You were just starting to feel content and happy about the fact that your first born, who is now a toddler was falling into a routine. Life was becoming more manageable and you were confident that you had put the difficult days of being a new parent behind you. In fact, so confident, that you decided to embark on the journey of becoming new parents again. Although there were still difficult days and nights with your first child, things were manageable for the most part. It was all fine and dandy until your second child was born.
May be the first couple of days were still fine as you were probably exhausted and not noticing all the changes that had actually occurred. You have started to settle in and are now realizing the reality of having more than one child. You suddenly notice that things have effectively changed with your first child. It is taking 3 hours or longer for her to fall asleep at night. Naps and other routines are out of the question. They have become clingy and extremely sensitive. They demand mommy and only mommy. Your partner is trying to help but they feel more and more helpless. You feel like you have not slept in ages and ages. You used to be a patient parent; you used to be able to take tantrums and set boundaries and not be intimidated by your own child. But you feel like you are about to lose it. You may even wonder if there is a developmental issue with your toddler that you had never noticed before. This is all happening while you are still required to care for your newborn.
Now let’s have a look at the situation from your toddler’s perspective.
I keep being told that I will have a new baby brother or sister, your toddler thinks. Everyone seems excited but I don’t quite understand what that means. But it sure does sound great and I am happy because everyone makes it seem so fun. I haven’t seen mom or dad for a while, I have stayed with grandma, aunt, neighbor, or friend, or a baby sitter. We played and it was fun but I miss mommy and daddy. It’s been too long. It feels like it has been ages and ages. I finally see mommy and she is holding this small little thing. It’s a new baby they say, it’s my new baby sister, she loves me they say, I don’t know what that means. They say I love her and I don’t know what that means either. I see mom is holding her and they are inseparable. I try to climb on the bed with them, mostly to give mommy a hug, I miss her so much, but everyone jumps on me and tells me to be careful. Mom is nervous; I can tell she doesn’t seem like her usual self and keeps talking about the baby. This makes me anxious and nervous too. I don’t know what is happening but I know I don’t like it. I just miss mommy and I want to hold and hug her forever. Instead mom seems to be busy and no longer available. She is always holding my ‘little sister’. This makes me sad and angry. But I don’t know what to do.
Time goes on and things seem to get worse instead of better, mom is less and less available both physically and emotionally. What is going on? I don’t like this new thing they call baby. This is ridiculous. She cries all the time and has taken mommy and daddy away from me and I am supposed to love her and kiss her and hug her. The only way I seem to get mommy and daddy’s attention these days is to jump on the baby, hug her tight, be aggressive, or just throw tantrums. It will get their attention alright. But they don’t like it. They are mean to me when I get their attention but at least I have their attention.
Mommy doesn’t like it when I hug the baby tight or hit her because I am frustrated and no one cares. They just get meaner and meaner and are not nice to me. I just want my mommy and daddy back. And I don’t want a baby sister and I don’t want to love the baby sister. I feel betrayed and cheated on. What if mom and dad don’t love me anymore? So much of my survival does depend on mom and dad loving or caring for me, after all I am still so little. I have to take things into my own hands, I have to have control, I have to take charge. It’s really hard to have control though, because I am so little. I don’t know what I am doing but no matter what I need to get their attention because I am afraid that if they forget about me, I will not make it because I am so little. I have to stay awake now to make sure I won’t be abandoned. What if they actually forget about me when I am asleep? Being awake is the only way for me to be in control. I am so exhausted but I can’t afford to sleep. I get even crankier and act out even more because I am unable to sleep. But I can’t afford to sleep.
Now in adult language, think of a beautiful love story. Where the two people are fully attached, committed, and completely trust that things are going to stay the same forever. There is implicit trust in loyalty and it never crosses anyone’s mind that it might be different. Imagine that the most special person to you, perhaps your intimate partner is betraying you and has brought on another object of affection and you have to stand to watch it and also love it. This will be very difficult to do for most people. Young children do not have the logical capacity to process this phenomenon and so they start retaliating in age appropriate ways. It is often manifested in what we call ‘acting out’.
The ways that you can support your first child is to:
Respect them -Respect their rights, emotion, and boundaries and allow them to bond with their new sibling on their own terms. Don’t impose on them that they now have to love the new baby and that it is exciting that they have a new sibling. They may not be feeling that way just yet as they are adjusting to all the changes. Here's a great blog by Amy Mccready about ways to respect your child.
Accept them - They are allowed to have all sorts of feelings about the new addition regardless of your emotions. As Gottman stated in his book of Raising Emotionally Intelligent Kids, the first step to address negative emotions is to figure what they are an accept them.
Have realistic Expectations -Don’t expect them to be understanding of how overwhelmed you are. That is not their job. They are not the adults and it is not their job to take care of you. They do not have the capacity.
Consider their developmental capacity- be mindful of their age and level of understanding with regards to all the changes occurring in the family. Children have different cognitive capacities to understand and make sense of the situation at different ages. Find out more about different developmental milestones as authored by Dr. Stanley Greenspan.
Give them one-on-one attention - If you are fortunate enough to have the resources, spend some alone time with them. Make it deliberate and say this is mommy or (daddy) and Suzy’s special time. This does not have to be a big event. Take them with you to the corner store to grab milk and say this is our special time. Connect with them on the way there. They will not care about the activity. They will feel like they have been given the world as they are craving your attention so badly.
Put words to their feelings - When the new baby is sleeping, or you have some time, start the conversation about how hard it has been for them since the new baby was born and reassure them you love them. Maureen Healy proposes 5 ways to get your children talking.
Give them affection - before they try to get attention in other ways. Go up to them and squeeze them randomly and give them a big hug and keep telling them that they are special and you love them. Do this as often as you can in the day. Every time you get a chance. No matter how exhausted you are. The consequence of not doing this will only make you more exhausted. To learn more about different ways to make this connection, check out this blog on Gottman institute.
Be the adult - I mean this in the most respectful way. Own your strength and your responsibility to be a leader and tell yourself that I can do this. See your child in the most loving way possible and know that you have far more cognitive and emotional capacity than they do. You are exhausted and triggered and so much else is going on in the moment but at the end of the day, you have the years, and life experience and you can help your child who feels helpless.
Talk to someone - It is important not to isolate yourself and have a group of family, friends, and new parents support groups in the community. It may also be a good idea to talk to a professional if you feel that you need more support.
You have got this and remember this too shall pass and you will be on to the next stage before you know it…
Sabrina Golchin is a mother, wife, entrepreneur, writer, university instructor, public speaker, workshop presenter, therapist, and parent coach who lives, works, and plays in Woodbridge, Ontario. She holds a Masters in Counselling Psychology. She is the proud owner of Life in Harmony Counselling Services www.lifeinharmony.ca which provides counselling services to Children, Families, Parents, and Individuals. She provides in person, on the phone, or on skype counselling sessions.
You can follow Life in Harmony on Facbook or Instagram, or contact at firstname.lastname@example.org