Subject: Question of the Week: My firstborn is terribly jealous of the new baby. It’s started a whole lot of behavioural problems - what can we do?
Sibling Rivalry is something that can start even before a new second baby is born! It is particularly difficult, perhaps for a firstborn child who has had their parents’ undivided attention and have never had to share their parents’ attention prior to the new baby coming along. Newborn babies are particularly demanding of our attention - especially as a mother, and are completely dependent upon us. Furthermore, if you have a baby struggling with sickness or common problems such as reflux or colic, this will only demand more of your time - and time away from your other children. The result can be behaviour issues, and you feeling frustrated and exhausted being constantly pulled in different directions with demands for attention from your children.
We’d like to help you understand sibling rivalry, and give you some tips on what you can do to improve your family life in this area.
Understanding Sibling Rivalry & Factors that Influence It:
- Your Child’s Age: Your children have ever-changing emotional and physical needs depending on their age and stage of development. So consider their developmental stage when placing expectations on children - such as sharing toys. Parallel play (where children will play alongside each other with their own individual toys), for instance, rather than interactive play is common amongst young toddlers. School-age children strongly believe in fairness and equality and don’t understand different/preferential treatment. Teenagers may resent being asked to contribute to household chores and would prefer their own independence and finding their individuality outside of the family. If children are born fairly close in age, there may be limited understanding of the change that has taken place, and increased competitiveness.
- Your Child’s Temperament: How well your children get along can depend on their personalities. If both are strong-willed and want their own way, for instance, that is a recipe for some heated arguments! Whereas, if one is a strong leader, and the other more laid-back and willing to go along with others’ leadership, playtime may well be fairly peaceful.
- Sickness/Stress: Sometimes children act out if there is stress in the family that causes them to be afraid or unsettled, for instance, if the new baby is struggling with sickness.
- Role Models: If you and your partner deal with conflict in a respectful way, it serves as a role model to your children as to how to work out their differences. Not all conflict between you and your partner should be done behind closed doors, because it serves to teach your children this all-important lesson. However, if there is aggression/shouting when conflict occurs between you and your partner, of course this is behaviour your children will learn in how to deal with conflict. It’s the old saying of “do what I say, not what I do” - but children don’t work that way!
Welcoming a Second Baby
Your firstborn child (or previous children) may feel a range of emotions in response to a new baby’s arrival. From excitement to jealousy to resentment! Here are a few tips that you can use to help your child/children adjust. Try some of these tips according to what‘s suited to their age:
- You might like to buy a special baby doll that your child can have as “her baby” to care for when you have had your new baby. Encourage her to attend to her baby’s needs while you are attending to your’s. Or you might buy a special toy that your child can play with only when you are feeding the baby as a special treat.
- Involve your child in your baby’s care as much as possible, rather than exclude them. Find small ways in which they can help and feel included.
- There will be times, however, that you need space and time on your own with the baby. For instance, with a crying, wriggling wet/soiled baby, you might find it too stressful also dealing with a toddler at the same time. Or there may be times you would like to feed the baby in peace. Communicate in advance with your child what you want from them during those times, “eg. When mummy changes baby’s nappy, she would like you to go and play with something else until she is finished.” Then follow up with reminders like “We wait until mummy has finished changing baby and then we can talk to mummy, can’t we? So go and play now.” Every mother needs time and space at certain times of the day rather than juggling two or more children at once in order to manage and enjoy their time with their children. It’s okay to set these kinds of boundaries and expectations of what you are wanting at different times of the day. Work out what you need, communicate it with your children, and then keep to the boundaries so your children don’t become confused.
- Using role-play (often with a baby doll or soft toy like a teddy) or reading stories about a new baby’s arrival in the house are helpful.
- Explaining in advance what is going to happen when the new baby arrives helps a child to adjust. Equally, explaining what is going to happen in the day with the new baby, helps a child tremendously, eg. “When baby wakes up, I’m going to feed the baby, and that is your time to find something you like to play with. After that we will have some lunch and when the baby sleeps again, you and I will play a game together. Why don’t you choose now one game that you’d like to play with on your own, and one game you’d like to play with mummy?”
- Don’t introduce too many major changes, eg. toilet-training, or expect too much when an older child is still adjusting to the new baby’s arrival. It is a learning process for them.
- Arrange special one-on-one time with your older child/children, and make sure that they realise that this time is special so that they feel special. Use the time to do something your child is interested in, rather than simply running errands or arranging a play date. This time needs to be a time where your undivided attention is on your child, doing something that she/he is interested in and enjoys. This kind of attention is so important, and really is a key to helping your child adjust - particularly if you are experiencing real behavioural problems from your older child in relation to the new baby. Having your partner take over the care of the new baby while you spend time with your older son or daughter will help. And building one-on-one attention into your everyday as much as you can, is equally important - such as reading a bedtime story, or setting aside some time while baby is asleep instead of attending to household chores or other activities. It is a juggle, and should not be at the expense of your own wellbeing, but it helps!
What You Can Do When Kids Get Older:
- Model good, respectful ways of dealing with conflict between you and your partner as indicated above
- If you think that their behaviour may be associated with fear about the other child’s illness, talk to them about it and discuss ways she/he might be able to express that fear in a different way
- Encourage arguing children to resolve the matter themselves. It’s important for them to learn how to resolve conflict
- When you do have to step in (particularly if it has become a physical fight), separate your children until they are calm. Don’t try to figure out who was to blame or who started it - it always takes two people to cause a fight. However, discuss what happened once the children are calm and talk about other ways they could have resolved the conflict. Ask children to find a compromise where both can win, or if they are too young to do this, suggest one for them.
- If arguing/fighting is a common occurrence, communicate with your children before they start playing together what kind of behaviour you expect from them, and suggest how they might be able to resolve any potential conflict that arises (it may be that they may need some space from each other for a while if they‘re starting to get annoyed with each other). Communicate ground rules for play - what’s acceptable and what’s not.
- Address personality issues. For instance, if one child’s push for leadership makes the other child feel resentful and “bossed around”, talk to the first child about why that might annoy the other child, and ways in which that might play together instead (eg. taking turns at “being the Queen” or discussing and agreeing together on something they both want to play).
- Don’t get too caught up into the “fair” or “equal” trap. On the one hand, it is helpful to respect your children by listening to their objections if they don’t think that something is fair, and to consider what they are saying, and make adjustments if it is reasonable, However, children can drive their parents crazy trying to make everything equal and fair! Children do need to learn that there are times where a child might need extra help, attention or whatever the case may be.
- Don’t force your children to play together or be a tag-along all the time. Allow your children time to be on their own playing with their own toys or with their own friends.
- Spend one-on-one time with your kids doing things they are interested in. Communicate your love to them in their special love language (refer to our article on Love Languages of your Child). Have fun together as a family.
- Hold weekly family meetings with school-age children if arguing and fighting between siblings is an ongoing problem. And if the fights are generally around the same issue, find ways of setting limits. Toys and so on are a privilege, not a right - and so it is okay to expect certain behaviour in order to enjoy that privilege.