Big Brother Blues

I’m shocked with my 2 1/2-year-old’s response to our new baby. We spent a lot of time preparing him for the change and reassuring him of his special place in our hearts. What happened? He hates her.

Imagine that your husband told you he is going to get a new wife in addition to you. (If you’re a man, reverse the genders.) He tells you that she will be much younger than you, so she will need special attention. He will need to devote a lot of time to her, especially at first. You can help look after her, and you may have to share some of your things with her. He still loves you, but the family will be happier and more complete with two wives, and he’s quite able to love you both equally. How do you feel? How do you want to treat her when she arrives? Well, that may be how your son feels.

I remember when my baby sister arrived. I had really looked forward to her coming. I imagined a playmate, a special friend, and I imagined a cute little friendly creature who would be like a big living doll, smiling at everyone and available for me to enjoy. But she wasn’t. She was a baby. I didn’t really know what that was, but it turned out to be a noisy helpless little thing that cried and wet and smelled and took up huge amounts of my mother’s attention, attention that had previously been mine. That wasn’t any fun for me. I wished she would just go back where she came from. I actually withdrew into myself (especially when three more siblings appeared!) and stopped expressing my needs and feelings to my parents. My parents, who were kind and loving, didn’t know I had done this; they thought I was just independent. I was actually grieving; I have had to work to get back in touch with these needs in adult life.

It’s important to empathize with your son’s feelings about his little sister. The reality is, she is taking away time and attention which he had previously. She is always having to be fed and changed and held. He is no longer the favoured youngest person in the family. Relatives, and people on the street, ooh and aah about the baby and not about him. He can’t play with the baby, and her needs always come first. If he says “I hate her,” he is expressing his normal resentment and anger about being displaced in your time priorities, if not in your affection.

Reflect his emotions back to him without judgment – “You’re really upset that your little sister takes up so much of my time.” Let him help with things around the house, and point out the “big kid privileges” he has that the baby doesn’t have because she’s too little. If he starts to act like a baby (this is a common response to a baby sibling), say “You wish you were the baby of the family again,” give him some special cuddles, and let him be a “baby” for a while. You must set limits if he tries to harm the baby (some children do), but don’t put him down for it. Just say “I know you’re mad that she’s here, but she can’t help being here, so it isn’t her fault. It’s not okay to hurt her, because she’s too little to defend herself. Tell me how mad you are instead.” Then listen to and accept how mad he is.

Make a point of setting aside special time for each parent to be with your son and do what he likes at least once a day, preferably when the baby is asleep and will not disturb your time together. If it’s at all possible, make sure his bedtime routine is soothing, and includes a story and some time for you to listen to him, uninterrupted by the baby’s needs. Touch base with him every hour, seeing that his needs are being met and he knows you are thinking about him. He will only be sure of his special place in your hearts if he also has a special place in your day.