Parenting with a PhD: New Year, New Sibling

Parent Question: How can we nurture the big sibling when a new baby wreaks havoc on their only child universe?

Parenting with a Ph.D. Response:  From the moment he pulls that “I’m a Big Brother!” shirt over his tiny head, life as he’s known it is history. Now he’ll be expected to share everything: his parents, his toys, his bathroom, his snacks. (He may even have to share that “Big Brother” shirt one day…). On the bright side, he’ll also have someone with whom to share his secrets and sorrows, and, eventually, his embarrassment over your behavior (“Mom! Don’t pull up right in front of the building!  Drop me off at the corner!”). This sibling relationship is an incredibly important one as it will be the model for later friendships and provides your kids with a chance to practice appropriate social behavior.

As you’ve suggested, the ways that you nurture each child individually is an important consideration in fostering a positive sibling relationship. You’ve probably got nurturing the baby down to a science by this point – the feeding, the cooing, the singing. Oh, and cleaning the poo. But, the way you interact with your older child will be different now that she isn’t the only game in town. Banging pots at 7:00 p.m. might have been a favorite family activity six months ago but now it’s disrupting baby’s bedtime. Family + New Baby = No Fun.

You can help change that equation by focusing on the positive aspects of the transition. Consider what makes your older child most proud and look for ways to highlight those skills. Maybe now is the time to start that new sport or activity he’s been asking about. Create a new space for him with a “Big Boy” bed and reading nook, give him some choice in décor (Pirates or Spaceships?), and put away or pass down “babyish” toys. Emphasize the new privileges and responsibilities that your older child has. Let him help with baby-related tasks like fetching diapers and socks if he seems interested. Praise him for his efforts at being “big” and avoid criticizing or re-doing the task in front of him. There will be time to teach him to fold hospital corners later. If he expresses jealousy over the attention the baby is getting, watch for times that you can point out all that he can do that his brother can’t. In time, you’ll get to point out to your older child the ways Baby is imitating him – a surefire way to install pride.

You don’t want to reinvent the wheel – this sibling stuff has been done before. Consider having books on hand like: The Best-Ever Big Brother/Sister series by Karen Katz, Waiting for Baby by Harriet Ziefert, I’m a Big Brother/Sister by Joanna Cole, Peter’s Chair by Ezra Jack Keats, and Babies Don’t Eat Pizza: A Big Kids’ Book About Baby Brothers and Baby Sisters by Dianne Danzig. Definitely check out The Big Sibling Book: Baby’s First Year According to Me by Amy Krouse Rosenthal. It’s a kid-friendly journal that provides your older child with lots of fun activities (stickers!) and interviews to complete about being a big sibling. In response to one question about her little brother, my daughter said, “I love to play feets with him!” I have no idea what “feets” is but it’s a priceless answer just the same.

A note of caution: Any changes should be made very, very slowly. Allow your child to hold on to particularly special items and avoid suggesting that her desire to keep them is “babyish.” Eventually, she’ll let go of those things on her own. Take cues from her if changes are happening too quickly.

In the early months, you’re likely to see some regression in your oldest child’s behavior. He may suddenly seem to a lose skill he used to perform like a champ and “neeeeeeeed” you to do it for him. Try to provide him with the requested assistance, at least some of the time. Make gentle, non-critical statements like, “I know you can do this on your own when you’re ready.” Show him that you’re still available for him even though there’s more competition for your attention. Before you know it, he’ll be back to, “I CAN DO IT MYSELF!” and you’ll be wishing he wanted help.

It isn’t all change – some things can and should stay the same. Fun, relaxed one-on-one time with your older child is now even more important than it once was.  Although they may feel elusive, there are probably some free minutes here and there in your schedule that could offer some special time with your oldest. Make a pact with your partner that you will each set a goal to spend at least 20 minutes a week of focused, individual play time with your older child. Pick an activity that encourages interaction (e.g., building with blocks, playing catch, crafts) and put it on the family calendar in picture form so your child knows it’s an important appointment. Do everything in your power to stick to that schedule. Consider a time when someone else can be with the baby or when he is likely to be sleeping. You and your partner should hold each other accountable for meeting this goal – rest assured that your child will. Once you have worked the weekly “date” into your schedule, try twice a week or every other day. Increase the time as you see fit and as scheduling allows. During special time, keep demands low by avoiding too many questions or commands. If your child isn’t acting appropriately, try not to punish and simply tell him you’ll need to stop until his behavior improves. Try again when things are calm. View “special time” not as a reward that your child has to earn but as a need that must be filled like eating and sleeping.

Don’t forget that your older child has an identity other than “Big Brother.” Encourage other family members and friends to talk to him about things going on in his life other than the new baby. Make sure you do the same. All baby all the time gets old. Fast.

More is not always merrier but the concern you’re showing about how to nurture your older child will certainly make the transition from one to two go much more smoothly. Now, why don’t you all go enjoy a nice game of “feets” together!

About this column: Send your parenting- and kid-related questions my way via email at: and I’ll tell you what I can: Please be aware that email is not a secure method of transmitting personal information so it’s best to keep your questions general. If your question is featured, your name and email will not be published. Submitting a question does not constitute a professional relationship in any way and this column is not meant to substitute for face-to-face therapy. If you feel  you’re doing the best you can and still need help, it may be time to bring in a professional. Start by talking with your child’s pediatrician to get a referral.

Kristen S. Berthiaume, Ph.D.
Licensed Psychologist

Kristen Berthiaume is a clinical psychologist with Grayson and Associates.  She obtained her Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of Kentucky. She completed a predoctoral internship in clinical psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a post- doctoral fellowship in the Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorders (ADHD) Program at Duke University Medical Center.

She specializes in providing assessment and treatment of children, adolescents, and families dealing with the following issues:
learning disorders
social skill deficits
organizational problems
behavioral difficulties

She generally focuses on behavioral and cognitive- behavioral techniques, but maintains a flexible approach to therapy. Her other day job is as mom to her four-year-old daughter and 20-month-old son.

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