Adding a new baby to the family is an exciting time for families. Children especially feel that eagerness as they hold their new baby brother or sister for the first time; they finally get to see who has been inside of mom’s growing belly all these months! Their initial enthusiasm may fade, though, as the weeks go on and the reality of a baby’s needs sets in. Most parents see changes in behavior in their older children sometime during the first year after a new sibling is born. Parents may see a once-agreeable child acting out, becoming defiant, or beginning to show behavior struggles at school.
This is normal; a child’s natural growth compounded with the stress of adjusting to a new family member can be overwhelming. It can cause your child to think differently about themselves and to behave differently as they try to find their place in the family. When a new sibling comes home, an older child’s place in the family has changed, and they have difficulty understanding that it’s not a replacement, but simply a re-adjustment. Like everything in child development, this transition takes time.
According to Dr. Jane Nelsen, parent educator and author of Positive Discipline, what kids need most is a sense of significance and belonging, and this need is often most persistent after the birth of a new sibling. “Significance and belonging are what all children and adults strive for. We want to know that we matter and that we have an important place in the world,” says Nelsen. To a child, that ‘world’ is their family, and the arrival of a new sibling can disrupt any sense of security that they had in it. When your child no longer feels that they belong, those feelings are inherently reflected in their behavior.
“A misbehaving child is a discouraged child,” says Dr. Nelsen. Misbehavior is the result of a child’s subconscious belief about themselves that they are unloved or unimportant. Your child may act out to try to reconfirm parents’ love, or try to reestablish their own sense of significance. “It is important for parents to realize that a child’s difficult behavior is the result of feeling discouraged about his place in the family. Rather than being punished, that child needs to be encouraged,” advises Nelsen. And there are many ways to offer it.
The most recognizable form of encouragement is probably the use of verbal statements like, “Thank you for helping me make dinner. I really appreciate it!” Or, “Wow, you sure worked hard on that Lego tower. That was a lot of work.” Or, “You must feel so proud of yourself right now!” Encouraging words like these are more effective than statements of blanket praise like, “You’re such a good sister,” as they focus on the child’s efforts and help her develop an internal sense of pride.
A less obvious yet vital kind of encouragement is the validation of feelings. Anytime a parent validates a child’s feelings - whether those feelings are positive or negative - they are telling that child, “It’s okay to feel that way; it’s normal,” and children need to hear this. It lets them know that they’re unconditionally accepted in the family: exactly what a newly older sibling needs. Parents can help children feel secure by allowing, articulating, and accepting all of their feelings - pleasant or not.
Encouragement through self-confidence
When kids begin to act out after a new baby comes home, what is most likely happening is they are mistakenly thinking that they must regain mom and dad’s attention to secure their place in the family. The message coded in their behavior is, ‘Notice me! Involve me usefully!’ Parents can give even very young children jobs to help out; opportunities to be noticed and become involved. They can help set the dinner table, wash the windows, prepare food, shop at the store, get themselves dressed, take charge of their routines, help themselves to their own snacks, pour their own drinks, wipe the dinner table, and many other age-appropriate tasks. These are the kinds of activities that give kids confidence and help them feel like valued, contributing members of the family.
When a new baby comes home, give your child a gift: the gift of time. The best gift for an older sibling is simply a parent’s regular focus connecting with them during this difficult transition (and beyond). After the birth of a new sibling is a perfect time to start scheduling regular ‘special time’ together, during which the child leads the play for 15 to 20 minutes every day. It is a daily opportunity to ensure some valuable one-on-one time with older children, and kids look forward to this regular part of the day with each parent. It communicates to a child, ‘I’m here for you. You are important.’
When children become new older siblings, parents can help kids feel secure by understanding and responding to the motivation behind their behavior - that instinctive pursuit of significance and belonging - more so than the behavior itself. Children need to be encouraged to realize their place in the family. They are significant and they do belong, and they need to know that.
Kelly is the author of Encouraging Words For Kids. She is a Certified Positive Discipline Educator and freelance writer with a focus on child development, family
relationships, and discipline.
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