Sometimes an attack of sibling rivalry can take you by surprise; children are generally excited about welcoming a new brother or sister.
However, once the new little person arrives, the reality of limited attention and greater expectations placed upon them can leave children feeling “confused and upset,” says clinical psychologist, Dr Martine Prunty.
What to expect when you’re expecting
Your child’s age will impact on the range of behaviours your child may exhibit if they are experiencing the green eyed monster, says Jackie Yuen, Psychologist at Youthrive Integrated Therapy Services.
Should these develop, fear not, they are pretty normal, and can be worked through as a family.
- 18 months: they may have trouble sharing attention, and may grieve the loss of their life/world before their sibling arrived; which can translate to tantrums, or taking their siblings’ belongings
- Two to three years of age: they may regress in routines such as toileting, wanting to co-sleep and/or fighting over sleep rituals, may have nightmares, or start verbalising (“I want you to play with me”)
- Four to five years of age: This age group may think or feel they’re not included, and ask to be breastfed or spend more time stopping to show you what they can do – this helps them feel they’ll engaged your attention (yep, this is a positive thing!)
What can you do to help them prepare?
There are things you can do to help prepare them and help them work through any issues when bubs comes home – and your child’s developmental stage may affect how well they can share your attention.
Here are Dr Prunty’s recommendations by age:
- Children younger than age 2: Young children likely won't understand yet what it means to have a new sibling. This age bracket can be very challenging as their need for time with their parents is still significant and they also require help with many tasks.
“Talk to your child about the new addition to your family. Look at picture books about babies and families. Have a special box of toys that only comes out at times you need to do something time-consuming with your newborn; for example, breastfeeding.”
- Children ages 2 to 4: Sometimes kids in this age bracket can seem unwilling to share your attention with a newborn. “Explain the baby will need lots of attention and encourage your older child's involvement by taking him or her shopping for baby supplies,” she says.
You can also read to your older child about babies, brothers and sisters, give your older child a doll so that he or she can be a caregiver, too, or look at your older child's baby pictures together and tell the story of his or her birth
- School-age children: Older children might feel jealous of how much attention a new baby gets. Talk to your older child about your newborn's needs. Point out the advantages of being older, such as going to bed later and being able to go to a friend's house.
“You might display your older child's artwork in the baby's room or ask your older child to help take care of the baby.”
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There are a range of things both parents can do to help your eldest child (or children) navigate the first few months of ‘sharing’ their parents with a new sibling, regardless of their age.
Dr Prunty recommends:
- Set aside special time for your older child. Each parent should spend some one-on-one with the older child every day
- Listen to how your child feels about the baby and the changes in your family. Empathise with your older child if they express any aspects of having a baby sibling that they are finding hard. Help your child put their feelings into words
- Have the new baby and older child exchange gifts
- Give them special jobs that they can do to help the family and help with the baby’s care. This helps them to feel like they are contributing to this new experience and that they are a valued member of the family
- Let them participate in the baby’s care—baths, dressing, pushing the stroller, etc.
“Despite your dedicated attempts to help your child adjust, they may still try to get attention by breaking rules. Try to ignore any behaviour that you consider ‘annoying’, and only address behaviour that is dangerous or not negotiable for other reasons. Instead, praise your child when they are behaving well,” says Dr Prunty.