My husband and I just had a baby boy, and our 4-year-old daughter is not adjusting well. She was happy that she was finally going to have a brother, but now she shows very little interest in him. She has been having tantrums, and tells me that she hates the new baby. I have reminded her that she wanted to be a big sister -- but it isn't helping. What can I do?
Confused Mother of Two
Dear Confused Mother of Two,
You have probably heard this before, but just in case, here is an analogy that may help you understand what your daughter is going through. Imagine your husband coming home one day with another wife, lovingly draping his arm around her while telling you with great enthusiasm that this new wife will only add to the love and joy in your family. Chances are, you wouldn't buy it. That was your husband, and you have no interest in sharing him.
Your newborn -- however precious -- occupies a lot of your time and attention. Right now your daughter is going through a significant loss; she needs time and help to come to terms with the sudden competition she has for access to you. Here's what I suggest.
1. Be willing to hear her unhappy feelings. "I understand it's hard, sweetheart." "You wanted time with Mommy all by yourself." "When the baby is fussy, he makes a lot of noise." Don't sugarcoat how life has changed in your household; if you acknowledge the hard parts, she won't have to bury or repress her frustration, which is what is fueling her misbehavior.
2. Emphasize what hasn't changed. A child's world is full of new experiences; the arrival of a new sibling is one of the biggest ones, but every day, children encounter things they don't understand or have never been through. Read your daughter her favorite book, sing your special song, and try to stick to whatever rituals you can as you navigate your own enormous adjustments (not to mention fatigue!).
3. Don't try to push your daughter to cozy up to her brother. The less insistent you are that she fuss over him or act like a "good big sister," the more room she'll have to naturally fall in love with him.
4. Offer her the chance to be alone with you and her daddy -- together, and one-on-one. Take her for a short walk or an errand without the baby so she remembers that she's still your special girl.
5. Help her discover the benefits of being a big sister. While in theory your daughter might have been excited about the baby, she may find that having a younger sibling isn't turning out to be quite as much fun as she imagined. Avoid telling her she needs to act her age or be a good role model for her little brother. Instead, tell others (within your daughter's earshot) how helpful she was if she carried your diaper bag or handed you the baby powder, and how lucky her brother is to have her in his life.
6. If your daughter has a favorite friend, relative, or grandparent, enlist their support in offering her some extra time or special attention.
7. Encourage her tears. Your daughter may end up having a meltdown over something seemingly minor, like getting a red cup instead of a blue one. Rather than trying to explain why it doesn't matter, use emotionally-charged moments to help her express the big feelings that have been activated by the arrival of her baby brother. Regardless of why she's crying, having the chance to cry -- and be comforted by you -- will help her adjust.
Above all, be patient, and allow your daughter the time and loving support she needs to manage the many emotions that come with adjusting to the change in your family. As she discovers that her feelings can be tenderly accepted and understood, she'll be able to recognize the sweetness and joy that have come with the arrival of her new sibling.
Yours in parenting support,
Parent Coach, Susan Stiffelman, is a licensed marriage and family therapist and credentialed teacher. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in developmental psychology and a Master of Arts in clinical psychology. Her book, Parenting Without Power Struggles, is available on Amazon. Sign up to get Susan's free parenting newsletter.
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