What’s the key to making the transition to brother or sister a happy first few years? YOU and your attitude and actions.
Over the months and years, you will be presented with many opportunities to build a bond between siblings and decrease sibling rivalry. There is so much you can do to help the sibling transition be a happy one- but when you are overwhelmed and flooded- just remember these two ideas: empathy and connection.
I remember so clearly a challenge from my early days as a mother- a day when I could have remembered more empathy and compassion: One lovely day in early summer, my 3 year old son, his baby brother and I needed an adventure. Lee was waiting patiently as I got us ready to go. With a new baby- it took forever. I got everything together, nursed the baby, changed him, nursed him again and changed him *again* (that newborn feed-poop-feed cycle!) Finally ready- let’s go!
I had the baby in the stroller and was about to take Lee’s hand when out of nowhere he turned and kicked me in the shin- hard! I was blind-sided. I had been working so hard to take him somewhere really fun. And he hurt me- on purpose.
I burst into tears. After I recovered, we went on our outing but the day was dampened for me- and probably for him as well. Before we had the baby, he had never done anything like this. Something was wrong. What could I have remembered in that moment- and in our transition time- that would have made everything so much happier?
Empathy and connection.
Print these two words out and hang them everywhere. When you can’t manage anything else- remember empathy and connection.
Empathy for your older child is a hug and words of understanding. Empathy is not taking it personally when your child misbehaves- she just wants to show you how she is hurting. Empathy shows your older child that you get it. You know how hard it is to have to share you. You see how he is grieving. You understand her mixed emotions.
How do we show empathy? Her mixed feelings are normal and appropriate. Validate your child’s feelings (you don’t have to agree with them!) Let her know how you feel about her.
Your child says: “I wish we could send the baby back. I hate the baby!”
You say: “You don’t like the baby. You wish you could send him back. I understand why you feel that way. I love you darling and you are my special daughter, my one and only (your child’s name.) Nothing will ever change that.”
We are so tempted to say: “Of course you love the baby! He’s your brother!” It can be scary for us when our child expresses such negative thoughts. But don’t worry– it’s totally normal. In fact- the only way to help your child get over these feelings is to acknowledge them. Denying your child’s feelings won’t make her not feel them. She needs to know that all her feelings are okay with us.
(If you’re still having trouble getting to empathy- imagine this: Bringing home a new baby is the equivalent of your partner bringing home a new wife. (analogy courtesy of Siblings Without Rivalry authors Faber and Mazlish) You are so wonderful he wants to have another wife just like you. And the new wife will be such good company for you! And everywhere you go people admire the new wife and want to give her presents. How would you feel?)
The second key to a happy sibling transition is connection.
A warm and close connection with your older child makes the transition much easier.
Your child is grieving the end of a just the two (or three) of you relationship. He sees less of you, has less of your attention, and worries that you have replaced him.
What can you do to increase connection with your older child?
- Make sure that you are still doing some primary care taking of your child. It’s understandably tempting to make changes to your routine. Perhaps your partner has started doing bath and bedtime while you’re with the baby. As much as you can, continue to caretake your older child.
- Do Special Time with your child. Special time will fill your child’s cup and build connection with you. Every day is the intention- here’s a great article about how to do Special Time.
- Keep your relationship warm. Your child may be acting out during this transition. Avoid power struggles as much as possible and err on the side of going easy on your older child. Now is not the time for working on manners or correcting bad habits.
- Cultivate positive intent. Positive intent is assuming that your child is doing the best he can. Look for the good. What you focus on grows.
(These concepts apply for every age. Some people think younger than 2 year olds don’t notice or older children are better equipped to handle the transition. Children of every age grieve the loss of you. Accepting your child’s feelings- and empathizing with them- is the only way she will be able to process them and let them move through her. Connecting with your older child will make him feel he hasn’t lost you. Children who are younger may not understand your words, but your understanding tone and loving actions will be felt and absorbed.)
So back to that sunny day on the porch 12 years ago: I now know what was going on and what I should have done.
My son kicks me in the shin. What I did: I burst into tears and ran inside. What I should have done: Act on the two big ideas of happy sibling transitions- empathy and connection.
Here’s my do-over–
Me: “Ouch! That hurt!” (I take a few deep breaths and get down on his level and gently put an arm around him)
“Oh sweets- you had to wait so long while I was getting your brother ready, didn’t you? It’s so hard to wait and you were being so patient. Were you trying to tell me you were mad and frustrated?”
Lee: “I hate the baby! He wrecks everything.”
Me: “You miss when it was just the two of us. You wish the baby wasn’t here.”
Lee: “Yeah.” (crying)
Me: “Come here baby. Let’s have a hug.”
Lee: “I’m sorry I kicked you mama.”
In that moment I could have let him know I understood his feelings and provided both of us with a chance for more connection. I needed to remember the two things that change everything when it comes to happy sibling transition: empathy and connection. If you can remember- and act on- those two ideas the first year or so will be so much easier.
I offer virtual and in person workshops:
‘Introducing Another Baby: Big Brother/Big Sister Transition Success!’
“I hate the baby! I wish he never was born. Send him back.”
Learn how to manage this difficult transition BEFORE you hear these heartbreaking words. We will discuss how to best prepare your child for his or her new sibling, how to manage the transition, and how to handle jealousy and aggression should they become an issue. Bonus: Tips for how to manage the challenges of caring for a baby and a small child at the same time!!
Sarah Rosensweet is a certified peaceful parenting coach, speaker, and educator. She lives in Toronto with her husband and three big kids (ages 13, 16, and 20). Peaceful parenting is a non-punitive, connection-based approach that uses firm limits with lots of empathy. Sarah works one-on-one virtually with parents all over the world to help them go from frustrated and overwhelmed to, “We’ve got this!”
Read more at: www.sarahrosensweet.com