For most people, the sibling relationship is the longest interpersonal relationship they will have in their lifetimes. Few other people in your life will know you, especially so closely, from nearly the time of your birth until, hopefully, the last years. While many adults do not get along with their siblings or have lost the closeness of those relationships, adults who do maintain close ties with their siblings have an invaluable relationship that is unlike any other. Parents can help plant the seeds for such rewarding relationships while children are young by handling sibling rivalry and teaching siblings to respect each other and value their relationship.
Before the birth
There are lots of positive but unobtrusive ways you can prepare your child emotionally for the arrival of a new brother or sister. Preparing the child for the new arrival will depend on her age.
If your child is a toddler...
- Draw her attention to families where there are more children.
- Point out - in books or everyday life - brothers and sisters playing together and talk positively about the fun of having someone to share things with.
- Encourage independence skills, such as getting her own shoes or fetching crayons from the toy box. You'll need her to do things for herself when you're occupied with the baby.
- Get your child used to playing quietly by herself. It'll allow you to breastfeed later on without worrying that she's bored or about to have an accident.
If your child is older...
- Older children will want to know more - showing them their own baby pictures, pregnancy pictures and their own ultrasound pictures can help them understand what is going to happen.
Telling your child - what not to say!
How and how much you talk about the new baby can have an important influence on your child's attitude and future behavior towards the new arrival.
- Tell your toddler too early. Even six months is an awful long time to wait for a toddler – and you'll get fed up of the questions starting 'But when…?. Leave it until the five or six month stage, when you're visibly pregnant.
- Talk in too much detail about what your toddler will do with the new baby. You don't want to commit yourself to something that just doesn't work in practice.
- Talk too much about the baby or pay undue attention to other people's babies. If your toddler feels displaced, jealousy could lead to disruptive behavior when the baby's born.
- Blind her with science! When she asks how the baby got into your tummy, keep explanations simple.
- Tell her that she's going to have a playmate. Babies won't be that for months. Instead, give her a sense of importance by telling her how helpless the baby will be.
Just after the new arrival
Be prepared for children to be jealous of a new sibling, particularly of the attention the new baby gets from mom. When all adults in the household are equally involved in caring for all the children, the transition is generally less stressful for older siblings. Involve older siblings as much as possible with the care of the new baby, depending on their capabilities. Most children will be very curious about the strange new creature in their lives and will be delighted to hold it (with plenty of supervision, of course). However, do not be dismayed if a child tires of this or does not show interest; an older child should never be made to feel responsible for the care of the new baby. Forcing an older child to care for a younger sibling while he or she is still dealing with changes in the parent-child relationship may engender resentment towards the younger sibling as well as the parents.
A small gift at the time of the birth is a good way to distract an older child from thinking about the attention she is losing. If the gift is said to be from the new sibling, this could even help foster positive feelings towards the baby. Obviously this won't work for children much older than three or four, but a gift from the parents could still work for older siblings. Remember, however, that gifts will not substitute for affection and time spent with the older sibling. Make sure the child feels valued and loved, and be understanding with temper tantrums and emotional outbursts. Continue being firm, but help the child talk about her feelings.
Down the road
At some point during the first or even second year of the new sibling's life, the older sibling, especially a toddler, may revert back to some infantile behaviors. Potty training will be more difficult, and getting an older child to give up a pacifier may be trying. Older siblings may suddenly want to be carried more, want to play in the baby's crib or sit in the high chair. A little indulgence and patience in these situations will usually get you through. The older child will usually realize rather quickly that acting like a baby isn't really all that fun, and that he or she gets more privileges as a big boy or girl. If their actions get tiresome however, try a short experiment with the older sibling. Propose that you treat her like a baby for a morning, stressing all of the things babies can't do (they can't walk, can't talk, have to take more naps, etc.). This might convince an older child that they have it pretty good. In addition, letting them have a new pet or giving them some new privileges can help convince them that being the big sibling has its advantages.
Wherever children are in their lives, do not compare them to their siblings, and never let them feel that one sibling is valued more than another. Even the slightest hint of favoritism will be picked up by children. Learn to value each child for his or her special qualities, and value the differences among your children. Encourage each child to be his or her own personal best, not to live up to standards anyone else has set for them.