Sibling rivalry can strike at any age. My daughter, for instance, was one and a half when her little brother was born. Not long after, she suggested we throw the crying, nursing bundle away. “Baby twash,” her little toddler self said, finger pointed toward the garbage bins. Very normal, says parenting guru Adele Faber, the author with Elaine Mazlish of the classic Siblings Without Rivalry and How To Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk.
Helping children name and accept their conflicting feelings about a new baby is the first step to developing healthy sibling relationships down the road, Faber says.
Getting children to talk about sibling rivalry
“What isn’t expressed outwardly just goes into the subconscious,” says Faber. “We can’t banish feelings.” She says parents do a great service to their children by helping them name the full range of their feelings: worried, jealous, sad, lonely, confused.
When an older sibling, like my daughter, wants to throw the baby out, a grown-up can help the child understand why: “Oh, honey, do you sometimes wish it could go back to the way it was when you were the only one?” a parent might say. “I’m so glad you told me that because now I know.” That sort of acknowledgement gives the child license to feel those feelings, as well as other more positive ones.
In contrast, telling children that they “didn’t mean that” when they say something negative about a new baby is counterproductive, Faber says. Then feelings just go underground and get expressed “in belly-aches or nightmares, or in pinches and pokes and kicks and bites.”
Straight talk about sibling rivalry
Building positive relationships starts even before a new baby is born. By painting a realistic portrait of life with a newborn, you give the older sibling a better idea what to expect. “Instead of saying it’s going to be all fun,” says Faber, “say some of it is going to be interesting, some of it’s going to be a lot of work: The baby is going to be loud and maybe smelly, and sometimes you might even feel like you don’t want the baby anymore. But if you have those feelings, come and tell me and I’ll give you a special hug.”
Faber also recommends helping children adjust to a new baby by:
Taking the time. “If I were forced to give a prescription for the absolute single best thing you can do,” says Faber, “it would be one-on-one time.” Even if it’s just a few minutes of focused attention, being seen and heard will bolster your child’s sense of self.
Loving uniquely. “If you said to your husband, ‘Who do you love best in the world?’ and he said, “I love you both the same,’ you would feel diminished,” says Faber. “To be loved equally is to be loved less. To be loved uniquely is to be loved enough.”
Making new friends. “It would be helpful for a kid who just adores the older child ... to find himself in a position where he’s the older one, and has younger children as playmates,” says Faber. “Kids need a chance to experience all roles.”
At 9, my daughter sometimes still wishes she could live in a house without her brother. “He is so loud!” she says. And he is. But she also enjoys him as a playmate and companion. There is value in learning to get along. She’s gotten used to, for example, his tendency to be louder than she is. “Some kids wouldn’t be able to handle all the noises he makes, but I have learned to deal with it.” And she has. And she is stronger for it.