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Sibling rivalry

Dr Lawrence Kutner, PhD

One day after I moved into a new neighbourhood a few years ago, a young child who lived down the block came over to say hello. Like so many exuberant preschoolers, he couldn't wait to tell me all about his world, spewing forth details about himself, his parents, and his new baby sister, Katy. When he paused to take a breath, I asked him how old he was.

"I'm five," he said with a smile that was quickly followed by a melodramatic sigh of apparent frustration. "But when Katy turns one, I'm going to be thirty-seven!"

In those few words he told me how overwhelming the experience of being an older sibling can feel to young children. To toddlers and preschoolers, the birth of a new baby is almost always an event filled with mixed emotions. They may take great pride in their new titles as older brothers and sisters. Yet those positive feelings are often overshadowed by worries about the changes in their roles within their families. Will they be replaced or abandoned? How much of their parents' attention and love will they now have to share?

Despite the importance of these concerns, young children seldom express them directly. But if you know how to listen to the messages behind their words and actions, you can see what's on their minds, even before the birth.

The daughter of two friends of mine expressed those strong but ambivalent feelings quite beautifully. The girl had begged her parents for a baby brother and, at first, was overjoyed when her mother became pregnant. But as her mother changed shape, and both her parents became more focused on the upcoming birth, the girl's attitude changed. One morning, when her father asked her what she wanted to do as a new big sister when they brought her brother home from the hospital, the girl replied, "I'm looking forward to holding him and hugging him until he turns blue!"

There was no true malice in her statement. It was simply an honest reflection of her conflicting feelings: simultaneously wanting to love him and to get rid of him. That's why it shouldn't surprise you if, a few days or weeks after you bring a new baby home, your other child asks when you're going to send him back. Many toddlers and preschoolers don't realise that the change is permanent.

Two of the most common signs of sibling rivalry among toddlers and preschoolers are emotional and physical regression. Young children may become more clingy than usual. A boy who's recently been toilet-trained may start wetting his pants. A girl who just stopped sucking her thumb may take up the habit again. This regression seldom lasts more than a few weeks or months until the children understand that their worst fears ("My parents will abandon me!") haven't been realised. They'll then surge ahead in their development and get back on track.

The age difference between the two children can also have an effect on how much regression and other behaviour changes you see in the older child. On average, siblings in our culture are separated by two to four years. Yet those are the ages at which children are struggling to feel comfortable when separated from their parents. That's one of the reasons why toddlers and preschoolers tend to show more regression than older children do when a new baby is born into their family.

Toddlers and preschoolers also often have unrealistic expectations for their new brothers and sisters. They have little conception of how newborns behave, and may imagine that they'll quickly be playing house or riding tricycles together. They think of their new sibling as a playmate, not a baby.

Interestingly, children who have been attending preschool or a child-care centre regularly may have an easier time adjusting to a new sibling than children who have been cared for at home. It's not simply a matter of children who are at home being used to depending on their parents for all their emotional support and adult attention. It's partly that children who are in preschool have a space and people that they don't have to share with the new baby.

Handling Early Sibling Rivalry

Always remember that the fundamental concern of toddlers and preschoolers in this situation is that they'll be abandoned by their parents—in essence, traded in for a newer and better model. This is a fear that parents need to address repeatedly, even if their children never broach the topic. Sometimes the best ways to reassure a child are symbolic rather than direct. For example:

  • If at all possible, don't have the new baby use the same crib as the older child, especially if the older one has recently transferred to a regular bed. You might try swapping cribs with someone in your birthing class who's in the same situation.) If that's too expensive a change to make and swapping isn't practical, buy different bedclothes for it so that it looks somewhat different.
  • Toddlers often attach a great deal of emotional importance to the blankets that comfort them at night. That's why "security blankets" are such a common transitional object. One way of letting your child know that she won't be replaced is to put her old blankets in her room and tell her that she can keep them for the rest of her life.
  • Put together a scrapbook about your older child and her family. This can have pictures of family members, the child's friends, and souvenirs of special family activities such as vacations and holiday celebrations. This reassures her about the links between her and her family, and gives her something to hold on to—both literally and figuratively—while her mother's in the hospital.
  • Get out your older child's baby book. Go over the pictures and talk about what she was like when she was born. Retell happy stories about her birth and her first trip home. Talk about how much she cried and when she slept and ate. This will allow her to revisit those feelings of being special and to prepare for what having a new baby in the house will be like.
  • Try to maintain your family's daily rituals during the pregnancy. Even small things, such as eating family meals at the same time, help children feel more secure because some important aspects of their lives are consistent during this time of dramatic change.

Dr. Lawrence Kutner is one of America's best-known speakers, writers, broadcasters and psychologists specialising in families and children. Dr Kutner is a child behaviour columnist and contributing editor of Parenting, BabyTalk and Family Life magazines, ParentTime.com and Pampers.com, and the former child behaviour columnist for the New York Times and Parents magazine. Dr Kutner is also a member of the psychiatry faculty of Harvard Medical School, an international consultant, and the author of five books on making sense of children's behaviours. You can read more insightful articles written by Dr Kutner by visiting his website: www.drkutner.com