomes upset about separation from you. At bedtime, when you go out in the evening, or when you leave her to play with someone else as you do your housework, if she starts to cry, stop and listen to her. Keep telling her that you need to go, but keep listening to her as she cries that you should stay with her, and that she can’t live without you. These are healing tears. They release feelings that, kept stored, will make her feel desperate for your attention, and resentful of the new baby.
She needs the reassurance that you love her and the chance to cry as long as possible to drain the reservoir of sadness about you going. She can best do that with you close, telling her, “I’m going to leave, but I’ll come back. I’ll always come back to you.” Or, in the case of bedtime, “You’re safe here. I’ll be in the next room, and I’ll see you in the morning.” (See our article on the Parents Leadership Institute website, Healing the Hurt of Separation for more on this topic.)
Help her notice your delight and attention.
Another important strategy is to offer your child regular “Special Time” during which you pour on your attention, your approval, and your closeness. During Special Time, you tell her how much time you will devote, and then allow your child to choose what play she wants to do with you. You can start Special Time by saying expectantly, “OK, we have 15 minutes, and I’ll play with you any way you want to!” with a lively tone. Then, keep your attention focused on your child (let the phone ring and postpone your need to clean anything, or even go the bathroom, during this time). It’s surprisingly hard to do for us–because parenting is stressful, we almost always try to teach, try to direct, or try to get little jobs done while we’re playing with our children! What Special Time does is to help your child, and you, too, notice that you are paying loving attention and letting her make the decisions for that limited period of time.
End Special Time after the allotted time has passed (a timer is useful here), and end with warmth and enthusiasm about the next Special Time to come. If your child is disappointed or upset at the end, listen to her cry about wanting more. She is getting rid of feelings from that “I don’t get enough attention” storehouse that you want to address before the baby comes. After a good cry, your child will feel much better, much closer to you.
These two steps, repeated over time, help prepare a child for the challenge of a sibling’s demands on your attention.
Playfully reassure the older child.
After a new sibling has arrived, an older child’s feelings will be both large with love and wonder, and tight with upset about her sibling’s intrusion into her relationship and time with you. One of the more fruitful ways to handle this is to find a way to play “I want you!” with your older child as often as possible. “I want you” games come in 100 variations. You could begin by getting down on the floor and announcing “I have a hundred kisses for you! Where shall I start?!” and crawling awkwardly toward your child. You can make great efforts to get her and cuddle her, and then she can wriggle away and dance just out of reach, laughing while you try to deliver your kisses. Or play can be set up with both parents, one parent playfully pulling the child toward her and saying, “I want to play with Sally!” and the other pulling her back and saying, “No, you can’t have her! I haven’t had enough of her yet today!” If this playful tug-of-war brings laughter, keep playing! It fills up a child’s hunger for attention and importance. Another “I want you” game is to announce, “Where’s Sally!? I HAVE to find Sally! I’m lonesome for Sally!” and to search all around (even though Sally is in plain sight) until you discover her and scoop her up in your arms for lots of cuddles. Holding your older child like a baby, and appreciating her fingers, toes, perfect ears, and beautiful eyes is another kind of sweet play that reassures a child that her uniqueness hasn’t been forgotten.
The laughter your child does while you playfully show that you can’t live without her heals some of the hurt of seeing you attending the other child so often and so lovingly. And it gives you a delightful way to openly appreciate your older child.
Special Time will also help you center your attention on your older child at regular intervals during the week, helping both her and you to plump up your relationship and remember the love you have for each other.
Your love is enough, even when you can’t help right away.
When children cry for more closeness, or get upset because you can’t help them right away, we have an excellent chance to help them to fully release the sadness they feel. When your older child feels needy, you can send her an invitation to be close. A loving look or a tender word, an invitation to come and snuggle your back or sit on your feet or be embraced by your one free arm says, “I want to help” even when you can’t. If your child begins to tantrum or cry, an excellent thing is happening! She’s using the offer of closeness that you gave as the sweetness she needed to begin to release her pent-up feelings of upset. (Sometimes children “work on” their feelings of helplessness, too, and feel like they can’t walk over to you. After they’ve cried awhile, they’ll rediscover their ability to walk again, and will have worked through some outdated feelings that were making them whiny at other times, too.) Crying and tantrums heal the hurt, although by all appearances, your child feels worse than ever while it’s happening. If you keep offering loving words and gentle looks while she works her feelings through, she’ll feel closer to you and much relieved when she’s done, and she won’t be blaming her unhappiness on her sibling. Her unhappiness will have been scrubbed away by the heartfelt emotional work she just did!
Key to this strategy is your understanding that your love is enough, even when you can’t help right away. Your child will notice your attention during an explosion of feelings, even if you’re on the other side of the room. Your voice and your eyes will convey your caring, and help to right the wrongs that your child is feeling. You are not neglecting her, nor are you causing more pain. While you patiently listen to a child cry or tantrum, you are doing a good job as a parent, and your child is doing a good job of getting rid of the bad feelings she doesn’t want to live with.
Move in immediately to stop harsh behavior.
Children who touch too roughly, or hug too tightly, or hit or poke or hurt their siblings are sending clear signals that they have some upsets that need to be listened to. Even very young children can be gentle with younger ones, as long as they are feeling “filled up” with attention, and relaxed. So any sign of harshness from one sibling to another can be taken as a sign that the child is not feeling connected or relaxed enough to function thoughtfully. When you notice that a child has been rough, scolding her or ordering her to do things correctly won’t help. They only frighten your child more, and make it less likely that she’ll be able to act thoughtfully.
What does help is to move in quickly and gently. Very gently but firmly stop the tense child from touching the younger child, but don’t remove her. Say, “I’ll help you be next to Sammy,” and guide her hands or her kisses so that they land softly, Move so that you can make eye contact with the older child, and invite her kindly to take a look at you. Usually, because the child is tense with upset, she can’t look at you for long, and when she tries, the upset begins to make her want to go away. Gently stay with her and keep her close, continuing to let her feel your attention and your support. Usually, the child will move rather quickly into a tantrum or a big cry about wanting you or not wanting you, or about wanting to touch the baby, or not wanting the baby. All those feelings are important facets of the nugget of upset she’s trying to offload. If you stay with her, without criticism, she’ll be able to cry or tantrum it through.
Your child is good.
Every child with siblings has issues sooner or later about wishing her brother or sister away! One young friend of ours was known to make repeated offers to push the baby stroller “All the way back to the hospital!” But try to keep a good perspective: even when consumed with big feelings, your child is good. She’s signaling you for help as clearly and as vigorously as she knows how. You may need some listening time from another adult to remember her goodness. Once your upset isn’t throbbing, you’ll again be able to spend one-on-one time with her, a good first step toward healing her aching heart.
This article is based on Patty Wipfler’s article Sibling Solutions. The full text of that article and other helpful materials may be found on the Parenting by Connection website at www.parentingbyconnection.org.
Reprinted with the permission of Hand in Hand Parenting. © 1997-2011 Hand in Hand
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