6 Strategies to Help Your Older Child Adjust to a New Sibling

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I’ll never forget this moment: We had just brought our second baby home for the first time. I was sitting on the couch attempting to soothe the baby, who was a little fussy and probably hungry — when my older child, then 3 years old, came and sat next to me. He’d been so excited to meet his new sibling and had loved talking and singing to my pregnant belly.

But now he looked at me with tears in his eyes and said, rather emphatically and with a heavy sadness for his age, “Mommy, put the baby down! RIGHT NOW! Put the baby down and give me a hug!!!” I was floored by his plea — I guess I’d just sort of expected him to roll with my needing to attend to the baby — but immediately obliged because I could tell that he really, really needed me. I set the baby down in a safe spot, letting him cry, and hugged my older child.

Getting a younger sibling is a really big deal for children. And it’s a really big deal for a lot longer than we often think it will — or should — be. Older siblings will act out their complicated and often conflicted feelings, sometimes towards the baby and sometimes not, on an off, for months (or even years) after getting a baby brother or sister — long after we assume they’re fine and should have adjusted.

Authors Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish, in their bestselling novel Siblings Without Rivalry, came up with a pretty powerful analogy about this monumental transition in a child’s life: “Imagine that your spouse puts an arm around you and says, ‘Honey, I love you so much, and you’re so wonderful that I’ve decided to have another [spouse] just like you.’” For the many of us in monogamous marriages or otherwise committed relationships, that puts it into perspective real quick.

So how can we ease this transition, especially at a time when our hands are now fuller and our lives are now busier than ever before? Here are six tips to make this adjustment a little bit smoother for the whole family:

  1. Expect some turmoil.

    If you expect only love and cuddles and joy, you’ll have a much harder time rolling with the inevitable challenges than if you go into this transition knowing that it’s is brand new territory, and you don’t really have a roadmap for this new family dynamic just yet. It’s okay. You’re all adjusting. Everyone needs kindness, love, empathy, and probably some forgiveness right now — yourself included.

  2. Allow space for ALL feelings.

    No one likes to hear that their older child “hates” the new baby. Or that she wishes her new sister “would go back where she came from.” Or that you, the loving parents, have “ruined” your preschooler’s life. Those things aren’t easy to hear, and you’re allowed to feel sad or annoyed or disappointed (or all three at the same time) when you hear your child say them… but it’s completely normal, healthy, expected, and OKAY for children to have negative feelings about their new siblings.

    And the more you make your home and your relationship with your child a safe environment wherein to express these feelings, the quicker he will be able to sort through them, release them, and move on towards love and acceptance. You might feel like screaming inside, but remind yourself that this is SO normal, and try to reflect, empathize with, and allow the negative feeling:

    “I hear you. Sometimes it’s really hard having a brother. Sometimes you don’t like him at all.” 

  3. Give it time.

    Your older child will adjust eventually, I promise. Each child is unique in how they’ll navigate this process, but they will all navigate it, and they’ll be most successful with your acceptance and support.

    Keep in mind that, much like any adjustment, the process of accepting a new sibling isn’t linear. Expect negative emotions around this new person to surface intermittently, especially as the younger sibling hits new milestones (like crawling or walking or talking) and can interact with — and interrupt — her older sibling’s world in new ways.

    But over time, you’ll see a trend of more and more positive interactions and more time spent actually playing together. We’re a year and a half in, and it definitely hasn’t always been easy, but my children will often sit together now, “reading” books or playing with blocks or just laughing at who-knows-what together — sometimes for almost 30 minutes at a time! 

  4. Respond to physical aggression with as little alarm as possible.

    It’s going to happen — your older child’s frustrations toward the baby are going to leak out, often in the form of negative physical contact with the baby. Sometimes this is obvious, like hitting, and sometimes it’s a little harder to recognize — like a hug that’s a little too tight. This is normal.

    Children, especially toddlers who are still developing language, often have anxiety about these conflicted feelings and are unsure how to express them. Combine that anxiety with the poor impulse control that is typical during the toddler and preschool years, and you’ve got hitting, kicking, and pushing. These physical responses can be jolting for parents, especially when they’re directed at a baby.

    When you see this happen, it’s so important to intervene calmly and with as little alarm as possible. (If you’re feeling anything but calm, ground yourself in the present moment; remember that this is a normal response from your older child, and it has zero bearing on the future sibling relationship or on your child’s social abilities.)

    For example, stop your older child’s hand, and let him know that “I can’t let you hit the baby.” Or say, “I see you hugging your sister, but I can’t let you hug her that hard. I’m going to help you.” Approach these moments in a collaborative, helping manner, and remind your older child that you love him and that you know it can be hard having a baby around. 

  5. Create a baby-free-zone for your older child.

    I always recommend that parents create a space in their home where nothing is off limits for their child — a “yes space,” as it’s been termed by Janet Lansbury, renowned parenting expert and author of Elevating Child Care. This separate space is even more important once a new baby is on the scene — and especially once the baby is mobile.

    Since it’s impossible to ensure that each child keep to herself in the same space (let’s be real — that’s not happening), it’s ideal to create separate spaces for each child to play so that you have options (bedrooms work great for this, and if they’re sharing a room, the bedroom can be a space where the older child can play uninterrupted while the baby plays elsewhere).

    For us, having separate spaces has worked beautifully. Each child’s room is his “yes space”, and sometimes, like when I’m cooking dinner and need my younger child within earshot, I’ll have both of them in the playroom but give my oldest the option of moving to his room if playing together gets too hard. We phrase this in a way that’s positive, empowering, and never punitive; he feels safe having control over the situation and will often choose to play in his room, where no one will knock over his block tower. 

  6. Carve out some positive, one-on-one time with your older child.

    It’s so true that the love you have seems to grow exponentially when you bring a new child into your family. Unfortunately, though, your time doesn’t grow; it gets divided, more so with each new child you welcome into your family. We can’t change this reality, and we do the best we can to meet everyone’s needs within the time that’s available — but this now-divided time can be stressful for both parents and children.

    One way to help ease this stress is to create some time to be alone with your older child. This time together doesn’t need to be anything fancy; you can take a walk around the block while your partner is with the baby, or you can play a game or read books while the baby is napping. We kept our pre-baby bedtime routine, which had always been special time for my older child and me; baby hung out with Dad, and I got to do bath time and read books with my first baby, which was something we both really treasured.

Every child will go through a major adjustment when a new baby joins the family. Nothing short of actually going through this transition — for as long as the child needs — will allow for her to come out on the proverbial “other side”. But hopefully these tips — and especially the fact that it’s completely normal, expected, and healthy for older children to struggle with a new sibling — will give you some tools and perspective to better navigate this challenging time with your child. You’ve got this.

Dr. Hilary Mandzik is a Licensed Psychologist serving Cary, NC and the Triangle area. She provides support for parents through consultations and workshops in her Cary office and offers online consultations for parents throughout NC and VA. Click here or call 919–344–1296 to schedule a free 15-minute phone consultation to see if working together is a good fit for your family’s needs.