Many expectant parents worry about sibling rivalry as it can be frustrating and upsetting to watch your children fight with one another. Who doesn’t want a calm, loving family life? Prevention is better than cure and parents can do a lot to help prepare older children for the arrival of a new sibling and start as you mean to go on.

How to tell your child you’re expecting

As soon as you are happy to tell people (it’s not fair to tell a child a secret like this if you’re not telling other people about the pregnancy yet), explain what is going to happen. Talk to your child in an age-appropriate way, and encourage them to get excited about the new arrival, praise them for being grown up and acting like a big brother or sister.

There are toys, games and books that can be helpful in introducing your children to the idea of a new baby in a non-threatening, fun way. Nearer the time of the birth, involve your children by allowing them to help to choose a present, or draw a picture to welcome the new baby and help them practice taking care of dolls so they know what to expect with a new baby.

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Avoid big changes close to the birth of your child

Try and avoid big changes for your children (such as childcare, changing schools or moving house) too close to the birth as the child will associate them with the new arrival. After the birth – encourage the older children to help with the baby, keep an eye on them with the baby and encourage gentle touching and holding of the baby with you supervising. Point out that the baby seems to like them and show them how proud you are of them for being such a wonderful brother or sister. Encourage them to make memories to share with the new baby when he or she grows up. Photo albums and scrapbooks can work well and the child will enjoy sticking in the pictures and older children can write descriptions to accompany them.

Spend time with your old children too

Although you will be busy, it is crucial that you spend time with your older children too. Give them time privileges and ask friends and family to show affection to the older children as well as the new baby. Be aware of the mood of your older children and external factors that might make them more susceptible to feelings that could develop into sibling rivalry.

As children grow up, they will disagree and argue/fight at times. It can be hard to know when to stop the fighting and when to ignore it. If you often find yourself thinking that ‘they’re as bad as each other’ or ‘he gives as good as he gets’ you’re probably able to let them sort it out for themselves. What you’re witnessing is natural conflicts between children who are growing up together and competing for attention, privileges and developing their own identity. More serious is when there is one child who consistently behaves negatively towards another. This is often called sibling rivalry in young children but can escalate into bullying as children get older if it’s not addressed early.

What is sibling rivalry?

In general, negative behaviour that could be interpreted as sibling rivalry will occur when:

• Children feel threatened
• Children attempt to assert their own independence and identity
• Children seek attention from parents/other adults
• Children become bored and frustrated
• Children are hungry, tired or ill
• Children bear grudges that magnify new irritations of conflicts
• Children have not yet developed to the point that they can see the world from others perspectives

Try to ensure that around the time of the birth, your older children feel secure, valued, and are kept busy and stimulated without feeling pushed out. Children have bad moods and feel vulnerable at times and it’s important not to overreact to a bad day, but longer-term negativity can trigger sibling rivalry and this is what we’re trying to avoid.

To help prevent sibling rivalry, parents can:

• Give each child special time and allow each child their own space.
• Show love and affection to all children and members of the family.
• Avoid comparing the children’s abilities, development or preferences.
• Encourage the children to develop their own hobbies and friends.
• Give children tasks that will encourage the children to cooperate.
• Plan family activities that everyone will get something out of.
• Discuss conflicts when everyone is calm and employ general conflict resolution strategies.
• Explain the household rules clearly.
• Encourage courtesy and mutual respect among family members.
• Teach children about compromising.
• Help children discuss their emotions so that they can verbalise them.

The most powerful buffer against sibling rivalry is ensuring that your child feels that he or she is loved equally to other members of the family and valued as a person in his or her own right. If you talk openly and in an age-appropriate way, to your child about new babies and ensure they feel secure and wanted, they will avoid the trauma of sibling rivalry – then all you’ve got to worry about is the kids ganging up together against you!

Article by Dr. Amanda Gummer, Child Psychologist and Founder of The Good Play Guide.  

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