Bringing a new child into your family is one of the most exhilarating, terrifying, joyous and out-of-control things one can ever have the privilege of doing. Now, try to imagine the world your child is living in when a new sibling comes along. Their world can sometimes feel absolutely flipped upside down. My hope is to provide guidance for the many different difficulties and changes which may arise for your children as they take on new roles in being a sibling, and what you can do to help them through the process.
Before I give advice for helping your children, it’s absolutely necessary for me to remind you that above all else, more than any gimmicks or tricks, your child needs you. They need you to be healthy, steady and secure. If you have ever flown then you can recall the safety instructions the flight attendant gives before takeoff, ‘If the cabin loses pressure, put the oxygen mask on yourself before attending to your children’. Have you ever asked why? To put it simply, you’re really of no help to your kids if you’re out of breath. The same holds true when you bring a new child into your family. Make sure you keep breathing by staying emotionally, physically, and spiritually healthy so that you can care for your children well.
With that said, let’s move into what you can specifically do for your children as you prepare them for a new brother or sister; be it through birth, adoption or blending families.
Read – There are a lot of good picture books for younger children and chapter books for older children on this subject and its many nuances. By reading to them, you help them understand their own story, which includes their role in the story, changes that may come and any questions or uncertainties they may have. Books will enable you to have good ongoing conversation before and after a new child comes into your family.
The ‘talk’, or to put it more appropriately the ‘conversation’ about sex and sexuality will naturally come up in the process of bringing in a new family member. Please do not shy away from what can often feel very awkward for you. Every minute you stay engaged with this conversation sets your child up to practice healthy sex and sexuality as they grow older.
Preparations – As much as is age appropriate, allow them to be a part of the preparations for your new child. If this means allowing them into the doctor’s office for the sonogram, the lawyers office or the counseling session, the more time they get to engage the process beforehand the more secure they will feel when changes come.
Stability – Before your new child comes along, try to see to it that your current children’s lives will remain as stable and consistent as possible. This can include getting meals ready beforehand, seeking out someone to help with house-chores and homework, keeping to your routines of bedtime and meals, or making plans for them to get to and from practice, school or church. Rather than a new child being an abrupt shift in their life, preparing for stability will help them feel less overwhelmed so that they can enjoy the process.
Roles – Children are egocentric by nature, and will want to know more about how this new sibling affects them than anything else. This does not mean they are being self-centered, but merely trying to learn how to adapt to their new surroundings. Help them adjust by explicitly speaking to any changes to their role (such as from only child to big brother), as well as what will remain the same for them (such as your love, care and provision for them). Kids are amazingly resilient; all you have to do is help them along the process.
Kristina Burrow-Woodruff, Registered and Board Certified Art Therapist who specializes in adjustment issues, advises that when adding siblings by blending families, “it is important to remember that with blended families the older siblings may have strong emotions about a new brother or sister joining the family”.
She suggests talking with your kids and asking them questions about how they feel and any fears they may have about it. The children may have fears that a new sibling will take their place or be loved more by the stepparent or parent. In blended families the older children may split their time between households and worry about the new sibling being there all the time, getting all the attention. Woodruff explains that “it is essential to assure them through words and actions that your love for them will not change with the addition of a sibling.” She recommends balancing time with each child, giving older siblings some one on one time with you, and continuing family routines, rituals, and special bonding things you do together.
When expanding your family through adoption, Tara Mills, Licensed Professional Counselor who specializes in child/parent communication, says that first of all, you “must explain and prepare sibling(s) that every family is different and your family will include a child from a different birth mother and father. Even though the adoptive mother didn't birth this child, this adopted child is equally part of the family. Secondly, the adoptive parents explaining to the adopted child his/her birth story is crucial. The adopted child should not find out from anyone else. Prepare siblings for the sacredness of the adopted child's birth story. Finally, prepare siblings for the questions their adopted sibling may have as they grow older, by letting them know to direct him/her to the parents with their questions.”
Every child brought into a family is unique whether through birth, blending or adoption. Simply put, take care of yourself, be present with your children, and enjoy the uniqueness of each child in your family.