Those words sound like preparation for battle, but there is a more positive way to think about them. I am always impressed when before giving an injection a doctor says, “This will pinch”, or “This may feel cold” when about to put an instrument of some sort on your body. Pediatricians vary in the way they approach children about these things. Sometimes doctors and others think the way to get a child’s cooperation is to reassure them that everything will be fine. But what happens when it is not?
A colleague told me about a child who was suddenly having a hard time sharing, and whose behavior demonstrated both anger and anxiety. The child was eventually able to tell her that she was worried about the baby in mommy’s tummy. She apparently was already thinking about having to share mommy with this new baby. The child’s mother had tried, obviously without success, to reassure the girl that of course she would still be there for her.
A mom who had recently had a second child was part of this conversation, and she offered the observation that one has to be careful about the reassurance given. She pointed out that things are not going to be the same for the first child after the birth of a second. This is true both in the practical terms of time spent caring for a newborn, but also in terms of the psychological and emotional space formerly devoted to the firstborn which now must include two. This mom’s idea was that reassurance had to include reality so that a child would then not only be better prepared, but in the future would be able to trust what you tell her about things that may happen.
Many times people have trouble with that approach, believing that rather than helping a situation you create unnecessary anxiety in a child. Yet that may really be our own anxiety about our child’s anxiety at work. We don’t want our children to feel upset, and so may resist talking about things that we think may upset them. Or we may worry that certain things are beyond a child’s developmental level to understand. Then again, it may feel simpler at times just to avoid dealing with upsetting things. Life with a child is easier that way – or so it may seem.
In talking to me, parents often have expressed anxiety about telling a child that a sibling is on the way. They are concerned about how, what and when to tell their child the news. They ask when to take their child out of the crib that is destined for the new baby. Is it better to have the new baby in the parents’ room initially, or to start them both off in the same room? If toilet training and giving up the bottle has begun for the first child, won’t that be a problem when the new baby comes, nursing or feeding from a bottle and pooping in diapers?
I have met with parents who tell their child as soon as they know themselves, others whose pregnancy is apparent to all, who have still not talked to their child about it. There are parents who display pictures of the sonogram, while others are sure their child doesn’t have a clue. Often parents put their emphasis on the “big brother, big sister” aspect of the impending relationship, with a bit of idealization of that relationship to come. But children who are not quite ready to give up being the baby in the family themselves are not always thrilled with the implications of “big” anything.
What often emerges from these discussions is the idea that somehow if parents do everything exactly the right way, they will prevent any unhappy or unpleasant repercussions in an older child, the children will love each other. and everyone will live happily ever after. What is striking is that parents at times seem to feel guilty about having another child and inflicting on the first any feelings of loss or unhappiness that may result. Mothers may worry, just as children do, about depriving the first of their love and/or attention because of the needs of the second.
Yes, children may indeed feel a sense of loss in no longer being the only center of the universe. But that doesn’t mean we have done a bad or harmful thing in bringing it about. Not being the center of the universe is a reality of life, and hopefully we all learn to live with others, share with others, and be mindful of the needs of others. That is not so easy, so of course children may protest and be unhappy or resentful about it at times. But we have to keep reminding ourselves that children’s feelings are about them. They don’t mean we did something wrong.
Of course, we want to help our children be prepared to deal with experiences that may entail some struggle. We can do that by talking to them in a real way about things that are happening, have happened, or will happen, neither avoiding nor elaborating on the hard parts. What that means in practice depends on their age, their developmental stage, their personality and their temperament. It means using what we know about our own child, not some theoretical idea about what is best.
Two is more than twice as many as one. But that lucky third – by then we have it all figured out.