Yet another Frequently Asked Question : how do I deal with sibling rivalry between my children. Well, my kids have not really reached a stage where they are competitive against each other, in terms of things like snatching toys, insisting on fair cut of everything, etc, yet. So for all I know, the real challenge has yet to come!
I must stress that I am very blessed so far. Firstly, the age gap (as I mentioned in Coping with Two) is God sent. A child in his two’s still can be quite ‘me-focused’ and requires a lot of attention from the mother. Hence, he will inevitably feel the competition from a baby brother or sister. An older child would usually be at the stage where he starts to ‘detach’ from his mother and start becoming more independent. There are also more things to occupy his time and attention, e.g. school, fun activities that he can do on his own. Thus, he may not feel that he is short changed as much.
Secondly, I am blessed because Dominic is generally a very good boy and easy to deal with. Oh, he does have his fair share of naughtiness, whiny-ness, tantrums and faults. It is just part of his natural human trait. I can safely say that he likes babies. Before Damien was born, Dominic already liked babies. Now, he even asked me for more! Of course, there are times that he gets angry with his little brother, but it is nothing unmanageable.
These are important factors and I realise they are really beyond my control. So before anything else, I would say, pray! As much as we would like to have a list of ‘how to’s’, I think divine intervention is needed to set the condition right, like having good soil to work on.
But as human as we are, we like to have specific steps that we can follow, specific ideas we can adopt, things that we can put our hands on to do. So here are the ‘tangibles’. These are ideas that other mommies shared with me. I don’t profess to have achieved all of them. I don’t even profess to be actively practising them. All I can say is that I keep them in mind and try. They are all sound, practical advice, which I hope you will find useful. They are not in any particular order.
1. Avoid Comparison
If you have siblings or even cousins, you know how you hate it when your parents keep nagging you about so and so being so much better, why can’t you be like so and so…Don’t do this to your children. Avoid comparing them, especially in front of them. I know it is hard not to compare but at least try not to do so in their presence. When chatting among relatives, it is common to have to answer questions like ‘who is the easier baby’, ‘who is the smarter one’, etc. Don’t answer in comparative statements. E.g. instead of saying ‘Mary is a better night baby’, say ‘Mary is a good night baby’.
2. Make time for each kid
I know this is really tough, especially when you have more kids, but even mothers with 10 kids try to make time for each one. What I personally do is this : every night, after Damien goes to sleep, it will be my time to cuddle with Dominic. He understands that this is his time with mommy. Somehow, knowing that he has this time gives him a bit more patience to wait.
3. Get them to do things together
Try to involve the older child in caring for the baby. Of course, exercise care! But the older child can do simple things like bring a diaper for the baby for you. Make him feels that he is part of the picture, not someone waiting at the sideline.
Play with them together. It will help them to bond.
4. Start ‘brain washing’ them from young.
It is never too early to start. Now and then, I will tell Dominic that he has to love his brother because Damien is his very own, only little brother. Similarly, I will tell Damien the same thing. You may think that Damien won’t understand but you never know. Plus, I say it in front of Dominic, so Dominic knows that I tell his brother the same thing too.
5. Don’t make the older child give in all the time
This is something we Asian parents ‘inherit’ from our parents – the older one must give in to the younger one at all times. How common it is to hear parents telling the older child – you are the older brother, you must give way to the younger one. After a while, I can assure you the older child will learn to resent the younger one because the younger sibling represents nothing but losing something that he wants or not getting his way.
We think we are trying to ‘protect’ the younger one when in actual fact, we are doing him a disservice by putting him in a negative light.
So assess the situation and be fair. The older one does not always have to give in to the younger one. Of course, the older one should learn to be more gracious to the younger one but it is something that has to be taught gently and over a long time. It is not something that can be demanded. As with us, we can only give when we have received. If we keep giving and giving, we will feel like we are losing out and will not want to give. So if you want the older child to have the capacity and graciousness to give, then make sure that he is also receiving from you. The Bible says that ‘we love because He first love us’. Similarly, the older child will love the younger one if he is able to draw from us. This is impossible if he feels that he is not being fairly treated.
6. “Connect” them/Help them Bond with Each other
I do not know how else to put it. It is part of getting them involved in each other’s lives instead of compartmentalising them into convenient, separate segments. Let them acknowledge each other’s presence. E.g.: whenever Dominic comes home from school, I will always tell Damien, “ Look! Gor gor (older brother) is back!’ Damien may not understand it, but it means a lot to Dominic. I only realised it when one day, I forgot to do this and Dominic asked me to tell Damien that he was home (even when Damien has obviously seen him already). Similarly, whenever Damien did something funny or achieve a milestone, I will bring it to Dominic’s attention and share the moment with him.
When the baby is older and less fragile, I let them hold and hug each other. Basically, the two kids aren’t going to build a relationship on their own just like that. We need to facilitate things for them, especially when they still can’t really play with each other yet.
7. Big Brother/Big Sister gift
A lot of parents practise giving the older child a gift when he first meets the baby, claiming that the gift is from the baby. I don’t believe in doing that. Simply because I think it is untrue and rather warped in logic, as if the older child has to be compensated or bribed. I do not believe in ‘compensating’ the older child because he has a baby brother or sister. This is setting the wrong tone for things from the beginning. However, I did give Dominic a gift when he first came to see the baby. Mainly because I was rather free during the last few weeks of my pregnancy – free enough to work on something homemade. I gave Dominic the gift not as if from the baby, but as a ‘congratulations, you are promoted’ gift. I hope you understand the difference in the nuance. Instead of sending a message “new baby means you lose out something so here’s a present to make up for it’, it is a message of ‘it’s a blessing for everyone because the new baby came’.
In my opinion, it’s the days after that count. Even if you give the most expensive and sought after gift ‘from the baby’ to the older child, he is not going to remember that when the jealousy sets in after that. So to me, this is just frills. Good to have but not absolutely necessary. And you don’t have to spend a bomb on the gift. All I did was to do a tee shirt using tee-shirt transfer – “Big Brother, Dominic”.
8. Give the Older Child your attention first when he first visit you at the hospital
Instead of bringing the baby to him immediately, try to focus on him first instead. Put the baby down and give him a big hug to let him know that you are so glad to see him and you missed him. Have a moment with him first, asking him how he is, etc. Then, bring the baby to him and introduce them – again, remember to do it both ways.
9. Start talking about the baby during pregnancy
Start telling the older child about the baby growing inside you and start preparing him for the new baby. Set his expectation – e.g. telling him the baby is going to cry a lot in the beginning and you will need to spend more time taking care of the baby, but later on the baby will be able to play with him. You can even get him to treat your bump like the baby – pray for the bump (baby) and kiss good night, such kind of thing. Let him feel the movement and at least bring him once for your pre-natal check up so that he can see the ultrasound scan.
10. Reinforce good behaviour and positive traits
Remember to praise the older child whenever he does right. When the baby comes, we tend to focus less on the older child. Like it or not, he is going to lose attention. So all the more we must remember to praise him when he does right. This is especially important when you find that he is behaving badly to get your attention. Praise him especially if he is nice to the baby.
From what I learn from mothers of older children, it is important to start right when it comes to sibling rivalry. If you start right, chances are you will less conflict to deal with later on. It may not always be true of course, as children are all different. But I think it is not wrong to say that if things began wrongly, things will more likely to end wrongly.
11. Teach the Older Child how to manage the Baby
By this I mean how to work around things with the baby. E.g. we know that babies have super short attention span when it comes to toys. And the thing that you are holding right now is the most interesting to him even though there may be 20 other things lying around. Hence, it is common for the Older Child to scream ‘Mommy! He took my toy!’ all the time. Instead of dismissing his complaint by telling him to give the toy to the younger one, teach the older one about baby behaviour. Tell him something like ‘don’t worry, he will let go of it very soon’ or ‘offer him something else and he will drop that toy’.
Another thing to teach the Older Child is simply – if you have something you don’t want the baby to get hold of, make sure you don’t leave it lying around. Simple as that!
12. Timing of Changes
If you have to farm out the older one, either to school or to another care giver, or if there is going to be any change in childcare arrangement due to the arrival of the new baby, effect the changes way before the baby comes.
We sent Dominic to school in January even though it wasn’t absolutely necessary since the baby was only due in May. We did this because we didn’t want Dominic to feel that he was being banished away because of the new baby. Going to school is a major change in a child’s life. Having a sibling is another major change. It is good to space them out instead of making the child deal with too many changes at one go.
Other changes that you have to effect with sensitivity could be as simple as change in sleeping arrangement. Eg your child may have been sleeping on the same bed as you, but with the new arrival, you may want to shift the older child to a mattress nearby and let the baby take his place on the bed. If that is the case, you should make the change way in advance.
Also, try to de-link the changes with the arrival of the new baby. E.g.although the main reason for sending Dominic to school is so that I can manage the new baby, to him, going to school is just another natural step of growing up. All kids eventually go to school. We don’t tell him things like ‘baby is coming, so you must go to school’. Similarly, if you are trying to get the child off your bed, don’t tell him that he has to do so because he has to make way for the baby. Tell him that he is a big boy now and must learn to sleep on his own.
13. Independence Training
It is common for parents to treat the only child with a lot of concession. The only child can be fed and washed by the parent and the parent will play with him all the time. Then when the new baby comes, and the mother suddenly becomes hard pressed for an extra pair of hands or extra time, the mother decides that it is time to train the older child to be independent. He should now feed and wash himself and is expected to entertain himself as well.
A child cannot be trained to be independent overnight and trying to do so will only end up in lots of frustration and unhappiness for both mother and child. The older child will feel that he has lost favour because of the new baby. Train early, if not, you will have to do so slowly and don’t expect your older child to suddenly do everything independently.
14. Explain the Baby’s Action
The child won’t understand baby behaviour and we have to explain things. E.g. we have to explain to Dominic that Damien can’t control his movement and strength yet because he is still learning. That’s why he ends up hitting Dominic. So we must all try to teach Damien the right way to do things – use his hand to ‘sayang’.
We also explained to Dominic that when he was a baby like Damien, he also behaved the same way and he also had to learn slowly.