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.

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. 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.

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.”

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