Many of the arguments between brothers and sisters arise because of how we parents deal with siblings. From the time that a younger sibling is born, we are likely to fall into some potholes of parenting if we are not careful. For instance, giving a new baby all of the toddler’s bedding and toys, and moving the toddler out of the crib just before baby is born, is asking for trouble.
The best analogy I know of for how an older sibling feels when a new baby comes home is the following: Imagine that your spouse brings home a “new” wife or husband and says, “Honey, isn’t it wonderful that our new spouse is here? Don’t you love him/her?” Obviously, we would all feel horribly jealous and would not understand how our formerly loving and appropriate spouse could have done this to us.
Now that you understand how that poor older sibling feels, perhaps you will be less likely to say, “Act like a big kid!” or “You’re not a baby anymore!”
Here are some things we should do to prevent sibling rivalry when bringing home a new baby:
• Continue to call the older sibling your “baby.” There is no harm in having more than one baby! Try also to use names rather than saying “the baby.”
• Make certain that every time the “new” baby is given a welcoming present, you have a small gift for the “old” baby, also. This means preparing ahead, as visitors usually do not do new parents any favors this way. In fact, the babies I know bring a present with them in the hospital room, to give to their big sibling.
• Do not expect the older sibling to help with the new baby, but if the child does, make sure to give him or her specific praise. It is never good to say, “Good girl” or “Good boy,” but is wonderful to say, “Thank you! That helps mommy/daddy so much when you do that.”
• Realize that the “new” baby can cry for a few minutes without harm, and it is very important to finish whatever you are doing with the older sibling, and to not “drop everything” and run, leaving the poor older sibling hurt and feeling unloved and unimportant.
As siblings get older, there are many tricks that are used for discipline and prevention of rivalry. The one that I use most is the concept that whatever we tell them, they usually strive for the opposite. If we say, “Be nice to your sister,” we are clearly laying blame on the other child, and he or she certainly is not likely to follow through with our request. If, however, we use the simple phrase, “Five minutes apart: You cannot play together at all if you cannot play nicely,” and we separate the children, then their goal in life becomes to play together, and neither one feels as though we have put the blame on him or her. This also allows them to solve the problem on their own, after a cooling-off time, which is a skill they will need later in life.
Remember, our goal is to drive siblings together, not apart, and to allow them to think and grow into responsible adults.
Brouard is a pediatrician at Sutter Gould Medical Foundation in Modesto.