How to handle jealousy between siblings from day one or from the beginning
The arrival of a new baby is, for both parents and children, the exciting culmination of months of anticipation. After much preparation, both parents and their children are thrilled to welcome their newest family member. The first days of the new family life are all about settling down and adapting new routines to care for the new born child. After the initial excitement some children can begin showing some signs of jealousy toward their new sibling that in some cases may translate into mood swings and/or bad behavior. The way a child reacts to a new sibling will vary depending on different factors such as the age and temperament of the child, the number of siblings and how the child or children behaved prior to the birth of the new baby. Although parents can hardly prevent sibling jealousy from occurring, they can minimize the effects by setting the stage for a healthy relationship among siblings.
First of all, parents should try to envision the idea of the new sibling from the children’s perspective. After the initial joy, the older children may experience difficulty adjusting to the new family life and they may discover, much to their disappointment that having a baby at home is not as much fun as they thought; a new born baby doesn't play, talk or even smile at them. Children also begin to realize how much attention the new baby requires from the parents and sharing their parent’s time and love is not so much fun either.
It is also important that parents take cues from their children and talk to them about the new baby in order to understand how they feel because kids are not always aware of when they are sad or in a bad mood or why. Although parents may not always be able to help kids feel better immediately, they can understand their feelings of jealousy without judging, criticizing or minimizing them. The more patient and understanding parents are with those unhappy feelings, the fewer reasons the children will have to be jealous. At the same time, parent should generally expect good behavior as they did before the new baby was born. If a child misbehaves because of jealousy or any other reason parents should not excuse the misbehavior, but they should handle it the same way they did before the baby was born.
As the children adapt to the new sibling, parents must be particularly thoughtful when talking to their children. Any comment that parents make may have a big impact on their children because when talking to a child their words always reveal something about their own feelings and the children can see a bit of what they think about them. Imagine two typical scenarios in the case of a baby and his older brother:
1) The older son is angry because he feels his parents have ignored him and he decides to hide the baby´s stuffed animal. A frustrated father may say something like: "Son, you’re envious; if you do not love your baby brother, when he grows up he could take your toys away ". In talking this way the father has not only described the child as "envious", but he has also planted the idea that his brother could be trouble for him in the future. These two messages are harsh and nonproductive. Talking like this to a child not only will not help to alleviate jealousy, but it is not effective because it does not guide the child in fixing what he did wrong. Furthermore the older brother is probably now angrier than before he hid the toy. In addition, now he has a jealous reputation which doesn't make his parents happy with him.
There are more effective ways to correct the child in the same case. For example, "Son, It is not nice to hide your brother´s toy. Please give it back to him now." This way of speaking to the child focuses on a simple action such as "to return the toy." This way the father is showing disapproval of the behavior (not the child) and it gives the child a chance to do the right thing and return the toy. If he refuses to do it, the parent can address that behavior, but in any case, the idea of jealousy was not part of the conversation.
2) Let´s suppose now that the child asks for help when the father is giving the baby a bath. A typical response would be, "I can’t help you because I am with the baby now ". In this brief sentence he denies the child the help and he uses the baby as an excuse, reinforcing the idea that baby comes first. In general parents, without being aware of it, talk about the baby a lot , (before and after the birth) , making him or her the new center of attention in the family.
A different way of expressing the same idea would be: "Sure I'll help you; I need a few minutes to finish what I'm doing and then I'll go with you.” Here the father doesn't deny the help to the child, and most importantly he doesn´t use the baby as an excuse.
When parents are able to communicate with their children in an effective and thoughtful way, they encourage good behavior and avoid hurt feelings.
Parents need to be very thoughtful also when talking about their children. Parents should never speak ill about the children or compare them. But without realizing it, parents do it very often. A parent could avoid trivial comments to friends and relatives such as: "I think that the new baby is going to be very friendly; my older son was always very serious ". The opinion of a parent affects the child´s self-concept, in this case in a negative way and the child may also conclude that his father thinks that the baby is "nicer ", which can make him feel hurt. The father could have expressed the same idea in another way, such as: "My little boy smiles a lot." This comment is a simple observation to a reality without comparing anyone. When parents strive to speak not of children themselves but of their actions, skills and behaviors tags are avoided and there is less risk of developing a damaged self concept. When the older sibling hears that the baby smiles a lot, he may even decide to smile more often to please his parents. The reality is that the way in which parents’ express themselves regarding their children has a great impact on them.
To promote good relationship between the siblings parents may try to involve older children in the daily activities of the baby, such as bathing, feeding, or diaper changing. Parents can ask them for help or just to accompany them while they care for the baby, so the kids will have the opportunity to help with the new baby and become a part of the new routine. If the children are not interested, at least they will not feel excluded or isolated.
With the arrival of a new sibling, the greatest fear of the older children is losing their parents' love. Parents can show their kids, by their words and actions, that they love all their children equally and that this fear is unfounded. The way parents handle new sibling jealousy is the foundation for encouraging a good and healthy relationship between siblings.
Pepa Rivero de Wenrich