Sibling rivalry or jealousy should be expected when a family experiences a big change, whether it’s a new family member, illness, birthday, graduation and so on.
Children’s jealousy is normal and will last well into adulthood. You can do all the right things and still have sibling rivalry problems among your children. Understand your children’s feelings and help them express them. Help them derive the most pleasure and love possible from the wonderful experience of being a brother or sister.
BRINGING HOME A NEW BABY
Sibling rivalry often begins when a new baby comes home. Experts say children between the ages of 18 months and 3˝ years are most likely to feel and express rivalry with a new baby. They’re afraid the new arrival will steal their parents’ love and attention.
Kids can become confused and overwhelmed with feelings at this time: love and hate for you, the baby and even themselves. They’re proud to be older than the baby, but wish they could be babies again.
But jealousy doesn’t occur just when the new baby arrives. For some families, it goes on for decades. Expect rampant rivalry from an early age with twins, especially a boy-girl duo. Sibling fights over what’s “fair” and who’s getting what privileges can make parents tear their hair out.
Kids learn that the fastest and most reliable way to get attention is to misbehave. The whining, fretting and fussing busy parents try to ignore may become an ear-piercing scream that will bring them running.
There is a range of cues that signal the child’s feelings. Extremes are hitting or biting, but sibling rivalry may be expressed in many ways, including the following:
- Avoiding any contact with a new baby
- Verbal rejection
- Destruction of property
- Abuse of pets
- Resistance at bedtime
- Attempts to suck on the baby’s bottle
- Reduced pleasure in playing alone
- Increased requests for parents to play
- Persistent negativism
- Food spills
- Crying outbursts
- Hitting the parents
- Hitting, tormenting or trying to hurt the baby
- Regressions in toilet-training, everyday tasks and vocabulary
Beware of the young child who does not express any negative feelings about a new baby. It’s quite possible the child has strong negative feelings, but is afraid to show them, or doesn’t know how. Help your child be honest about how she feels.
HOW TO COPE
Accept your child’s jealous feelings, but never ignore harmful actions. A jealous child may try to sneak a pinch of a sibling’s arm right in front of you.
Deal with that anger immediately, or next time, it will be worse. Say, “I know how mad you get at the baby, but I can’t let you hurt her. Leave the room until you can keep from hitting!” Later, discuss her feelings. Let her play-act how she feels with puppets, dolls or drawings. Keep your explanations short, and demonstrate your love and concern.
Take heart. Your child doesn’t want to hurt his new sibling; he’s just having trouble coping with all that is happening in the family. If the reaction is babyish behavior that persists, be consistent. Treat the inappropriate behavior as you would other behavior problems. Point out the advantages of being older. Give compliments and privileges.
Most of all, tell your child, over and over, how much you love her. Reassure her that no matter how many children you may have, your love for her will always be as great as if she were the only one. You have enough love for everyone.
Other coping strategies:
- Be smart. If Johnny needs a drink of water every time you sit down to feed the baby, set a glass of water on the counter before you sit down. You’ll find Johnny suddenly isn’t thirsty at those times any more.
- Give older kids household chores so they can enjoy their new status as competent helpers. It may be as simple as bringing you a new diaper for the baby or clearing dinner plates.
- Give older kids — especially preschoolers — some undivided attention every day. Even 10 minutes of quality time while the baby naps may be all she needs.
- Give your older child a special doll and equipment to experience “pretend” bathing, bottle-feeding and rocking.
- Remind your older child that you performed the same tasks for her as you’re now doing for the new arrival. Give praise on all she has accomplished since then.
- Get help from family, neighbors and friends. They can all spend time making your older child feel loved and important.
- Help your child develop new interests, friends, hobbies and skills. Bring the jealous feelings out in the open. Manage them with honesty. Don’t be surprised if they disappear.
You can’t really prevent sibling rivalry, but you can try to head off the worst of it by taking some steps when you discover that another child is on the way.
Birth preparation classes for kids are a great way to introduce your child to the world of sibling-hood. Ask your local hospital about them. And as you prepare for your baby’s birth, ask your child’s doctor, as well as your obstetrician and maternity staff, about allowing him to visit you and the new baby in the hospital. Including your child in the excitement of the new arrival — instead of leaving her at home or with a sitter — can make her feel more included.
Don’t keep your pregnancy a secret from your child, but do respect his concept of time. You may discover your pregnancy in the second or third month, long before you begin to show, and 6 or 7 months is an eternity to a small child. Tell your child about the new baby when you begin to show. Include her in the preparations as much as possible.
And as your pregnancy progresses, be honest with your older child: Make it clear that it will be a long time before the baby can be a playmate. Explain that you may be busy and tired but will always have “special time” each day for him.
If you need to switch an older child into a bed to free a crib for the new baby, or into another room to make space, do so months before you deliver. These kinds of transitions are difficult enough for a young child. Combined with the arrival of a new sibling, they can make the child feel as if she is being rejected in favor of the baby.
WHEN TO CALL THE DOCTOR
If you become concerned about sibling rivalry, consult your child’s doctor.