By Catherine Fischer
Having siblings is wonderful and a special relationship like no other. Of course parents want to support close and caring relationships between our children. You can see from the excitement and adoration many children show when a new child arrives, that great love and closeness are possible and natural.
At the same time, having a sibling with whom they must share your love and attention will bring up other feelings for children as well. Sometimes the ways in which children signal to us that they need help with these feelings can be challenging for parents to respond to with patience and kindness.
Here are few tools which are great for any parent to have in our parenting tool kit, but which are especially helpful for siblings. I’ll also describe games for helping siblings adjust to new babies.
Each suggestion I make is intended to help children feel their connection with you and with each other in order to navigate family life a little more smoothly.
Special Time -- A Great Tool for Any Parent
Using the listening tool I call “Special Time” will solidify and deepen your child’s secure sense of connection with you. It involves setting aside a chunk of time to give your full attention to your child, following their lead and doing the activities they choose to do. It’s a time to turn off your phone, leave the dishes in the sink, and enjoy your child fully. It might feel hard to tell your child that this is what you are doing, but by telling them ahead of time, you really let them take charge of the activity. You can even set a timer to protect the time you have set aside.
Finding some time each week to do this individually with each of your children will deepen their reservoir of confidence in their connection with you. This is wonderful anytime, but particularly helpful when a new sibling arrives or when children are struggling regularly with sibling conflict.
Preparing a Child for a New Sibling
As the reality of life with a new sibling sets in, older children will have some mixed feelings.
They may wonder if you still want them as much as before, or if they are still as lovable.
Here’s where playing “I want you!” with your child as often as possible will be super helpful. You’ll want to strike a light, playful tone as you show your child over the-top affection and let them laugh, run away from you, tell you “NO!”, or ask for more.
You can tell your child “I have 100 kisses for you!” and then playfully act like you absolutely must give them all 100 kisses. If they run away, you can chase them in a bumbling way, always narrowly missing catching them. You can say things like “Oh, come back here, I must give you all of these kisses! Special delivery just for Joe!” If they let you kiss them, you can “need” to kiss every hair on their head, and act shocked if they tell you to stop. “What? No, I’m only on hair number 89!”
When you play games with children, you can use their reactions as your guide for when to slow down or keep going. If children are shrieking, they may be finding the chase too scary . . . sometimes we get carried away as adults and need to tone things down.
Laughter is a great signal to keep doing what you’re doing. If a child is happily giggling or laughing, you are on the right track with connecting with them and helping them to release their worries.
A game that both parents can play together is “I want to play with Sam!” In this game, each parent longs for more time to play with Sam and insists that they must have more time with him. It’s like a gentle, cuddly, playful tug-of-war.
Another game is to wander around “looking” for your child who is in plain sight. You can say “Where’s Sam? I’m so lonesome for Sam!” This usually leads to giggling and then the child can see how delighted you are when you finally “find” him!
Finally, cuddling your child and adoring them in the way we do with new babies will also help them to feel special. Counting their beautiful toes, telling them how wonderful and perfect they are, all the ways we openly adore babies -- your older child can benefit from them, too.
The games can be continued as you are able after the baby arrives. When you play these, I think you will be able to see your child soak up this loving attention.
Listening to Your Child’s Upset Feelings
Children have a natural way of healing from feeling scared, alone, or hurt. When they feel safe and connected enough, they will offload some of these feelings with laughter during the play.
But sometimes the feelings will come out as tears, tantrums, sweating or shaking. This can be hard to watch, since most of us were taught to stop the crying, or to ignore it. But actually, giving a child a chance to release the stored tensions in this way lets him literally “get it out of his system.”
Sometimes children will be upset by our need to pay attention to their sibling. It might help you to know that your warm look, an offer for them to cuddle next to you or in your one free arm might be all they need in those moments when they are crying and seem heartbroken. You don’t have to fix it, you can just be with them the best you can and try to remember that they are healing a hurt -- not manipulating you, “trying to get their way,” or being bad.
Have Someone Listen to You
Having a chance for someone to listen to you is important as you increase the listening time you do with your children.
Part of the approach that I teach involves setting up listening partnerships with other parents. Together you agree to keep what is said in confidence. During a listening exchange, you get to speak without interruption or advice about your challenges and successes as a parent.
You can examine what it’s like for you to listen to your child when she is upset. Did anyone ever do that for you? How did adults react to you when you were upset as a young one? What was it like for you and your siblings when you were young? Is there anything about how your children treat each other that triggers strong feelings in you? (I don’t know any parents who don’t have this happen at least sometimes.)
Having a chance to talk about all of this to a warm and caring listener, and then listening to them in turn can make it possible to go back and listen more and better to our children.
Catherine Fischer teaches “Where the Rubber Meets the Road: Strategies for the Emotional Challenges of Parenting,” a four week class for parents of young children. The next class series begins September 28. Catherine is also a birth and postpartum doula. You can find out more about her services, including free teleseminars on common parenting challenges, at www.SupportForGrowingFamilies.com.