Kids take time to adjust to new sibling. Here is why

“Our second child is three months, their older sibling is almost 3 years old. I am at my wits end. The eldest is clingy and constantly needy. My eldest has changed from a kind gentle, reasonably calm child to one who tantrums at the drop of a hat. There is constant fighting and nagging. There is biting and even some hitting involved. The moment I pick the baby up the drama begins. Seriously the oldest should by now be able to understand that the baby needs more attention right now. The oldest is very loving with the baby, it is us as parents that get the brunt of the nastiness. We try very hard to give attention to the eldest, but it is difficult to keep them happy.”

Often when there is a new member in the family, the kids seems to lose the plot. We as parents are trying to adjust to the new baby routine and then the older kids just seem to act out and almost become feral. All the rules that they used to follow have flown out the window and we are sure their ears migrated far away from where they used to be.

We expect them to be difficult for a day or two. We expect them to settle into the new normal, we spent months preparing them for this, why don’t they get it? The thing is they do get it, but they have survival instinct taking over and they don’t have the adult brain to help them adjust.

Before we get to how to help our kids adjust to the new normal. Let us unpack a few things that we as adults need to adjust to the new normal.

As adults we usually plan for a second, third or however many children we want. Some of our children catch us by surprise, but for most there is usually at least a discussion about having more than one child and for some a concerted effort to plan and make that child. This is usually an ongoing conversation between adults in a relationship. Very few parents actually involve their other kids in the conversation, now I understand this is firstly a decision that rests on the parents as they are the ones who have to make and raise a child. Sometimes a child may ask for a sibling, but the decision is ultimately in the hands of the parents.

So we plan, and we do what needs to be done so that we can add a new sibling to the family. We get the positive result we were hoping for and then the preparation starts. We get excited and we talk about the new sibling, we get books about adding siblings to help our kiddo understand that there will be a new member in the family. We try to explain to the best of our knowledge what they can expect. We build castles in the sky and then the new bundle of joy arrives.

This is when the adjustment period starts. It is often commented that the adjustment from one to two children is a staggering change. It is more exhausting. Where you had at least an extra pair of arms to help when you need to take a break, now, the moment baby is not in your arms, your eldest needs you. When you could have taken a nap when baby was sleeping, now you need to engage the older child and try to meet their needs in between all the other things that happen in day to day life.

We were warned that there will possibly be regressions with the oldest, from potty trained to back into diapers. From sleeping through the night to waking more often. Dry nights to a wet bed, but we were not warned about the change in behaviour. We were not warned about how long it might take for our child to settle into their new normal.

It takes on average 2.5 to 3 years for parents to adjust to the new norm of having a child. Moving from what can barely be named survival mode to, we can do this, and we have got this. Some get the hang sooner and others take a bit longer, but this is the estimate.

Now if it takes this long for adults who have a fully matured adult brain, a brain that can reason through, really understand what is going on and override emotional needs in favour of what needs to be done to survive, how long do we think it will take our children?

The rational brain only begins to mature at the age of 15 and it takes almost 10 years for it to mature fully. Under the age of 15 the limbic brain is maturing and under the age of 2 the only mature part of the brain is the reptilian brain (fight, flight or freeze).

The adjustment and the sacrifices we need to make as parents catch all of us by surprise. Even with just one child. There was so much preparation and yet when the baby arrived we realised that this is a whole new skill set we need to learn and adjust to. All of a sudden our plans need to include a little human being and their needs. We can no longer just come and go as we please and there is very little time if any at all for something like romance, unless you think having baby spit-up all over your clothes is romantic.

Things are different and it will never be the same as it used to be. We know this, we work with this and we also know that the infant and toddler stage will soon pass and that we will not drown. Our rational brain reminds us of this.

But our children, they do not have that. They do not have the rational brain that soothes the aches of not being the sole child. They don’t have the rational brain that eases the discomfort that comes with sacrifices being made. They perceive a new sibling as a threat. To them the new baby IS a perceived threat. Whenever resources becomes limited, we start to obsess about those resources, it’s the reptilian brain that stays aware that there are suddenly less resources available and we need to make a plan to ensure we get those resources we deem vital to our survival. What is vital to a child’s survival? Adults and their ability to keep them safe and provide for their needs.

When a new baby arrives in the home, our kids don’t just miss out on 50% of resources they have been accustomed to having to meet their needs, it actually drops lower. Parents are more tired, they are a bit more stressed and they do tend to be (albeit unintentionally) a bit more intense. We are not as readily available to attend to their needs. They have to learn to wait for attention or food. We are spread thin and thus our patience is less. All of a sudden they are met with resistance and new rules. They cannot rationalise what is going on, all they see is a baby that is “stealing” their resources.

So as parents we need to lower our expectations of our older children when it comes to the adjustment period of adding a new sibling. They did not really ask for a sibling, and if they did, they would and could not comprehend the sacrifices that need to be made to have a sibling. Be aware of this. This is something that happened to them and they really had no say over the matter.

Yes, children are more resilient than adults and seem to jump back into life much faster than what we do. That however, does not negate the fact that they are adjusting too. They need time to adjust to the new normal. It can take some kids three years to fully adjust to their new sibling. Once the resources they need (life after the new addition) starts normalising so too will their behaviour.

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