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Development: Adjusting to Siblinghood

October 5, 2016
Written by: Sara

At 3 years old, Julian is an easy-going, sweet-faced little boy. He has been coming to Buddings for a few years – on his own at first, and now with his little brother Alex in tow. Although Alex was happy enough to play on his own, Julian would always keep a watchful eye on his brother, always ready to help.

Another little boy, however, is having a harder time coming to terms with his new sister. Daycare drop-offs are marked with tearful outbursts, and repeated whimperings of “I miss mummy”.

This contrast  really brings to mind questions of how children cope with the transition from being an only child to being a sibling: What kinds of behaviours can be considered normal? What about jealousy and sibling rivalry? How can we, as caregivers, help with the transition?

Researchers at the University of Michigan conducted an interesting study that looked at how firstborns reacted to their parent interacting with the new infant (read the article here).

Their reactions were observed and  measured on five different occasions (during the last trimester and then 1, 4, 8 and 12 months after birth), during which the researchers would look for “attention-seeking behaviours” that were intended to direct attention away from the infant, such as misbehaving on purpose or becoming more clingy and whiny (1). Toddlers in particular also expressed their frustration by throwing tantrums or refusing to use the potty (2).

Such behaviours reflect the child’s anxiety that their parent was unavailable to them due to caring for the newborn sibling. Conversely, children who felt confident in their parents’ accessibility did not feel the need to interrupt the parent-infant interaction. Rather, they would play freely on their own, sometimes approaching their baby sibling in a positive way (3).

Over the course of the study, four categories of children’s responses emerged. 60% of the children played freely and did not engage in disruptive behaviour. 30% of the children would monitor the parent-infant interaction and were less likely to engage in solitary play. According to the researchers, these children tended to be generally more emotionally reactive (as reported by their parents).

Only 6% of the children were considered particularly clingy, and there were very few instances of children behaving negatively towards their baby siblings (just 2.7% of those involved in the study), something that even surprised the researchers somewhat. And might surprise parents, as well!

What the results of the study show is that siblinghood is a transitional phase that most children take to reasonably well. However, they do not capture the daily emotional conflicts present in these children as they move through this phase, or the concern that parents may experience when their child seems to deal with changes more dramatically than what was found to be “normal” in a lab study.

Here’s what we see at daycare:

During their pregnancy, many parents will prepare their firstborns for the baby’s arrival by explaining to them that “There will be a new baby” and “You won’t be the baby anymore”. While statements along these lines are important to help the child understand what is happening, the unavoidable conclusion that children will draw – and one that definitely arouses fear – is that they are being replaced.

In a way, it is absolutely true. The firstborn was once the most vulnerable person in the family and was cared for as such, but will no longer be when the baby arrives. The attention that was once focused on them will be redirected towards their younger sibling. Thus, it is not in spite of but, rather, because of  parents’ efforts to prepare their children for oncoming changes that children may encounter the feeling of being replaced.

Hence, the tantrums and the attention-seeking behaviour…

It may prove helpful to place the emphasis on the roles their firstborns will take on, rather than the ones they will leave behind. That means painting a clear picture for them of what their day to day will look like.

When you tell a child exactly what they will be doing each day, you help to curb their catastrophic imaginations. Reading children’s stories about becoming a sibling can be a powerful strategy, as these books both acknowledge as well as normalize their fears (Ruby’s Baby Brother is a favourite of ours).

Such books can also help children perceive the transition as a “graduation” or “outgrowing” of a role that the new baby will now fill, rather than being forcibly ejected from their position in the family.

What all of this means is that, while studies show that the majority of children end up taking to siblinghood reasonably well, they don’t necessarily capture the difficulties experienced by children (and their parents!) during the transition period. Many children temporarily regress in various ways, which is indicative of the child grappling with the idea that they are “not the baby anymore” and the attempt to regain that position. Of course, it doesn’t work.

Experts advise spending individual time with the older children and acknowledging that their emotions are valid, while making them feel that they have an important job to help care for the new baby (2). Although these things are important, we also advise parents to keep in mind that the anxiety experienced by the child is normal and a direct result of parents taking the precautions prepare their children for the transition.

Our advice: Parents need to focus on painting a clear picture of what the older child can expect to be or do, rather than what they will no longer be.

  1. Oswalt, Angela, MSW, Natalie Straat Reiss, PhD, and Mark Dombeck, PhD. “Coping With Transitions In Early Childhood: Getting A New Sibling Or Remaining An Only Child.” MentalHelp.net. N.p., 16 Jan. 2008. Web. 15 Aug. 2016.

  2. “Sibling Rivalry When a New Baby Arrives.” Family Lives. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Aug. 2016.

  3. Volling, Brenda L. et al. “Children’s Responses to Mother-Infant and Father-Infant Interaction with a Baby Sibling: Jealousy or Joy?” Journal of family psychology : JFP : journal of the Division of Family Psychology of the American Psychological Association (Division 43) 28.5 (2014): 634–644. PMC. Web. 15 Aug. 2016.
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