Children, at any age, can have different reactions to the birth of a sibling. Toddlers may exhibit physically aggressive behavior while adolescents' reactions may be more verbal. These behaviors are not always solely directed at the sibling, but might even show up in peer relationships (e.g, bossiness, hitting, etc.) or relationships with parents (e.g., disobedience, anger, etc.). The older child may begin to regress and appear more "needy" (e.g., a child who was potty trained may have more "accidents," the child cries more or does not want to sleep in his/her own bed, etc.). Some children, who seem to display no reaction at all or become overly excited, are also likely having some mixed feelings about their new sibling. The birth of a new sibling inevitably changes the family dynamics but there are things parents can do to help each child grow individually and together.
Here are just a few ideas for promoting children's individual growth and sibling relationships:
Recognize the child's feelings. Even if the child does not have the verbal capacity to express him/herself or is simply not talking about how he/she feels inside, acknowledging feelings helps the child feel understood and recognized and helps to organize emotions. Children can experience a wealth of different feelings with the birth of a new sibling including anger, sadness, loss, displacement, rejection, confusion, loneliness, fear, excitement, or joy. Having a space to explore and process these feelings is a must.
Make time for the child. Children need to feel special, important, safe, and loved. Spending quality, individual time with a child confirms his/her sense of value, builds self-worth, and strengthens current as well as future relationships.
Avoid making comparisons. Each child is unique and has different strengths and challenges. Supporting these strengths and helping the child tackle the challenges improves confidence, promotes individuality and teaches children about differences. Comparing one child to another has the potential to lead to resentment and disruptions in sibling relationships as well as the child's relationship with the parents.
Maintain boundaries. Some children want to help when a sibling is born. Giving a child age appropriate responsibilities (e.g., getting a bottle for mom) has the potential to help the child feel important, gain attention from the parent, and be part of the experiences with the new baby. However, the child is still a child and should be encouraged in that role. It is important for parents to make sure the child does not have adult responsibilities and does not feel the only way to get the parent's attention is by being a good helper. Acknowledging the child's desire to help, accepting it when appropriate, and setting limits, frees the child of anxiety and worry about his/her value and place in the family system.
Allow the siblings the chance to work through their differences. As the children get older, as long as their behavior is not dangerous or harmful, giving them the space and encouragement to work out their problems can help develop self confidence and empathy. Calmly intervening when it become seriously problematic can provide an emotional container for children, helping them feel safe and providing them a model of control and healthy self expression.
There are many facets to sibling relationships. Individual personalities, family dynamics, and other internal and external factors can play a part in how children relate to one another. What is key is recognizing that children's interactions and behaviors are saying something about how they feel. Getting to the root of those feelings will help promote more positive, healthy relationships.
For additional reading on sibling rivalry, check out the following resources:
Understanding Children: Sibling Rivalry