The group dynamic of new siblings

by James Fouché
Baby Yum Yum - The group dynamic of new siblings
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Many movies have been made, and many books written, about parents coming home with a new sibling. We watch these movies and read these books, but still struggle to understand the impact a new arrival can have on other siblings in the house. Written by James Fouché

Most parents become well-versed in animated movies. Being an author, I like to pick at script and continuity problems while watching telly with the little ones, says James Fouché. While watching Boss Baby and Storks I became aware of the possible consequences of adding a new baby to an existing family unit.

At first this had eluded us, as it would most parents. The temporary upheaval of a newborn is an adjustment that demands your full attention. But with a third one on the way, and having been made aware of a potential concern, we both decided to pay more attention. We tried to be sensitive to sudden changes during the pregnancy, birth and homecoming phases.

We quickly realised that there was so much happening at the same time that we were oblivious to the underlying psychological implications of everyone involved. Expecting parents face a growth period, which becomes complicated when there are other children in the house.

“Suddenly there is a complex group dynamic to consider, made up of unique individuals with their own identities and their own sense of boundaries.”

Suddenly there is a complex group dynamic to consider, made up of unique individuals with their own identities and their own sense of boundaries. It feels like playing checkers with chess pieces. Whether toddlers or teenagers or adults, if you are not aware of what is going on, it can get messy. Although there is not much one can do to plan for this inevitable minefield of emotions, I asked for input from two specialists.

ALSO READ: Sibling rivalry: why do siblings fight & how should parents deal with it?

Pregnancy

According to Dr Hetta van Niekerk, an educational psychologist, the best thing to do is to involve and prepare young siblings in a concrete way. Dr Christa Boshoff, a school counsellor and play therapist, echoes this by encouraging parents to clearly explain the process using age appropriate language, and to instil positive emotions towards the new addition.

We created awareness by mentioning the baby in mommy’s tummy. Using dolls, we found ways to illustrate the life growing inside mommy. We took them shopping for presents for their new baby sister. The eldest enjoyed picking out a toy and wrapping it. She even offered some names for her baby sister. Sadly, for her, the name Pink did not resonate with us.

However, while the eldest seemed most receptive to the baby, she instantly became a baby again herself. At times she would have a pee-pee accident, which she could have avoided but chose not to. Van Niekerk suggested, “The excitement of everybody in anticipation of the birth quite likely made her a bit uncertain about her attachment to her mom. Regression is the most effective mechanism for a very young child to ensure their developmental needs are met.”

Birth

Our boy was only 17 months old when his baby sister was born. Visiting the hospital, something bizarre happened. He flatly ignored his mommy and clung to his daddy. He purposely ran around to avoid looking at mommy or the new baby. Our daughter, on the other hand, climbed on the bed and immediately became possessive of the little one. She wanted to kiss her and look at her small fingers.

“Be patient with them,” advised Boshoff. “Realise that it is their way of coping with the change and this behaviour might only be temporary. Parents must allow older children time to adapt to the new baby and the new routine. Talk to them and remind them that no one will take their place.”

Homecoming

Arriving home, the eldest almost turned into a mature girl overnight. She wanted to hold baby the whole time. She also wanted to help with changing nappies and bathing. “Although Mom’s relationship with the baby started long before its birth, a sibling can only step into the role of big sister or brother after the birth, and then start to develop a relationship with the new member of the family,” said Van Niekerk.

After a week of distancing himself from the new baby, he began giggling when she was awake and began wanting to touch her. “It is possible that he was unable to ‘understand’ the picture of his mom and the new sibling in hospital due to developmental immaturity combined with finding himself in an unfamiliar setting. However, two weeks later he began using various social and relational cues to interpret this new relationship.”

Face time

In dealing with a whirlwind of tantrums and giggles, it became clear that a lack of face time between parents can be a terrible thing. It leads to miscommunication, tension and arguments. “It is crucial for parents to formally schedule time to spend with each other. The atmosphere at home is directly or indirectly linked to the emotional well-being of the parents.”

In closing, van Niekerk adds, “Parents need to be aware of the potential threat a new baby can pose to the fulfilment of nurturing needs of very young siblings. The smaller the age gap, the greater the possibility that the toddler may regard the new baby as competition. It is therefore important for each parent to be mindful of maintaining the unique relationship you have with the toddler. Make a point of one-on-one time with the toddler to confirm the special bond, even if it is difficult time-wise.”

READ NEXT: Parenting kids with a big age gap

Frequently asked questions on new siblings

Q1. What impact can a new sibling have on other children in the house?

A1. The arrival of a new sibling can significantly impact other children in the house, often causing feelings of competition and insecurity, particularly in toddlers. They may perceive the new baby as a threat to the attention and nurturing they receive from their parents.

Q2. Why is the age gap between siblings important in understanding their reactions to a new baby?

A2. The age gap is important because the smaller the age gap, the more likely it is that the older child will see the new baby as competition. Toddlers, in particular, may struggle with the sudden division of parental attention and may react negatively.

Q3. How can parents support their toddler when a new baby arrives?

A3. Parents can support their toddler by ensuring they spend one-on-one time with them to reinforce their unique bond. Even if time is limited, dedicated moments with the toddler can help confirm their special place in the family and mitigate feelings of jealousy or competition.

Q4. What strategies can parents use to maintain a strong relationship with their toddler after a new baby is born?

A4. Strategies include setting aside specific times each day for individual attention, involving the toddler in caring for the new baby to foster a sense of inclusion, and continuously reassuring the toddler of their importance and love.

Q5. What are the potential emotional responses of a toddler to a new sibling?

A5. A toddler may exhibit a range of emotional responses, including jealousy, regression in behaviour (such as wanting to be held more often or reverting to baby talk), increased clinginess, or acting out to gain attention.

Q6. How can involving the toddler in baby care activities help?

A6. Involving the toddler in baby care activities can help them feel included and important. Simple tasks like fetching nappies, singing to the baby, or gently patting the baby can foster a sense of responsibility and reduce feelings of displacement.

Q7. What are some signs that a toddler is struggling with the arrival of a new sibling?

A7. Signs that a toddler is struggling may include increased tantrums, regression in previously mastered skills (like toilet training), changes in sleep patterns, withdrawal, or overt attention-seeking behaviours.

Q8. How can parents balance attention between the new baby and the toddler?

A8. Parents can balance attention by establishing a routine that includes dedicated time for each child, enlisting help from partners or family members to share childcare duties, and being mindful of giving the toddler positive reinforcement and affection.

Q9. Why is one-on-one time with the toddler crucial after the arrival of a new sibling?

A9. One-on-one time is crucial because it reassures the toddler of their unique and valued place in the family. This focused attention helps maintain the emotional bond and can alleviate feelings of jealousy or neglect.

Q10. What long-term benefits can result from effectively managing sibling adjustment to a new baby?

A10. Effectively managing sibling adjustment can lead to stronger sibling relationships, improved emotional security for the older child, and a more harmonious family dynamic. It sets a foundation for cooperation, empathy, and mutual support among siblings as they grow.

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