You just brought your squishy little newborn home and can’t wait to introduce them to their older sibling. You are full of trepidation and excitement over how cute this moment will be, only to be disappointed by your child not paying attention to them or even saying something mean. Or maybe nothing out of the ordinary happens after you bring the baby home. But in a few short weeks, your previously well-behaved child starts regressing, acting aggressive and mean towards the baby. They want to be babied themselves, being super clingy and having tantrums left and right. All of this may be incredibly upsetting for you, but let me assure you, it’s all normal.1 It’s just sibling jealousy.
How to Deal with Sibling Jealousy
Sibling jealousy is a tale as old as time. And when you truly think about it, it makes perfect sense. Put yourself into your eldest’s shoes for a second — here they are, ruler of the castle. They get mommy and daddy’s undivided attention. They don’t have to share toys, living spaces, food, or the TV remote. Everything is set up to accommodate them and their needs. Suddenly, mommy and daddy bring this new creature into the house, and ALL their attention is now directed at this new screaming creature. That is so rough to experience.
And depending on the child’s age, they will show jealousy differently. It’s not uncommon for toddlers and younger children to experience all sorts of regressions in behavior, including aggression towards the baby and parents. There may be whining, yelling, screaming, throwing, issues with going and staying asleep, problems going to school, issues with friends, and even potty training. With children and teenagers, you can expect more verbal attacks or pretending not to care. They may also start engaging in dangerous behavior to attract attention to themselves.
I know it all sounds dire, but there are ways to minimize the blow of bringing a new sibling into the house.
Prepare Your Child Before Baby’s Arrival
While it’s obvious to us adults when a woman is pregnant, it’s not so for children. Yes, they may see their mama’s changing body and not understand what is happening. So, it’s important to sit down with your child and explain what is happening inside. Now, until roughly the age of 3, don’t expect your child to fully understand what you’re telling them. My sons are 2.5 years apart, and while I spent a great deal preparing my eldest for his brother’s arrival, things didn’t truly click until he saw his baby brother lying in his bassinet.
But regardless of age, it’s still a wonderful idea to talk to your child as much as possible about the upcoming addition to the family. Read books about becoming a big brother or sister. If you’re the older sibling, talk to them about your experience of becoming one. Try not to dwell on the negatives, but do not be afraid to acknowledge any resentful or negative feelings you have. Make the story an empathetic and real one. It’s also validating for your child to know that they are not the only ones with these negative emotions. That others have them as well.
Prepare Your Living Space
This is very important when your children have a small age gap between them. Never underestimate your toddler’s strong feelings. It is not uncommon for your toddler to hurt their baby sibling and be aggressive towards them. That is really the only way they know how to express their negative feelings. So, make sure you have eyes on the baby at all times.
Baby gates, baby playpens, and other barriers are a great way to ensure your toddler cannot hurt the baby. Also, don’t leave your toddler unattended with the baby, even for a short period of time. Sometimes, even well-meaning toddlers can accidentally hurt the baby. Toddlers are not very good at being gentle and often don’t know their strength.
Build Positive Associations with their Baby Sibling
While your child may express jealousy in many ways, be prepared for it, no matter how it shows up. You know this jealousy won’t ever truly disappear, but if you create a positive relationship between the siblings, the jealousy will not be at the forefront of their relations.
Involve your elder child in caring for the baby, playing with the baby, and just spending time with the baby nearby. Make it fun and make it pleasant. As the baby grows and becomes more able to participate, their older sibling will be more welcoming and ready to include them in their world.
While your elder child may not always be kind or act positively towards their younger sibling, do your best to keep the scolding to a minimum. Yes, it’s very tempting to yell at or chastise your child for misbehaving, but it won’t lead to anything positive in the long term. Instead, acknowledge their feelings, explain that what they did is not a good action, and show them a better way to behave. Build their empathy quotient towards their sibling, not resentment.
Try Not to Pick Sides Between Siblings
While things may be super one-sided when the youngest sibling is a baby, things become a bit murkier once they become a walking, talking, hitting, and snatching toddler. In the younger years, it will often look like this: You are busy doing something, kids are playing on their own, the youngest cries, and you walk in on witnessing the eldest either hitting or snatching toys away from the youngest. Your immediate reaction will probably be to scold the eldest for their poor behavior, take things away from them, and send them into time out. Don’t do it.
While it may be true that your eldest child could not control themselves and acted out of frustration and anger, it may very well be that the youngest provoked them. They could have snatched the toy from them first or moved a toy that the eldest carefully arranged. Any number of things could have happened that you didn’t see. So, it’s never a good idea to fly in and blindly pick sides.
Instead, first, console the sibling in more distress and then try to ask what happened. After you listen to what happened, validate your children’s feelings, and then propose a solution that would be mutually agreeable.
Also, don’t always side with the youngest and keep the eldest accountable for everything. Because as they get older, the younger sibling will use this power dynamic to their advantage, and the sibling relationship will sour. And you don’t want that.
Don’t Make the Eldest Take on Parenting Duties
This is one mistake I’ve seen many times growing up, especially for kids with larger age gaps. Parents assume that the eldest sibling should know better and be responsible for keeping the youngest sibling behaving. And this relationship structure creates so much resentment and jealousy between the siblings that it can ruin the relationship forever. So, resist the urge to do this.
Your eldest is not responsible for the actions of the youngest. You are the parent. You are responsible for setting limits, enforcing those limits, and carrying out consequences. Don’t place adult responsibilities on your children. It’s not their job.
Treat Your Children as Worthy Individuals
Lastly, I want to remind you to treat your children as worthy individuals. Don’t compare them to each other. Don’t create situations where jealousy and rivalry are bound to take place. Remember that each sibling is an individual with strengths and weaknesses, interests, passions, and talents. Allow them to grow and develop themselves.
Treat them fairly and equitably. Spend time individually with each of them. Don’t make one of the siblings more important than the other. Foster their love and appreciation for each other, and you won’t have to battle sibling jealousy all the time.