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Ask Dr. Sears: Jealous 5-Year-Old

Q What are your thoughts about birth order and sibling rivalry? I am 6 1/2 months pregnant and I have a 5-year-old daughter. She is jealous and acts out negatively. I am worried that once the baby comes, it will only get worse. What can I do?

A: Firstborns naturally experience more sibling rivalry since initially they don't have to share, whereas subsequent children have to share from the get-go. Certainly this was the case with the first of our eight children. By the time number eight came along, the older children had gotten used to welcoming new siblings into their home. In my experience, the age between siblings is what influences rivalry more than the birth order. Children over the age of 3 usually welcome a new baby in the home, since they are more verbal and can express their feelings, and have other friendships at preschool. Also, older children tend to regard a new baby as a novelty. Yet learning to live with siblings can be like bootcamp for living in the adult world. In sibling relationships, children build upon this blueprint and learn how to negotiate, how to compromise, how to forgive, how to be forgiven, and how to love someone even when you don't like them. This is why building a healthy sibling relationship gives children the tools to succeed in life.

It is also normal for a firstborn child to show behavioral regressions during your pregnancy, because mommy is obviously different. You are tuning in to your changing body (and rightly so), and your older child is sensing that something very big, and possibly upsetting may be happening in the family. You can smooth out these regressive behaviors by involving her in your pregnancy and in the care of her new sibling once he or she arrives. Here's how:

Make friends before birth. Show and tell your child about the new baby while you're still pregnant. Encourage her to be involved in getting ready for her little brother or sister by helping you to buy clothing, select baby toys, and choose a name. Let the big sib talk to and pat the soon-to-be brother or sister and feel Baby kick.

Replay your child's babyhood. Get out the photo album from your older child's baby days and show and talk about what she looked like. Show her pictures of how she was nursed and carried in your arms. Talk about the presents she got when she was a baby and the visitors that came to meet her. Talking about the older sibling's baby days prepares her for what babies are like and reminds her that she, too, got a lot of attention when she was tiny. Tell her, "Visitors will bring baby presents," and "Tiny babies really need their mommies, so mommy will carry Baby a lot, just like I did with you." Take her along with you on your prenatal checkups so she can hear Baby's heartbeat and see the ultrasound pictures. Some hospitals even have classes for expectant siblings.

Include gifts for your older child. Since your friends will lavish gifts on the new baby, the older child may feel left out. Before you go to the hospital, wrap several gifts for your older child and stash them away for when people come to visit the new baby. When friends bring presents for the new baby but not for the sibling, surprise her with one of your "big sister gifts."

Timeshare. Your child is probably worried that she won't have enough time with you, and she probably won't. It's unrealistic to think you will be able to give 200 percent. Yet you can share with your child the time you spend caring for your baby. Wearing your baby in a baby sling gives you two free hands to play a game with your older child. While feeding Baby, read a book to your child or just have some "cuddle time." Martha found that starting the day off with 10 minutes of cuddle time with the older child, while the new baby was sleeping, helped start the day off with some special one-on-one emotional refueling.

You're special too! A new baby naturally attracts lots of attention. Friends shower gifts on the new baby, and parents are constantly holding, feeding, changing, or comforting the new arrival. Older siblings can get lost in the whirlwind of activity a new baby brings into the house. It's understandable that older children may feel that no one notices them. When an admirer says, "What a beautiful baby," add: "Now we have two beautiful children," or "And she has a beautiful big sister!" Remember that dads can give the older child special attention too, such as by taking them out to the park.

Make the older child feel important and needed. This elevates the older child's position in the family. Tell big sister that you need her help and show her what to do. In our large family, we refer to this as "giving her a job in the family organization." Give her a fun job title like "mommy's helper," mommy's assistant," or "mommy's go-fer." Then, ask her to participate ("Bring me a diaper, please"; "Let's dress the baby together"). Feeling important helps many children relish the "big sister" or "big brother" role.

Role-play. You can foster healthy sibling relationships by setting your older child up to perform various roles, such as the following:

  • The protector. Teach your older child that she has a responsibility to protect the younger one and that this includes modeling good behavior: "Be sure to pick up your toys, so that Baby doesn't fall over them and hurt himself." "Would you make sure that Baby doesn't crawl out of this room while mommy finishes cooking supper?"
  • The helper. Helping one another can bring out the best in the helper and the one being helped. Doing good for each other promotes good relationships between siblings. The giver feels empowered and successful; the receiver feels cared for, valued, and loved. This builds social skills so that your children grow up knowing how to give and receive.
  • The teacher. Older siblings shine when they pass a skill on to a younger one. Encourage your child to take on the role of teacher. When our Matthew took on the role of baseball coach to his younger brother, Stephen, they spent more time together and grew closer.
  • The doctor. Encourage siblings to comfort one another. If your new baby gets an "owie" ask your older child to please put a Band-Aid on baby's scratch. The title "doctor" lets the older child see themselves in a compassionate, helpful role.

Another bit of P.R. (parental reminders) to use with your older child is to impress upon her the true meaning of "sister." Friends come and go, but siblings are forever. Our first two children, Jimmy and Bobby, squabbled a lot, especially in their early years, yet they eventually grew closer and closer. Now they are Dr. Jim and Dr. Bob, partners in the Sears Family Pediatric Practice, and friends forever.

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