Dr. Keith Kanner is a licensed clinical child, adolescent, and adult psychologist and psychoanalyst with a full private practice in Rancho Santa Fe, CA. Dr. Kanner took the time to offer our readers some tips on helping siblings adjust to a new baby in the family.
Tell us a little about yourself.
I am an Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry in the School of Medicine at The University of California, San Diego. I am the Host of Fox6 Television's Your Family Matters Show which is part of the Fox6 Morning News and The San Diego Living Show. I am also in the process of writing a series of parenting books based on my show. A more complete bio is available on the Fox6 website under my show.
What are some common feelings that siblings experience when a new baby is added to the family?
Usually mixed at all ages, but there are certain differences and degrees depending upon the ages between the siblings as well as the baby's gender. The mixed feelings are usually envy, anger, and excitement, but frequently shown through behavior rather than words. In other words, most older siblings go through a normal regression when they experience the arrival of a new sibling.
Children under the age of eight also question "why" their parents had another child. Because of their level of development, they sometimes think it was because they were not "good enough" or the "wrong" gender. It is important that parents clarify that having another baby was NOT due to something insufficient in the existing one.
What kind of behavior can parents expect to see out of their other children once the baby arrives?
Regression is what is most common. This translates to earlier behaviors such as crying, tantrums, irritability, bed wetting, and all sorts of anxiety symptoms such as fears, nightmares, and even trouble at school. In most cases, however, the symptoms are short-lived - one to two months - and then the child resumes their previous level of functioning. The symptoms are due to discomfort of strong feelings within the child that they are struggling to manage.
How does the age of the siblings affect how they feel and how they react?
I always suggest trying to space children three years apart in order to give the older one time to work through some very important developmental times, namely, sufficient bonding time with his parents, and time to work through the conflicts around toddlerhood. By three years of age, most children are working on separating from their parents and trying to be "bigger" boys and "girls", and certainly NOT babies! Therefore, when a baby arrives, they feel "much older", which helps damper their dismay.
On the flip side, parents who have children nine to 24 months apart are often exhausted. This becomes even more so when the older one regresses due to the reaction of the new sibling.
What can parents do for siblings to ease the transition of a new addition into their home?
- Space them three years apart if possible.
- Be sure to talk with them about the new arrival and how this has to do with how wonderful they are, not because they want to replace them.
- Be sure to spend plenty of one on one time with the older child so she still feels as though she gets you to herself.
- Make them feel "special" by being the older one and different in their own right.
- Giving them a gift from the baby is controversial. If they are old enough, they will know that the infant could not do this on their own. Parents are better off giving the older child the gift of attention and time spent together without the baby. This is an important time for each parent to spend alone time with the older child, especially mother, and especially if she is breast feeding. Older children always want to return to the earlier years when they see the intensification of attention the infant receives from mother.
What do you feel is the best age difference between siblings?
Three years or more, if possible. This places the older child two developmental steps ahead of the infant and makes it more tolerable for the siblings as they feel older and more settled in their development.
What can parents do to prepare children for the arrival of a new baby?
- Talking to the older child in the last trimester of mom's pregnancy is a good idea.
- Discussing when the baby will arrive is important as well as basics, such as where he or she will sleep and also what to expect in the house is also important - crying; visitors; etc.
- Make it clear that the new baby is a "good" thing, not because of anything that the older child has not provided for the parents.
- If the child is over three, having him "help" you is a very good idea with the notion that he is the "bigger" one and will help you "teach" the baby. This emphasis will ease the older child's adaptation to the new competitor in the house.
- Finally, ask him if he has any questions about it.
Do you have any other tips or advice you'd like to share with our readers?
It is very important for any new parents to read ahead of time about the development of children from infancy through adolescence so they better know what to expect.
Where can we read more about your expertise and advice?
I am part of Fox News and have a site on Fox6. My show is called Your Family Matters which is a weekly show. In addition, I have a weekly blog also on Fox6.com and am available for questions through e-mail. The show can also been seen on the Fox6 website. I have a series of books coming out in the next year called: Your Family Matters: Parental Dilemmas. The first book will cover infancy through age five.