How can we help our child deal with a new sibling?

My son is 9 years old and he has been an only child until now…when a new sibling was born. He was initially very excited about it, but he has now become resentful, saying that he hates the baby and yelling at her, etc. I understand how hard it must be for him to see his mother who was until now 100 percent his become busy 75 percent of the time with another child. How can I help him?

Adjusting to the birth of a baby sibling is often a difficult process. It’s easy to get excited about the birth of a baby brother or baby sister during the pregnancy, but living with a baby is often a different story, and many siblings (and their parents!) are sometimes surprised by how hard of a transition it can be. In addition to sharing their home with a loud, stinky baby, older siblings have to get used to sharing their parents’ attention. This adjustment might be even more difficult now, during the pandemic, as many children have gotten used to having their parents around them all day, every day. Additionally, many children have limited opportunities for playing with their friends and, as a result, may rely even more on their parents as their primary playmates.

I think the main goal with helping your son adjust to the birth of his baby sibling is making sure that he still knows that he is not losing you as a parent. This can be conveyed in a direct manner, such as by reassuring your son that he will always be your son, that he is special (as your first-born, perhaps), and that you will always do your best to give him all the time, energy and attention that he needs. This can also be conveyed in other ways, such as by making sure to carve out some time just for him. For some kids, familiar activities that you did before the baby was born might be comforting. For other kids, a novel activity, like a new Lego set or an excursion might be extra-special. During the pandemic, it may be tough to plan something outside of the house, and it could also be hard to find additional childcare (ideally, it would be nice to have a full hour or two of mom-son time, which is tough with a newborn). In our current scenario, he (and you) may have to be flexible, such as by planning special mommy-son time during naptime or thinking of activities that you can do while you have your baby strapped in a baby carrier.

Another good approach is to empathize with your son. Having a newborn is a difficult time for being a parent, too. You can commiserate about the hard things, like the midnight crying and stinky diapers. It may also help to talk about the fact that his baby sibling will not be a baby forever. As a parent, I felt like the first few months were the hardest months, and newborns aren’t too much fun for older sibs. But by 8 or 9 months of age, when most babies are crawling, laughing, playing with toys and playing peekaboo, babies are pretty cool, even to a 9-year-old. By that time, the baby won’t require quite as much physical support (like holding, rocking and feeding). Bigger infants tend to sleep better at night, go to bed early, and take longer naps, which may free you up to spend more quality time with your son and even establish specific times for just you and him. If your son can recognize that this stage of your family’s life is just temporary, he might have more flexibility when it comes to the hard parts of life with a newborn baby in the home.

Regarding the yelling, it is not uncommon for older siblings to have some angry and aggressive urges and, as long as he does not do anything that will actually harm the baby, I think the best approach is to draw a clear boundary (i.e., “you may not hit the baby…) and talk about things that he can do when he is angry at the baby (…but you can go in your room and scream into a pillow”). More generally, I would try not to make too big of a deal out of the yelling, as it could just reinforce the behavior (i.e., cause your son to yell at the baby anytime he wants to get your attention). Trying to empathize with him and normalize the behavior can help make it seem like not such a big deal.

Major life transitions are always tough, and your son has dealt with at least two major transitions during 2020. The most important thing for your son to know is that his feelings are normal, that things will change with the passage of time, and that you still love him. Regarding this last one, he might feel that if you love the new baby too much, you might not love him as much as you did before the baby was born. You can reassure him by telling him that your love is not like a cookie that he has to break in half to share with his baby sibling. Instead, your love is like a balloon that gets bigger as your love for his baby sibling (and for him) grows.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Michael Mintz Michael Mintz, PsyD, is a bilingual, attending clinical psychologist at the Child Development Clinic of Children's National with an expertise in autism-spectrum disorders.

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