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Child Development and Parenting: Infants

Coping with Transitions in Early Childhood: Getting a New Sibling or Remaining an Only Child

Angela Oswalt, MSW, Natalie Staats Reiss, Ph.D and Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

In America, about 80% of families with children are composed of more than one child, meaning most children have brothers and sisters. Many children get a new sibling during their preschool years, either through birth or adoption. The addition of a new sibling can be a huge transition for young children to go through, as they must start to share attention, affection, and space with another young person for the first time.

Parents can ease this change by preparing children well in advance for the upcoming birth or adoption. Caregivers should try to explain to kids, in age-appropriate language, what to expect and how their situation will likely change. Books and videos written in kid-friendly language and covering the topic of sibling introductions are available at many libraries and bookstores. Above all, caregivers should try to make existing children feel important and involved during this exciting time in the family's life. Young children can hold Mommy's hand during an ultrasound procedure, or draw pictures to decorate the new child's bedroom. Families can play games to come up with silly and serious names for the new arrival. Caregivers should also repeatedly emphasize that with the introduction of new family members comes new roles, which offer additional opportunities for purpose and meaning. For instance, caregivers can tell little Devon that he is now "Big Brother Devon" and that this means he will gain a playmate, and also someone new to love and care for. Although it's not necessary, caregivers can buy a small token (a new tee shirt, small toy, etc.) to present to older children when the new arrival first comes home, while reminding them that they are still special and important.

No matter how well caregivers prepare their existing children for the arrival of a new child, they should expect some resentment and acting-out behavior to occur when the new child actually arrives. Especially if the new child is an infant requiring exhausting and continuous feedings, caregivers will have less time to give to older children and will necessarily have to split their attention up more. To regain this attention, young children may regress and act in more baby-like ways. For instance, they may become clingy, whiny, or start misbehaving on purpose so as to regain parental attention that they have lost. To combat this behavior, and reinforce the notion that older children are still valued, caregivers should make it a priority to spend some individual time with older children each day. Even a few minutes of alone time with an older child can make a big difference. Caregivers should also verbally acknowledge and empathize with their "big kids" about the difficulties associated with the change. Another strategy is to make older children feel like they have an important role in helping to care for their new siblings (e.g., getting diapers, rubbing the baby's back, singing to him or her).

As time goes by, and the children are able to interact and start to play together, feelings of resentment usually tend to fade away. However, some sibling rivalries may continue throughout childhood. Caregivers can help decrease sibling rivalry in several different ways. First, it's important to avoid making comparisons among children. This is especially important to avoid when one child is more skilled or more easy-going than another. For instance, saying "I don't understand why you can't be calmer like your big brother" can be demeaning and insulting to a younger child, and leave him or her feeling less unique and important. It's important to acknowledge feelings of resentment or disparity between siblings. Saying "I know you don't like your sister right now, but it's not okay to shove her" can help meet a child's need to be heard and understood, without condoning inappropriate behavior. Finally, whenever possible, caregivers should allow children to solve their own conflicts. However, careful supervision and monitoring of this coming-to-terms-with-one-another process is vital so as to make sure children are not using physical violence or abusive language with one another.

The ideal and desired outcome is that sibling children develop positive, nurturing relationships with one another. Younger children will benefit from having an older sibling model relatively advanced social, emotional, and cognitive skills and abilities. In turn, older children experience enhanced self-esteem and gain pride from being "experts". In many families, a strong sibling bond will continue through childhood, adolescence, and into adult years.

Each family needs to determine the best number of children for their own unique circumstances. Some caregivers choose to focus their time, energy, and other resources on a single child rather than trying to raise multiple children. There can be several benefits to having a single child. Only children often enjoy more privacy and alone time with their parents, resulting in closer relationships. Children and parents also avoid any sibling rivalry and resulting conflict. Often, only children and their parents are able to enjoy more expensive leisure and educational activities, such as lessons, summer camp or vacations involving travel, since there are fewer children to spread resources across.

There are also disadvantages to being an only child. Single children do not get the opportunity to develop close sibling relationships; something they may wish for as they get older. Also, only children may feel more pressure from parents to succeed, because caregiver discipline and focus will not be spread across multiple children. It is difficult to say whether growing up as a single child is better or worse than growing up with siblings. Each experience is different in its own ways, and each family's experience will be unique.