SIBLING RIVALRY WHEN A FIRSTBORN MEETS THE NEW BABY

NEW YORK TIMES COLUMN: FAMILIES TODAY:
SIBLING RIVALRY
WHEN A FIRSTBORN MEETS THE NEW BABY
By: T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua Sparrow, M.D.

When you arrive home with your new baby, I’d suggest that you have a special toy ready to give to your older child – preferably a “baby” of his own that he can feed and diaper as you attend to the newborn.

If he’s more interested in trucks, give him one that he can fuel and wash. Thus he has the chance to imitate your nurturing and learn from it.

Don’t be afraid to set limits on how much he can handle the new baby. Limits will reassure him as his feelings about her come to the surface.

If he wants to hold her “like you do,” ask him to sit in a chair. You will need to stay right by his side. Then he can learn to put one hand under her neck and head to protect her. He can learn to cuddle her, to give her a water bottle. He can begin to learn how to help diaper her and to talk to her as he does so. He will be learning how to be a big brother – with you nearby.

If the older child soon loses interest in being a big brother, don’t be surprised and don’t make too much of it. Though he may at times be proud of his new role, it’ll be a burden for him, too.

He may want to be your baby again. He may fall back on behavior you’d thought he’d outgrown. Don’t expect too much of him right now.

Many children who are just discovering what it means to be an older sibling begin to be cruel to the dog or cat. Stop your child firmly and let him know that you can’t allow this behavior.

Help him with his feelings by letting him know that his anger is understandable, even though he can’t take it out on the pet. It won’t help if these feelings go underground. An older child is likely to feel that the new baby has displaced him because he was not “good enough” or even “bad.”

A 3- or 4-year-old can often recall mischief that angered you and made you, in his mind, want to replace him. He is bound to feel that if he could have been all that you wanted, you’d not have needed a new baby.

A child who is 6 or 7 or older may just ignore the baby – and you. He may even seem to disappear because he’s spending more time with friends or dawdling on his way home from school.

Instead of being your companion as you get to know the baby, he seems to want to avoid you – to punish you. Time alone with you – and your willingness to listen and to answer questions – will become all the more important.

HELPING A CHILD ADJUST TO A NEW BABY

If you have just returned from a stay in the hospital, tell the older child how much you missed him while you were away.

Let him know that the baby has been added to the family and is not a replacement: “Now you have a brand-new baby sister. But nobody could ever be just like you.”

Hold him close and remind him of experiences you’ve shared and will share again.

If he pushes you to discipline him, remember that limits can be especially significant for him now. To him, limits mean that his parents “haven’t changed, still love me, and will stop me when I need it.”

Don’t urge him to be “a good big brother.” This job won’t always seem appealing. It will mean more when he finds his own motivation to fill the role.

Guard against wanting him to grow up too fast. He will grow up, when he’s ready. And his younger sibling is already pushing him enough.

(This article is adapted from “Understanding Sibling Rivalry,” by T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua D. Sparrow, M.D., published by Da Capo Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group.)


Responses to questions are not intended to constitute or to take the place of medical or psychiatric evaluation, diagnosis or treatment. If you have a question about your child’s health or well-being, consult your child’s health-care provider.

Dr. Brazelton, prior to his passing, was the founder and head of the Brazelton Touchpoints Center, which promotes and supports community initiatives that are collaborative, strength-based, prevention-focused sources of support for families raising children in our increasingly stressful world. Dr. Sparrow, a child psychiatrist, is currently the Director of the Brazelton Touchpoints Center. Learn more about the Center at www.touchpoints.org.

Reprinted with permission from the authors.

PEACEKEEPING BETWEEN BROTHERS

NEW YORK TIMES COLUMN: FAMILIES TODAY:
PEACEKEEPING BETWEEN BROTHERS
By: T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua Sparrow, M.D.

Q: I need a strategy for curbing sibling rivalry. How can I keep the school-age boy from playing too rough with his baby/toddler brother?

The refrain of “Stop X. Don’t Y. Keep your hands to yourself, etc.” doesn’t work and makes the older sibling feel like he’s always scolded while the baby “never gets in trouble.” How old should the little one be before I can let them duke it out themselves without my intervening so much?

A: Parents can’t quell sibling rivalry, but they can avoid making it worse. The firstborn child has parents to himself until the second comes along. Then he must give you up every time his sibling needs you. He must look on as you admire his baby brother, and he wonders when it will ever be his turn again or if you still admire him at all.

As soon as the younger brother is old enough to scoot and crawl, the older one will have to fend him off when he comes to snatch one of his toys or knock down the block tower he has worked hard to balance.

Moreover, the older one must please you when you beseech him to be a “good big brother,” which often means giving up his special place in the family as firstborn. From birth, the second child has never known another position. He is grateful for whatever parental attention he gets, and as the baby of the family, he’ll get plenty.But soon he starts wishing he could do all the things his brother can. He falls apart whenever he fails to imitate him. Parents rush to scoop him up and coddle him – to his older brother’s disgust.

Over time, if parents stay out of their struggles, the older child will learn to take pleasure in the younger one’s admiration, and enjoy his role in helping him learn.To avoid reinforcing sibling rivalry, the first step is to accept that it is not a parent’s job to keep siblings from fighting. If you try, you’re likely to intensify the conflict by putting yourself in mid-battle.

Every time you tell the older one, “No,” “Don’t,” “Stop,” he is likely to feel even more resentful of his younger brother. He knows you are mad at him. It’s easy to see how in his mind your temporary loss of affection for him is the little one’s fault – all the more reason to torture him again.

An infant must not be left with an older sibling unsupervised. But I’ve never seen one sibling seriously injure another when parents leave it to the children to sort out their differences on their own.

When the youngest can fend for himself, make it clear you expect them both to straighten things out themselves. Don’t bother trying to figure out “who started it.” Most of the time, you’ll never know, and engaging in this inquiry just heightens their competition to be your favorite.

Instead, let them know that you don’t care who’s to blame. Tell them that you hold them both responsible for stopping their squabbling. And if you can manage it, give each of them regular separate times just to play with you.

(For more information: “Understanding Sibling Rivalry: The Brazelton Way,” by T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua Sparrow, M.D. Da Capo Press.)


Responses to questions are not intended to constitute or to take the place of medical or psychiatric evaluation, diagnosis or treatment. If you have a question about your child’s health or well-being, consult your child’s health-care provider.

Dr. Brazelton, prior to his passing, was the founder and head of the Brazelton Touchpoints Center, which promotes and supports community initiatives that are collaborative, strength-based, prevention-focused sources of support for families raising children in our increasingly stressful world. Dr. Sparrow, a child psychiatrist, is currently the Director of the Brazelton Touchpoints Center. Learn more about the Center at www.touchpoints.org.

Reprinted with permission from the authors.