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A friend of mine, the eldest of five, remembers it like this: “Every time Mom had another baby, we got a new station wagon, and life got a little worse.” When he himself became a parent for the second time, his 4-year-old offered advice with a familiar ring: “Give the new baby to a family without children, or take her out with the trash.”
Ah, siblings. Blindsided by the joy of their newborn, many parents tend to overlook the impact that a new sibling has on an older child. “Kids think they’re supposed to feel joy, too, but what they really feel is angry, displaced and dethroned,” says Adele Faber, co-author of Siblings Without Rivalry (Avon, 1987). “It’s a terrible thing not to be the baby anymore. It means less of everything that kids desperately need — lap time, attention and space.”
While you can’t prevent your child from feeling this way, you can ease the heartache. Before baby arrives, discuss with your child any mixed feelings she might have. “Tell them a new baby is a mixed bag,” Faber says. “Part is fun and exciting, and part is hard. Discussing the ambivalence helps get feelings out in the open. And tell them to let you know if they ever feel less loved than the baby.”
Even the Best-Laid Plans Can Fail
Gil Schmidt, Psy.D., a Bakersfield, Calif., father, thought he knew best. A marriage, family and child psychologist, he had made sure his 4-year-old, Jessica, was included in baby preparations; she was encouraged to draw pictures of her pregnant mother and reassured that there was enough love to go around.
But not long after her brother arrived, Jessica hid him under her bed. When his mother heard the baby crying, she found him unharmed. Discovering a sheepish Jessica, she became aware of how displaced her daughter must have been feeling.
Such acts aren’t uncommon when an only child becomes an older child, says Mary J. O’Connor, Ph.D., a professor of psychiatry at the University of California at Los Angeles and director of the UCLA infant and preschool service. All children handle the transition differently, but parents may find that older siblings want to send the new baby back, that they demand more attention and, sometimes, that they show aggression toward the baby. Less common and more worrisome signs include social withdrawal and regressive behavior.
Smoothing the Transition
To minimize the difficulties, Faber and O’Connor offer these tips: