Dealing with a jealous toddler when a new baby comes along
The transition from one-child family to two-child family is a very big deal indeed - for parents and child
The transition from one-child family to two-child family is a very big deal indeed – for the parents and, particularly, the toddler who arrived first. Photograph: iStock
The world as he knew it was about to end for my first child and he was blissfully unaware life would never be the same again. It was enough to reduce me to tears on several occasions.
I blame the pregnancy hormones for getting so worked up about what the impending arrival of a sibling into the house was going to mean for the baby’s two-year-old brother. After all, it is not exactly an uncommon experience.
About a third of births in Ireland are to women having a second child. The latest available CSO figures show that in 2016, of the 63,897 births, 22,611 (35.4 per cent), were to second-time mothers. Given that two years – give or take a few months – is a popular time gap between children, it can be presumed that in the majority of cases, the older child was just a toddler when the baby arrived.
At a personal rather than societal level, that transition from one-child family to two-child family is a very big deal indeed – for the parents and, particularly, the toddler who arrived first. No subsequent birth is likely to have quite the same impact on the family because the “sibling path” will no longer be unknown territory.
Parenting expert Val Mullally, founder of Cork-based Koemba Parenting, believes expectant parents second-time-round do worry beforehand about the psychological effect the new-born will have on their older child. But their empathy can wear thin in the heady, hormonal and exhausting early days of having a baby in the house.
However, short-tempered exasperation from parents is likely to exacerbate the “acting out” or developmental regression that is quite normal from a toddler who is trying to make sense of what has just happened to his or her family.
It’s why Mullally has written a book, Baby and Toddler on Board – Mindful Parenting When a New Baby Joins the Family, one she hopes parents will read beforehand.
Not, by the way, that you should refer to it as a “new baby” in front of the sibling – Mullally learnt that when she heard a four-year-old child turn to her mother and ask: “Mummy, when you get the new baby, what happens to me?”
“Think of it,” Mullally writes. “When you get the new car, the new sofa, the new TV – what happens to the old one? It’s discarded!”
Trying to see what is going on through the eyes of a young child can help a parent understand the best action to take that might avert or defuse challenging behaviour. It’s not a “toddler taming book”, she stresses, rather one that encourages parents to perceive and respond to the young child’s experience of life at the time of a new arrival. And not only the parents, but other adults in that child’s life, such as grandparents, aunts and uncles.
Talking to Health + Family ahead of publication, Mullally recommends parents imagine for a moment how they would feel if their beloved partner turned around to them and said “I love you so much” and then added “now I am going to have two of you”. Even as mature adults, we might be tempted to throw our toys out of the cot in protest.
How much harder for toddlers to cope with the “big emotions” that may flood them when they feel ignored as everybody coos over the new bundle. They don’t understand why they suddenly have to share their parents and their brains are not mature enough to regulate their resulting feelings.
But clued-in adults can turn even the simple act of “goo-goo ga-ga” to the toddler’s advantage. It’s not so much the words but the tone that matters in new baby talk, Mullally points out. So instead of a running commentary on how cute the newborn is, take the opportunity to affirm the older, listening child, by babbling to the baby about his or her clever, kind, helpful etc big brother or sister.
What’s common but not conducive to reducing family stress is when a well-meaning but more authoritarian-inclined grandparent says of a tantruming toddler, “you really need to get that child to behave now”. It’s only putting more pressure on the parents to feel they must control the tot, when patient guiding might be more productive.
“The more you insist, the more they resist,” Mullally points out. Rather, the goal should be to promote mutual connection and co-operation.
That doesn’t mean letting the toddler do whatever they want. Apart from anything else, that wouldn’t make them happy either because “a child without boundaries feels emotionally unsafe – they need your guidance”. Let them make small decisions – “do you want to wear your red or your blue jumper?”, “do you want toast or a cracker?” – but be calm and consistent in holding the line on matters such as “you have to be strapped into your seat if we’re going out in the car”.
Mullally took three years, on and off, to write this practical guide to parenting mindfulness and finding peace in the frantic world of babyhood and toddlerdom. She believes this period of family life is the foundation on which the siblings’ own relationships will be built – with one another and, as they grow up, with other people.
It started with a journal of observations of a family preparing for and adjusting to a second child. From that emerged three strands, which take a section each in the finished book: follow the child’s lead; cross the bridge; and hearth the home. There is more of a focus on interaction with the toddler rather than the baby, with real-life situations being illuminated by insights gathered from neuro-science, child psychology and the author’s experience as a teacher, parent and now grandparent.
Mullally believes that “crossing the bridge” is the most important aspect of the approach she is advocating, which involves verbalising the toddler’s experience. To do that, you have to be in the child’s world – park your car with all your “stuff”, your emotions and judgments, on one side of the bridge and go over to the child’s side.
“This is important because we can respond to the child’s needs when we perceive their perspective. Then we’ll discover how to create the win-win solutions that both toddler and parent need to thrive.”
For instance, if a child says, “I don’t like the baby,” and we reply, “Of course you do, you love your sister,” we deny the reality he’s experiencing, whereas he needs support with whatever emotions he is feeling at that moment.
“Emotions aren’t right or wrong – they are the compass to navigate relationship,” Mullally says. “We can respond to his experience: ‘You don’t like the baby. Tell me more’.”
Equally, using “time out” is not recommended at the best of times but “cross the bridge” and imagine how it would feel in these circumstances for a child placed “out” while the baby is “in” with the parent, says Mullally. The isolation can feel like abandonment, which may trigger panic and a desperation to reconnect with the parent at any cost – either through attention-grabbing behaviour or saying sorry when they don’t mean it.
‘Crossing the bridge’
“Crossing the bridge” might sound easy but our own thoughts can get in the way and we tend to see our agenda as the priority. Of course, getting out of the house when we’re due somewhere might be urgent to us but toddlers don’t take their time over something to deliberately make us late. Flexibility and creativity in handling frustrating moments can make a big difference to the outcome.
“No toddler gets up in the morning and says ‘I’m going to make my parents’ life hell today’,” says Mullally. Even if it sometimes feels like that.
Rather, their “bad” behaviour is probably a sign they feel they are not receiving the attention they crave from their parent, in all probability the mother, who inevitably will have to be more hands-on with the baby. Reprimands of the “don’t be naughty” variety are more likely to alienate than reassure.
“When you scold or threaten, the message your child hears is, ‘you’re not okay’,” Mullally explains. A big hug might be more helpful – for both sides.
In the face of the emotional and practical demands on the mother at this time, it makes sense that the father becomes the toddler’s greatest ally in adjusting. Mothers can be inclined to act as “gate-keeper” to the father-child relationship first-time around, so it’s a real opportunity for deeper paternal bonding when she is preoccupied with the new-born.
Apart from the practical concerns we may have about coping after the birth of a second child, don’t parents often secretly worry beforehand about whether they could really love two equally?
“It’s not about loving children equally but rather uniquely,” Mullally replies. “They will be different.”
Baby and Toddler on Board – Mindful Parenting When a New Baby Joins the Family, by Val Mullally (Orla Kelly Publishing) will be published as a paperback and e-book on November 19th, 2018