Becoming a big brother or sister is a defining moment in childhood. Suddenly, the child is no longer the only one in the house, or, if there are already two children at home, they will no longer be the youngest. This can be a time of excitement for a young child, but also a time of great anxiety. What if my parents like the new baby more? What if he is loud? Or smelly? What if I somehow break the baby?
Oftentimes, these fears are what cause children to react negatively to a new brother or sister, either by avoiding the baby, trying to hide from it, or even lashing out.
What to do?
The best way to keep emotions from running too high is to help the child prepare emotionally before the baby is born. Below are a few tips from Emotional Development of Three and Four year Olds that discuss how to ease a child’s anxiety about a new sibling prior to the happy arrival.
If a child begins expressing negative emotions before the baby arrives (throwing tantrums, complaining about the baby, punching the mother’s stomach) ask them how they are feeling and what they think would help. If they say they are worried the family will like the baby more, ask whether hearing their parents say “I love you” will calm them down. If that’s the case, a system can be set up to help them manage those feelings. Each time the child starts to feel anxious and upset, they can say “I love you” to their parents and have the sentiment returned, dispelling their fears. Another way to plan ahead is to read books about characters that become big siblings and talk about how the characters acted and felt in the stories. This provides a template for the child to emulate (or not emulate depending on the book) and shows them the changes that might take place.
Don’t Ignore a Child’s Fears
As grownups, it can be tempting to see a toddler’s anxieties as silly and trivial. Of course the baby won’t steal the toddler’s food—he won’t even have teeth! But for young children, these fears and anxieties are very real. Even at their most irrational, children’s fears greatly influence how they act. Those feelings should be validated even as you explain why there’s nothing to worry about. Provide your child with lots of comfort and support as you discuss their feelings about the baby, giving hugs and telling them it’s okay to be nervous.
Walk Through What to Do
Role play is a powerful tool when it comes to young children. If your child is worried about what they’re supposed to do with the baby, provide some scenarios the two of you can talk through together. What if the baby starts crying when Mommy’s not in the room? What if the baby gets too wiggly while the child is holding her? By providing a set of instructions for what to do, children will feel less uncertain and more confident about the situation.
Use Pretend Play to Reduce Anxieties
Baby dolls are popular toys for a reason! Incorporating infant care into play time is a great way to lessen a child’s stress. Use dolls or teddy bears to show them how to hold a baby, feed one, or put one to bed. Many children love to play at being parents, and this gives them even more context for what having a baby in the house will be like. This kind of play also shows them how much of an active role they will have when the baby arrives. Being a big brother or sister is an important job, so make sure they know just how much their help will be needed and appreciated once the baby is born!