Encouraging Children through a New Sibling Transition
By Kelly Bartlett
Four-year-old Becky was feeling dethroned by the birth of a baby brother, and was experiencing confusion about her feelings for the baby. Sometimes she loved him and other times she wished he had never been born because Mom and Dad spent so much time with him. She didn’t know how to get attention for herself except to act like a baby.
One evening when the baby was asleep, Becky’s mom sat down at the kitchen table with her daughter and said, “Honey, I would like to tell you a story about our family.” She had found four candles of varying lengths. “These candles represent our family.” She picked up one long candle and said, “This is the mommy candle. This one is for me.” She lit the candle as she said, “This flame represents my love.” She picked up another long candle and said, “This candle is the daddy candle.” She used the flame from the mommy candle to light the daddy candle and said, “When I married your daddy, I gave him all my love—and I still have all my love left.
Mom placed the daddy candle in a candleholder. She then picked up a smaller candle and said, “This candle is for you.” She lit the candle with the flame from her candle and said, “When you were born I gave you all my love. And look, you have all my love, Daddy still has all my love, and I still have all my love!” Mom put that candle in the candleholder next to the daddy candle.
Then she picked up the smallest candle and, while lighting it from the mommy candle, said, “This is a candle for your baby brother. When he was born I gave him all my love. And look—you still have all my love, Daddy has all my love, and I still have all my love because that’s the way love is. You can give it to everyone you love and still have all your love left. Now look at all the light we have in our family with all this love.”
Mom gave Becky a hug and said, “Does this help you understand that I love you just as much as I love your baby brother?” Becky said, “Yes, and I can love lots of people just the same.”
This touching story is an excerpt from Dr. Jane Nelsen’s book Positive Discipline A-Z. Dr. Nelsen also tells this story and gives the candle demonstration in her positive discipline classes and workshops, as it is so powerful in conveying the relationship between family members and showing how we do, indeed, share an everlasting supply of “all our love” with every family member. Often, when a new sibling is brought home, an older child’s sense of significance and belonging falters. Their place in the family has changed, and they have difficulty understanding that it’s not a replacement, just a re-adjustment. Like everything in child development, this transition takes time.
According to psychiatrist Alfred Alder, a sense of significance and belonging is crucial for humans’ social and emotional well-being. It is what all children and adults strive for; we want to know that we matter and that we have an important place in the world. To a child, that “world” is their family. However, the arrival of a new sibling can disrupt any sense of security that a child had, and when he no longer feels that he belongs, those feelings are inherently reflected in his behavior.
As Dr. Nelsen says, “a misbehaving child is a discouraged child.” Misbehavior is the result of a child’s subconscious belief about herself that she is unloved or unimportant. She may “act out” to try to reconfirm her parents’ love, or try to reestablish her own sense of significance. It is important for parents to realize that a child’s difficult behavior is the result of feeling discouraged about her place in the family. Rather than being punished, that child needs to be encouraged.
Verbal Encouragement; Encouragement can take many forms. The most obvious is probably the use of verbal statements like, “I know you can do this!” or, “Thank you for bringing me what I need. That helps a lot,” or, “You must be so proud of yourself!” Encouraging words like these are more effective than statements of blanket praise like, “You’re such a good sister,” as they focus on the child’s achievements and help her develop an internal sense of pride.
Emotional Encouragement; A less obvious, yet very important form of encouragement is the validation of feelings. Anytime a parent validates a child’s feelings—whether those feelings are ones of distress and vulnerability, or energy and joy—they are telling that child, “It’s OK to feel that way; it’s normal,” and children need to hear this. Being able to relate to a child’s feelings and accept them unconditionally conveys a strong message of love. Parents can help children feel secure and “normal” by helping them recognize and articulate their feelings.
Encouragement through Self Confidence; When kids begin to act out after such a major change as a new baby in the family is when parents are tempted to use punishments and threats (If you hit the baby one more time…) or bribes and rewards (If you keep your hands off the baby, you can…) to control behavior. What is most likely happening is that kids are mistakenly thinking that they must regain Mom and Dad’s attention to secure their place in the family. Their coded message is “Notice me! Involve me usefully!” Parents can give even very young children jobs to help out; opportunities to be noticed and become involved. They can help set the table, wash the windows, prepare food, shop at the store, get themselves dressed, take charge of their routines, help themselves to their own snacks, pour their own drinks, scrub the table, and so many other tasks and activities that collectively give kids confidence and instill a sense of significance and belonging.
One-on-One Encouragement; Many times, well-meaning family members and friends advise giving an older sibling gifts after the birth of a new baby to help them “enjoy” the change. While this can be fun, it is essentially superficial and short-lived. What children really need is the gift of time; a parent’s regular focus and energy connecting with them emotionally during this difficult transition (and beyond). This may be a perfect time to start scheduling some regular “Special Time” together, during which the child leads playtime and the accompanying conversation for just 15 minutes every day. It is a daily opportunity to ensure some valuable one-on-one time with older children, and kids look forward to this regular part of the day with each parent. It tells a child, “I’m here for you.”
When children become new older siblings, parents should expect to see some natural changes in their behavior. There is a lot going on physically and emotionally for them. Children are adjusting to a new home environment with at least one new family member, as well as experiencing an extraordinary amount of personal growth themselves! They may be feeling like they are less important family members, or that they have less of their parents’ love. Parents can help kids feel secure by understanding and responding to the motivation behind their behavior—that instinctive pursuit of significance and belonging—more so than the behavior itself. Children need to be encouraged to realize their place in the family. They are significant and they do belong, and they need to know that.
Kelly Bartlett is an API leader and a Certified Positive Discipline Educator. She lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband and 2 children.