03/13/2014 10:38 am ET Updated May 15, 2014

Dear Family Whisperer: 'Sibling Prep 101'

Dear Family Whisperer,

I have a newborn and a 3-year-old (both girls). What are your top tips for encouraging them to get on as they grow up without too much conflict/jealousy etc? I am keen to start off as well as possible!
-- Concerned Mother of Two

Dear Concerned Mother of Two,

Of all the things that worry us, sibling issues are at the top of most parents' list. You're in luck, though: With such young children, all you have to do now is lay the groundwork with your girls -- and be mindful of what your words and actions tell them.

Frame the baby's arrival as a family issue: "We" are growing. "We" now have more people to help out and to have fun with. But don't be too much of a Pollyana. Everyone's been telling your daughter how much "fun" her little sister will be, but all she sees now is an uncoordinated blob who cries a lot and takes up your time.

Take action as a family. If you haven't already, start now to have check-ins -- brief times when you come together as a unit. Even though the baby will just sit there in her little chair at first, including her will help your older daughter accept her as part of the clan. Talk about what the family needs as well as what each of you is feeling given the recent change. Being honest about your feelings ("Boy am I am tired. I was up five times last night!) will help your preschooler feel comfortable expressing hers ("Did the baby wake you up, too?"). She might not say much, but you're letting her know that her experiences matter.

Discuss how much more shopping, laundry and other household responsibilities "we" have, now that we are a bigger family. The baby can't help out yet, but your older one can. Even at 3, she'll know the difference between real participation and busy work. Identify family jobs she can handle, like carrying light packages from the car or sorting darks and whites. Don't think of these as "chores" (which parents assign). They're roles (shopping helper, launderer's assistant) that get "us" through the day -- and make her feel capable and needed. She might want to be "baby-sitter" (amusing her younger sister while you make dinner) or "baby-feeder" (holding the bottle). Some kids love to participate in childcare, others not so much. Let her take the lead.

Whenever a new member joins a family, it impacts all relationships, so be sure to carve out one-on-one time. With your daughter, even 10 minutes of your uninterrupted attention will reassure her. Talk about her new sister only if she brings up the topic. Never tell her she has to "take care of" the baby. And if she's angry, don't try to talk her out of it. As Tracy Hogg often reminded parents dealing with a new baby's homecoming, "Imagine what it would feel like if your husband brought home a second wife and asked you to help take care of her!"

Process the change with your partner or another adult. Reminisce about how you got along with your siblings. How were disputes handled? If you were an only child, the prospect of sibling battles might frighten you -- and cause you to overreact, whereas a parent who grew up with siblings is likely to take them in stride. You can't change your own childhood, but sharing your past and being aware of its effect will help you separate then from now.

Siblings will fight; it's normal. Researchers have found they can fight as much as eight times an hour. They are like little cubs, scrambling for their parents' attention. Although you love both girls, you will not have the same relationship with each of them. They are two different people. One might be harder to handle this week. The other might do something that reminds you of yourself. You're also part of the equation. If you're having a bad week, it might be harder to listen.

Just observe, understand and be compassionate. In retrospective studies of siblings, those who fought less recalled their parents as "fair," which is not the same as "equal." Being fair means treating your girls with respect and accepting each for who she is. Let both of them know they're "seen" and listened to. And a few years from now, when one comes to you complaining about or accusing the other, believe both of them.

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