So, you’re having another baby! Congratulations! Now, don’t panic. How do you prepare your firstborn?
I will cover some essentials which include how to respond compassionately and confidently to your firstborn’s challenges.
One of the first images that comes to my mind is that of parents excitedly telling their firstborn that he’s going to have a sibling. How exciting! Some common phrases used are: “You’re going to be such a wonderful big brother.” “You’re going to love your little sister;” “How lucky your
baby brother is to have a big sister like you;” “You’re going to be such good friends;” “You’re going to have someone to play with.” It’s natural to paint a rosy picture, hoping our firstborn will behave according to these expectations and adore his new sibling. But, sibling relationships,
like all meaningful relationships, take time to grow. It is important to prepare our firstborn for the realities of a sibling. “Mommy and Daddy will be very tired.” “Baby will need Mommy’s (and Daddy’s) attention a lot just like you did when you
were tiny.” “You can be a big help.”
Expect more love. Expect more joy, work, frustration, anxiety and fatigue. It’s another part of life and it’s worth it!
Over the years, many parents have reported an easy, loving and affectionate transition. Sometimes there is little “acting out” on the part of the firstborn. But, be ready for anything. Here are just a few responses of firstborns that parents have shared with me over the years:
“Can we keep IT in the backyard?” “Can we throw it in the garbage?” “Put it back.” “Let’s give him away.” “I don’t like him.” “I hate him.” “I love her .” “Put her down.” “Don’t hold her!” “Do we have to keep him?” “Can we get a dog instead?” “Can I sleep in the same bed with her?” “I want to play with her.” “I want to hold her.” The list goes on and on.
These are actually age-appropriate responses. If we focus too much on our firstborn’s outer behavior, we might lose sight of his internal motivating feelings. It is essential to keep your fingers on the pulse of your older child’s world. Understand that the birth of a sibling is a huge
and often traumatic event and how you interact with him can set the stage for years to come. Your firstborn should feel safe to express himself. Even though he knows that he’s expected to be gentle, at times he might not have the impulse control as his emotions will vary from hour to hour. As tired as new parents are, it is important to observe and to set safe boundaries for your firstborn, physically and emotionally – boundaries enforced with predictability – combined with kindness and firmness. He needs to be listened to and not shamed. This is a time for parents to avoid admonitions such as, “That’s not nice.” “I don’t want you to say things like that.” “That’s mean.” “Don’t talk that way.” “You’re going to love her.” “I know you really love him.” “Grow up!” (That one really gets me.) “You’re a big girl now.” If you express disapproval, you’re
sending the message that it’s not OK to have feelings that aren’t “nice.” But your toddler DOES have these very big feelings and it’s normal. He needs his parents and trusted caregivers to help him safely process and navigate these feelings – to make sense of them and to self-regulate. This is the time to reinforce the foundation of trust that you’re building which supports authentic communication and respectful attachment. Our children can process and make sense of most situations as long as we validate their reality. It is the denial of reality that creates crazy-making, anger, self-doubt and causes repression of feelings.
Try to avoid overly praising your toddler with “good job,” or by giving some kind of reward every time he expresses positive feelings toward his sibling. Otherwise, you might get the desired behavior, but it would be outer-directed with approval as the goal instead of motivated by intrinsic satisfaction. It’s fine to honestly express your happiness that he loves his baby sister, but I suggest keeping your responses low-key and authentic. If and when he is angry and jealous, be his steadfast advocate by acknowledging the reality of those feelings and helping
him find a safe outlet. Understand that it’s hard learning how to deal with all these big feelings but even so, baby sister must always be treated gently. As you acknowledge his feelings, use understandable, age-appropriate words with the knowledge that this new situation is difficult
for him. Some authentic responses might be: “I see this is hard for you.” “You had all my attention and it must be hard to have to share me with your brother.” “Thank you for telling me. You have a lot of big feelings.” “I hope one day you’ll feel differently but let’s figure out
what we can do to help you now.” “I’m so tired and I really want to spend some special time with you and without baby.” Help him find a place to safely redirect feelings within secure and predictable boundaries. Do not distract. While correcting and disciplining, remember that
discipline should be instructive and never punitive.
In conclusion, please be kind and forgiving not only to your child, but also to yourselves. If you were perfect parents, you would be impossible role models for your children to live up to. You’re going to make mistakes and that’s OK. How you deal with your mistakes is how your
children will deal with theirs. Try your best and acknowledge your successes and your mistakes. I wish you and your expanding family all the happiness and joy that comes with the challenges of the future. It’s a worthwhile and wonderful journey.
Wendy Kronick is a RIE Associate facilitating classes at the RIE Center Hollywood.
Originally appeared in the FORM newsletter