Preparing Your Toddler for a New Baby

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How to best prepare a needy two year old for the arrival of a new baby?

Dr. Susan Rutherford (MOM): No matter what you do in advance as a parent, adjusting to a new baby in the house will be difficult for most toddlers.

You can start preparing the older child far in advance by showing him (or her) your expanding belly and talking about the baby growing inside. Share your excitement that he’s going to have a new baby sister or baby brother (if you know the gender that makes this part easier), and talk respectfully about how he will get to be a big brother.

Really, though, no amount of preparation will do the trick because bringing a new baby into a house requires a tremendous amount of adjustment for everyone involved.

It’s a big deal when a baby is born and the baby is no longer just a concept or an idea; it’s now a reality. Understandably, kids who were there first can have big-time trouble adjusting to this new reality. One important thing is to be sure to protect the new, younger child from any kind of aggression from an impulsive toddler. If the older child is four-years old, it’s usually a whole lot easier because a four-year old can understand that a baby is delicate. But a two-year old still doesn’t have control over his own behavior and likely will be feeling somewhat resentful for being displaced in the parent’s attentions by the baby, so parents have to make sure they protect a baby from any aggression or acting out.

MOLLY: How do you deal with that aggression? Is there anything you can do to help a toddler adjust to a new baby and not become aggressive toward it?

MOM: Yes, you can continually talk to the child about behavior expectations regarding the baby. Say things like: “We have to be gentle with the baby; she’s not as big or as strong as you are.”; “We don’t hurt the baby; we want to protect your baby sister/brother.”

You can model appropriate behavior for the child to emulate: “We don’t hit; we stroke the baby’s hand. Let me show you how to do it.” The toddler probably has some sort of baby doll or toy animal or something like that that he can use to learn how to treat a baby with cuddling, stroking, cooing, and other behaviors.

MOLLY: You also mentioned in a previous post that it’s a good idea for a recently-delivered mom to try to spend some one-on-one time alone with an older child after the baby arrives.

MOM: I think that’s a good idea to make that one-on-one time happen. It’s a really hard time – there’s no getting around it. It’s a real challenge for moms to deal with multiple needy children and do them all justice.

Another thing that can be helpful for mom’s sanity and perspective is to talk to other moms with new babies and older children… people who are in the same boat. It can offer quite a relief to find other people experiencing the same kind of ordeals that you’re experiencing.

Even for moms who’ve been through new babies several times before, the experience can be challenging. Even though you might intellectually understand and feel prepared that life is going to become more difficult, you don’t really know what it’s going to be like until it actually happens.

One of the other things to keep in mind is that this stage does not last forever; things will get better.

MOLLY: What may happen if you don’t step in and really set the boundaries and expectations of acceptable behavior between siblings at this early stage?

MOM: In some families, sibling relationships work themselves out just fine and the older child accepts the younger child and may actually align with the younger child, so that the siblings feel like they’re in this thing called life together. This type of sibling relationship needs to be constantly encouraged by the parents to happen.

However, if the parents don’t offer any kind of intervention and allow their children to treat their siblings as rivals rather than allies, long-term animosity can develop between the siblings and continue into adulthood. I see time and time again that when an older sibling is constantly cruel and/or abusive (physically and/or verbally) to his or her younger sibling, the younger child may not develop a healthy sense of self-esteem. A low self-esteem can lead to chronic under-achievement or self-destructive decisions and behaviors that follow  them all their lives.

Some sibling rivalry is normal in all families, but if parents don’t intervene early to put limits on behaviors, the older child may nurture an inarticulate anger and maybe even rage toward the younger child for usurping his position in the family simply by being born. This can negatively effect both the younger child’s and the older child’s relationships with others as adults because they subconsciously replay this unhealthy sibling dynamic.

This kind of life-long drama and negativity probably can be prevented with early intervention by the parents from the beginning. I often think of sibling rivalry as having roots in fights for the parents’ attention. If the parents can successfully convey that there’s plenty of love, space, and attention for all of their children, it can go a long way in preventing long-term issues with interpersonal relationships when those children mature into teens and adults.

Experience this? Comment below if you’ve had success helping your child adjust to his or her new sibling. Or Contact US if you have other parenting questions you’d like to see addressed.

Sibling Jealousy: My Older Child Hogs All the Attention

My older son is six years old and always wants to be first and grab all the attention away from his little brother. What should I do?

Dr. Susan Rutherford (MOM): Whenever there are questions or concerns when it comes to raising kids, you always want to look first for some of the core issues that might be going on. You can, of course, deal with the superficial issues and that might work for that moment, but it probably won’t hold.

One of the concepts you’ll want to talk about with the older child is that there is plenty for everybody.  There’s plenty of love and attention for him and there’s still plenty of love and attention for his brother. The concept is: there’s room for all of my children on my lap.

You could say to the 6-year old, “How do you think we could make this situation go better?” He might have some ideas to share, but the parent should have some ideas, too. Maybe the idea is about substituting one toy for another: if he wants a toy the younger child has, he could offer him a different toy in exchange. The idea is to make sure not to leave the younger child empty-handed, and to not allow the older child to bully or hit the younger child or threaten him in any way, because once the kid starts that kind of behavior it becomes a pattern, leaving the younger child to feel unprotected.

A lot of parents rationalize this whole thing by saying, “Well that younger child needs to be able to defend himself,” but it’s really an unfair attitude.

It’s not uncommon for the older kid to think the younger child took the toy on purpose and just wants to hurt them. You have to be calm about it and try to gauge the reality with the older child.

The problem if you don’t deal with this when the kids are young is that the younger child grows up feeling picked upon and victimized. And often what you see in these people as adults in their relationships is that they have a really hard time owning their own behavior. It’s because there has been such a pattern for them when they were growing up where they were victimized by the older child.

MOLLY: So that when they’re in a relationship or marriage and they do something wrong, they won’t admit it?

MOM: That’s right, they can’t own their own behavior. They’re stuck in the pattern of someone else is doing it to me.

MOLLY: What else can you do beside substitute a toy? How do you get the older child to stop hogging the toys and the attention?

MOM: Well, you want to start young, before the older child develops a pattern and gets a lot of satisfaction from hurting the younger child in some way. For instance, you don’t want to allow the older child to hit him over the head because he is so angry that the younger child takes their mommy away.

It’s very important that the mom doesn’t completely direct all her attention to the younger child who is more needy just by definition because the younger age. There are a couple of things you can do as a parent. If you can afford it you might want to get a babysitter for the younger child and spend a regular time period once a week – every Tuesday afternoon let’s say  – and you can do something special with the older child.

MOLLY: Or you could even do it on the weekend and have the other parent stay with the younger child if getting the help is difficult?

MOM: Yes, you can do that too. But you need to show that older child that he is important, too, because all of this is about the attention coming from the parent (whichever parent is the primary caretaker of the children). Sibling rivalry really comes from the feeling of not getting enough from the primary parent. And it’s really hard when a new baby is born because a baby is, of course, so demanding. But it’s something that, as a parent, you have to be conscious of or else you set a stage for something bad for both children. The older one becomes something of a bully and the younger one develops the feeling that whatever happens to them isn’t their fault and somebody is doing it to them so they don’t own or take responsibility for their own behavior.  They end up having problems in their intimate relationships with people. It’s a mess. A lot of these things have long term consequences. Not if they happen once or twice, but if they happen over and over again.

MOLLY: So: make a special time with the older child, tell them it’s not okay to do that to the younger child and that you won’t accept that behavior, but make a time for just them to have with mom or dad.

MOM: And if the kid keeps doing it, which they most likely will to test you out, you really have to stick to the consequences. Don’t just surprise the child with the consequences; you make sure they know ahead of time. For example,  “If you hit your brother, or if you take toys away from your brother, this is what’s going to happen. “

You have to think of the consequences in terms of the age of the kid. You don’t say “You can’t watch your favorite television show for a month.” That’s way too long for most children to conceptualize and there’s a feeling that there’s no possibility of redemption, that they can never make this better. One of the other things that’s very important to do is to have the older child apologize to the younger child, even if the younger child is too young to understand. It’s more for the older child.

MOLLY: Make the consequence appropriate… like you can’t watch your favorite show tonight?

MOM: Right something that’s time limited and there’s a recovery from. If you say you can’t do this for a month, the kid is going to feel like, why bother. The child has to feel like there’s a way to work it out and be redeemed in his parents’ eyes when the punishment is over, or he might stop feeling empathy for the younger child.

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MOM:  Dr. Susan Rutherford is a Clinical Psychologist who has been in practice for over 30 years. She has degrees from Duke University, New York University (NYU), the University of Denver.
MOLLY: Molly is Dr. Rutherford’s younger daughter and the mother of two children under six.

This blog is about raising kids and how our parenting decisions now can have long term effects.