I thought I had dodged a bullet when my second son was born and my first seemed to fall in love with him right ‘out of the box’, so to speak. The baby was doted on, squeezed, admired, snuggled and generally adored by my older son. I was relieved…I had done something right, clearly! Maybe following all the advice to pay lots of attention to my oldest child, to include him in caring for the baby, to try to be extra empathetic and loving had paid off?
Well, it did to a certain extent. He was prepared to be indulgently kind to this interloper for at least…oh…6 months or so. And then it was time for this fun toy to be returned. Time’s up, guarantee is about to expire — mom, can we return him now and get some Legos instead?
I don’t know if the little one went from ‘baby’ (another species) to ‘actual child’ (direct competition) at around the time the tide turned. My older child would run past where the little one was sitting and attempt a swift kick as he passed by. He got angry a lot, was defiant and generally out of sorts. He was certainly not happy about the baby anymore, and he didn’t seem too happy about anything else, either. I could see that something had changed, and that something different had to be done now.
Here are six steps I took that were the most effective:
REALLY recognize what your older child is experiencing when you bring a new baby into their lives.
I know this is talked about a lot, but it’s not until we slow down and really let ourselves imagine it from our own adult perspective that we can help our children through this. Could we easily reconcile ourselves to the idea of our partners loving another partner as much they love us, with nothing being taken away from us? Would we welcome a new husband or wife for our partner, invite them to share our home and be impressed by their cuteness? Would we feel overjoyed by every new moment of delight they bring to our partner, relishing their joy and not feeling secretly abandoned and vengeful? When we truly recognize what we’re asking our children to handle, it is pretty sobering. Being able to get through the day with a smile on their faces starts to seem impressive.
Understand that the hardest part for your child is that they think you don’t KNOW how they feel about the interloper.
They know you want them to love the baby, but their feelings are mixed. They have some that aren’t so rosy towards the baby, quite frankly, but because you seem to really love this strange new being they think you can’t possibly KNOW about those feelings. The sensation of keeping the darkness all hidden inside is agony for them. Allowing them to release those feelings, to show you and tell you, is a HUGE relief for them.
The best way I found to do that was to take some time while the baby was sleeping and play a game with my oldest son that encouraged him to express it. I used an old teddy bear, but you could use any doll or creature that has ‘human’ qualities. The game was ‘If I had a little brother, I would like to do THIS to him’. My son was not comfortable with ‘If this was YOUR ACTUAL little brother’ (although some kids would be) so I shifted it to be more neutral. Sometimes I would pretend the bear was my real little brother — Uncle Charlie — which also worked. And then you steel yourself for WHATEVER gets done to the bear, and go for it. That bear got drop kicked around the room, pummeled, jumped on, strangled, thrown, yelled at, squashed — and that was just by me. Uncle Charlie was clearly still a thorn in my side. But the idea is that you make it OK that these difficult feelings exist. You laugh, encourage them to show more and more things they might want to do to the bear, enjoy the game…and your child starts to feel the release of the pressure of keeping it all hidden. They will understand instinctively that you are not saying that it’s fine to do this to the baby, but rather that you’re saying ‘I see how upset you feel inside, and I love you and accept you completely’.
I found at first that my child wanted to play this game several times a day, then fewer and fewer times as the feelings all got released. He became happier and calmer pretty quickly, and his need to express his anguish on the actual baby diminished rapidly. The key was not so much the DOING of the violent actions, but the SHOWING them to me and having me love him anyway. His heart was relieved, and so was mine. A relieved heart is a much happier one, and a happier heart is a lot nicer to a baby interloper than a burdened and guilty one.
To that end, if at other times your older child expresses negative feelings towards the baby, try your hardest not to contradict them, or persuade them against it. Saying ‘oh, but you LOVE the baby don’t you?’ is just another moment where they might feel like you can’t possibly know how they really feel. Try to remain neutral and mild in your response…’yeah, it can be hard to share your stuff’, or ‘yeah, I didn’t much like it when my younger brother cried either’, or ‘yeah, it’s funny how we can really like someone sometimes, and then other times not so much’.
Minimize opportunities for problems.
Of course, if your older child still wants to express their feelings physically on the baby once in a while, you keep the baby safe before anything else. Don’t leave them alone together, don’t give your older child any opportunity to experience themselves in that painful way. Watch their interactions carefully, and be ready to step in at a moment’s notice to diffuse a situation. If you miss the moment and something happens, step in unequivocally and remove the baby from harm — but yelling at your older child, lecturing them or admonishing them is counter-productive. It is YOUR job to keep the baby safe, not theirs. Make it clear the action was unacceptable, but be calm and clear, not emotional and angry. Give them many, many opportunities to experience themselves as successful around the baby and cherished by you.
Let them know the things you enjoy about them at the age they are right now.
My son really loved to hear about the ways in which being a big kid was cool. I made a point of saying ‘I’m so glad that you’re old enough to come and do (whatever it was) with me now,’ or ‘I’m really happy you’re not a baby anymore and we can chat about things and understand each other!’ All little reminders that he had value to me just as he was, and in ways the baby couldn’t even begin to compete with.
Do not require your older child to share their stuff or their space.
Obviously everybody has a different living environment, but even in a tiny one-bedroom house I was able to make sure my older son had an area that was just HIS. He didn’t ask to have this other person in his life, so I never required him to act like he did. If he had toys he didn’t want the baby to touch, we put them in his special zone. In fact, we had one of those baby containment gate things, and we used it to make a play area for my older son. He would sit inside with his things, and the baby was free to roam around outside! Because we were kind with him about this, he became much kinder to the baby, and much more willing to share because he didn’t feel powerless over his things.
My younger son turned out to be very respectful and thoughtful of other people’s possessions as a result, and wouldn’t dream of using something that belonged to someone else without their permission. He wasn’t intimidated into it, he just saw every day that we cared to make sure that everyone got to be in charge of what was theirs, including him. He’s happy to share most of the time because sharing was modeled to him as something that you get to choose when you feel good about it, not because you’re forced to.
Express UNCONDITIONAL love.
Showing and telling your child how much you love them WHEN THEY’RE NOT DOING ANYTHING IN PARTICULAR goes an amazingly far way with them. Letting them know that they’re lovable to you just because they exist is a healing balm. They understand from that that they don’t have to do or be anything other than they are in order to be loved by you, and that, conversely, your love is there no matter what they do. So, take a moment when you’re just hanging out and nothing much is happening to say ‘I am SO glad that I have you in my life!’ or something that feels authentic and true to you. They’ll feel the resonance and it will make both of your hearts sing.
So there we have it. I discovered that by allowing all of my son’s negative feelings towards the baby (in a safe way), he was freed up to have more positive ones. And not forcing him to share made him more willing to. And being unconditionally loving did more than any praise of how ‘nice’ he could be to the baby.
I am happy to report that my sons are now some of the closest siblings I know. People comment on their connection and the fun they have together, and although they occasionally drive each other crazy, they are bonded and happy.
Like any human being, children do best when their hearts are happy – their natural instincts are GOOD, and they desperately want to succeed at this thing called life. Given trust, love and support, we all do a whole lot better.
Terri Landey is co-founder of Bun and Bundle, offering prenatal and postpartum support for the whole family, including baby planning and postpartum doula services.