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New Baby: How to Help an Older Sibling Adjust Peacefully

November 18, 2020

In Part 2 of this interview excerpt, Sarah at Dandelion Seeds Positive Parenting discusses with Dr. Laura Markham of Aha! Parenting how to help an older sibling adjust to a new baby in the home. (Part 1 is here if you missed it.)

If you’d like to see the full interview, which covers the lifespan of nurturing the relationship through childhood, from introducing the new baby and on through the teenage years, you can view it here.

Dr. Laura Markham is the best-selling author of three books, including “Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids” and its associated workbook, and our topic for today, “Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings,”

Sarah of Dandelion Seeds Positive Parenting on introducing the new baby:

Now, let's say a couple of months have gone by and now older sibling is thinking, "The new baby is really not going anywhere and now I'm starting to feel the effects of -- yeah, maybe mommy and daddy

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have been doing a really good job of filling my bucket, but I still kind of wish it were just me sometimes. And I still wish...you know, I'm missing the good old days, back when I was the little kid, back when I was the new baby."

Sometimes, their way to communicate that comes out as tricky behavior.

Now, we are still more than likely sleep-deprived. We are still more than likely figuring out, ourselves, what it means to have more than one child, and more than one schedule,

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and all of the things that go along with having more than one child in the house.

Many parents at this point in their exhaustion, in their lack of emotional resources, sometimes turn to some more traditional disciplinary methods.

 "You know what? I can't deal with your tantrum right now -- time out," or "I don't have the resources myself to know how to handle you. So I'm going to just separate more."

Can you talk a little bit about the impact of that and what we can do instead, from a brain science perspective, to prepare to foster that connection with a new baby, to decrease that sibling rivalry, and to set us back on a healthier better course as a family?

Dr. Laura Markham on helping an older child adjust to a new baby:

Well, we know that behavior is driven by needs and emotions, right?

So, if our child is acting out, there's something behind that, as you've just said. It's the child realizing that this is not going to change. This new baby is here to stay.

At that point, when the child begins to act out, parents often are just frustrated with a child and they also, I've noticed -- moms, especially -- often feel a little defensive because the child is actually grieving.

And they are like, "I did not ruin your life," but actually the child feels like their life just got ruined.

This isn't a permanent condition. But as with all grief, you have to go through it. You can't go around it.

So I think we, as parents, have to acknowledge that our older child will go through some grief. - Dr. Laura Markham on helping an older child adjust to a new baby in the home

Parents often say, "Oh no, my child loves the new baby."

Of course they love the new baby. That's not a problem. I mean, maybe they do. Let's hope they do. If so, you've done a great job, but that doesn't mean they aren't grieving for what they lost, right?

They can love the new baby and still feel grief. That's sort of confusing if you're three or four, or two or six. You still could feel a lot of confusion over it. You don't want to resent the baby and maybe you love the baby. But you also really wish things were the way they used to be.

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So we have to acknowledge that our children will feel grief. And that grief is okay to feel. Grief has a few stages, as we know. One of those stages is anger. One is bargaining, right?

So what happens with bargaining? "We can send the new baby back, right?"

[Anger about the new baby] might be directed at us. And most of us, if the older child directs anger at the baby, we flip out. We have to protect our newborn or our 2 month old. We just flip. But of course we protect the baby.

And we know if our child is having a hard time, we don't leave our child. You know, one mom told me that her three-year-old -- she had put the nine-month-old strapped into a baby seat. And she was taking a shower.

She put him right outside the shower, and the three-year-old was playing with his Legos. The three-year-old came over. He was being potty trained, and he peed all over his brother -- which is so hysterical -- it's like marking territory, right?

And of course, we're just beside ourselves with rage.

If you know your kid is that angry, you don't just leave. I know it's hard. You want to shower, but you don't just leave your your nine-month-old strapped into a seat, because the three-year-old could have done something worse, you know. You don't know what your three-year-old could do, and he doesn't understand how serious it is.

We have to be aware. We're the grown-ups. We have to be aware that they're going to have some big feelings. And if we give them a constructive way to work through their emotions, then they're unlikely to take them out on the baby. - Dr. Laura Markham on adjusting to the new baby

 When you notice your child having a hard time, immediately start using what I would call preventive maintenance, techniques, which one should use anyway.

You don't just change your oil in your car once it starts sputtering. Hopefully, you change the oil at the right mileage, right? So that is the way preventive maintenance works.

Dr. Laura Markham discusses helping an older child adjust to a new baby

So what would preventive maintenance be for your child?

Number one: empathy. Whatever your child is feeling is allowed.

If your child says, "I hate the new baby," even if they're just muttering it as they, you know, as you have to stop playing trucks with them to go and get the baby, who's started to cry.

If they say it when you come back, you say "I heard you say you hate the new baby."

Don't let your buns be pushed by the word "hate."

"You know, I think sometimes It must really bother you to have the new baby in our house. It must be so hard to have me leave when you want me to stay and play trucks. It must be so hard to wait when my hands are busy with the baby and you want me to help you. It must be hard." So you're acknowledging his feelings.

You're not putting ideas in his head.

You know, every child is going to have some of these negative feelings. They have to be allowed to tell you. - Dr. Laura Markham on helping older siblings adjust to a new baby

The interesting thing I've noticed, or I've heard from parents, is once they open that door, they get an earful. Once they make it okay for them. If they say, "You can always tell me how you feel, and I will always listen; I will always try to help," and you give them a hug once you say that, and they have that permission.

They'll tell you, "I hate you! You should never have had this baby."

Parents get a little fed up with it sometimes, but here's the thing. If they respond with love and patience and saying -- don't respond to the hate part -- you know, that's just your child trying to push your buttons, because that's their anger again, coming from the grief.

Just say, "It must be hard sometimes, and you've got support."

Whenever we're asking our child to rise to a level, to exhibit behavior that's hard for them, it helps if we give them the support to do that. And in this case, the support is our empathy. - Dr. Laura Markham on helping older siblings adjust to a new baby

So that's #1 in preventive maintenance: empathy.

The second thing in preventive maintenance would be one-on-one time. There has to be time without the baby. You have to spend time with that child without the baby.

And if you've got a baby who wakes it's up every 10 minutes and you have to hold them through their naps because they won't sleep -- I mean, there are those babies, right? You're going to have to figure something else out with your partner, with a sitter, with whoever you've got, so that you can spend some one-on-one time with your older child.

They need it. And they need you to not be checking on the baby during that time. It's got to be -- you're there for them 100%, pouring your love into them.

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Another thing that is really helpful is roughhousing. And roughhousing, there's nothing rough about it. It is just tossing your child around to get them laughing. You can play specific games. Whatever gets them laughing is good. We already talked about why that's important.

Roughhousing changes their body chemistry in ways that make them more open to your influence and more connected to you, and happier because it sort of drains off all the stress hormones. - Dr. Laura Markham on helping an older sibling adjust to a new baby

I call that emptying out the top layer of stress in the emotional backpack. Once they don't have that layer of stress, they're less stressed. They're less tightly wound. They're more relaxed, more cooperative, more emotionally generous toward the new baby, right?

Another thing that really helps the older child is routines. I think we're on number four here. Kids need to know what to expect. It makes them feel more secure. So that's important.

And you know, yes, you have a new baby and sometimes babies don't yet have word from you. They haven't really gotten it through there in into their mind that "Oh, there's a routine here," but your older child does need a routine.

So they need to have you, as much as possible, protect their routine. So, It again keeps their stress level down.

Then, the final thing I talked about empathy allowing all emotions. I would take it a step further to welcoming all emotions, and that includes the negative ones.

If your child needs to cry, welcome those tears. - Dr. Laura Markham on helping an older sibling adjust to a new baby

That's what happens when we grieve, is we need to cry. Often, it will start off his anger. So don't get hooked on the anger.

"I hate you. I want a new mommy." Just take that deep breath. Remind yourself, "They're having a hard time." They're telling you in the best way they can that they're stressed.

Say, "Oh, you're having such a hard time. You want me to see how hard it is and how mad you are at me? I'm right here. You can tell me."

And as you make it safe by accepting the feelings, the anger, which is just a defense against those more vulnerable feelings of grief underneath, or fear that you love the new baby more, those feelings start to come. The anger is no longer necessary once they allow those feelings to come to the surface.

 So, letting your child cry, being there for them, you will find that afterwards some people tell me it's like he's a different kid, you know, he's he's back to his old happy self because he was able to move through that backlog of stressful emotions.

Dandelion Seeds Positive Parenting:

Absolutely, and you touched on so many important points there. Some that I really appreciate are that you talked about the grief and anger and all the feelings that need to come out.

Most little kids, of course, don't have the executive functioning skills to put those feelings into words. So it doesn't matter how many times an adult says, "Use your words." What they're doing is using their bodies to get those big feelings out.

Behaviors, in these cases, will oftentimes take the place of the words that they don't have in the moment -- to express whatever it is they're doing to process the existence of this new baby. 

I love how your approach is empathy based. It's allowing the feelings to process fully through completion. Not just putting a Band-Aid on a feeling and saying, "You know, you seem really angry. Let's go play with the truck."

You're really addressing the feelings. You're naming the feelings. You're giving your older child some of the emotional tools they need to create some really positive brain circuitry: naming feelings, healthy emotional management, emotional regulation, all these things that we read separate articles about, you're living in action as you interact with your child and the new baby. - Sarah R. Moore

Really helpful.

Dr. Laura Markham on building the relationship between the older sibling and new baby: 

And you know, you can even use books. You mentioned books before. You can make a book before the baby's born about what it's going to be like. But you can also make a book after if the child is having a hard time with the baby.

You know, "Brothers are forever. Sometimes, Mika was angry at his little brother. Sometimes he wished that he could have his trucks all to himself and didn't have to share them..."

And this would be obviously when the baby's a little older. We're moving into the future.

After a year or something, two years even, and the older child is having such a hard time -- continuing to have a hard time with [the baby]. If you make a book like that, that explains it to them and gives them a happy ending -- that even though sometimes they had a hard time, they they always had fun together. They loved each other and had fun together.

And you know, you make sure you show the child being able to go to the parent and say, "I'm having a hard time," and the parents help, so you can give the child a positive view of what's happening, with a happy ending.

You were talking about giving them skills to process their emotions -- absolutely. But it also helps to give them a belief system or framework about it -- because the belief system determines the thoughts we have.

If the belief system is, "My life got ruined by this interloper," that's not going to give them the thoughts that we want them to have. If the belief system is "Yeah, sometimes we can have differences with the people we love.

As my son said when he was little, he was playing with his trains. He had one of them cut the other one off at the pass and the other, than the one that was cut off, said, "I am mad at you."

He was like, "Gordon, I am so mad at you." And the other one said, "That's okay, Thomas, you can be mad at someone and still love them."

Clearly he had heard that somewhere, you know? And so his framework was, this is part of relationships. You can express it and work it through.

Sarah of Dandelion Seeds Positive Parenting

I love that. And I think I need a set of trains to keep in my pocket, just so that when I have those moments, I can remember to have those discussions. [laughter]

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Stay tuned for the next section of the interview, where Dr. Laura Markham talks about nurturing the sibling bond as the siblings get older.

In the meantime, make sure to check out our short but information-packed parenting courses. and sign up for Dr. Laura's peaceful parenting course while registration remains open


Dr. Laura Markham is the founder of AhaParenting.com and author of Peaceful Parent, Happy KidsPeaceful Parent, Happy Siblings and her latest book, the Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids Workbook.

Note that all advice and guidance offered on this site is not medical guidance and should not be interpreted as such, and the owner of this site is not responsible for individual outcomes.

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