When “The Baby” Isn’t Happy?
We’ve all heard of sibling rivalry. It can start as soon as the new baby is born and last for quite a while. There’s also plenty of advice on how to handle it. But what about rivalry that starts even before the new baby makes his or her appearance?
Nancy Delany of Denver, Colo., had to deal with that problem through much of her second pregnancy. At first her 3-year-old daughter, Heather, seemed fine, but as Delany started to show, Heather began acting out.
“She would scream that she wanted to be the baby and we didn’t need another baby,” says Delany. “As I really started to show, she would push on my stomach and throw her dolls around, pretending they were the baby. I didn’t know where this all came from, and it was very upsetting.”
A Common Problem
Armin Brott, author of Fathering Your Toddler (Abbeville Press, 2005), says sibling rivalry at any age is perfectly normal.”Our first instinct is to tell the child she’s wrong for her aggressive actions, but allowing her to express her anger isn’t such a bad thing,” he says. “We have a tendency to say to our children that you can think or feel that, but that won’t make the feeling go away. In this case, better the doll than the baby.” This is not to say that Brott advocates raising violent children. Rather, he suggests keeping a special doll that’s just for hitting and that no hitting goes beyond that doll.
Brott also says it’s important to explore the child’s feelings to see if there is something concrete the child is fearful about. For example, is the sibling-to-be worried the new baby will take his or her bed or toys? Is it possible that she has a friend who has had a sibling and is sharing her feelings of neglect? Were there changes in a friend’s family, such as divorce, after the birth of a sibling that your child may tie to the event? Brott suggests asking open-ended questions to find out.
“Part of what’s going on is a lack of control on the part of the child,” says Brott. “There’s Mommy and her big belly, and as things get closer and closer she may be feeling a sense of panic.”
Although allowing a child to express his or her anger is OK, it’s also important to try to create an atmosphere of some level of acceptance. Usually that starts in earnest after the baby is born, but for a child who is very upset about the pregnancy, it should start well before the birth. A good beginning, says Brott, is to emphasize the benefits of being an older sibling.
“Make sure the older child knows there are big girl things that only she is able to do and treats that the baby can’t have,” he says. “It’s also good to talk about babies and their needs and how you have to be careful with them, but [explain that] they’re babies and don’t get the special things the older child gets.”
Elizabeth Pantley, author of The No-Cry Sleep Solution: Gentle Ways to Help Your Baby Sleep through the Night (McGraw-Hill, 2002), says older children also need a realistic vision of what the baby will be like and how it will relate to them.
“Before the baby entered your family, your first child was told he’d have a wonderful little brother or sister to play with and how much fun it would be,” says Pantley. “Then the baby is born and, instead of being a playmate, he’s a squirming, red-faced baby that takes up all the parents’ time and attention. He then tries to ‘play’ with the baby in the only ways he knows how: He plays catch; you yell at him for throwing toys at the baby. He plays hide-and-seek; you yell at him to get the blanket off the baby. He gives the kid a hug, and you admonish him to be more careful.”
Pantley says it’s infinitely better to make sure your child knows that the baby is going to be completely helpless and dependent on the bigger people in the house for a while. And Brott says a parent can even help a child learn how to deal with the baby by using a baby doll as long as the child is amenable. Don’t force it on him.
Brott notes that sibling rivalry has probably been around as long as there have been siblings, but people probably just worry about it more now. “These days it seems that people aren’t confident in their own parenting,” says Brott. “They’re much more worried they’re going to do something wrong. It’s important to trust your instincts and to realize that you probably know more and understand more than you think you do.”