Q: I have recently had my second baby and my eldest child is finding the disruption to their life challenging. How can I best support them?

Q: I have recently had my second baby and my eldest child is finding the disruption to their life challenging. How can I best support them?

A: I’ve been asked to help with sibling relationships many times. It’s an important topic, and one that elicits all sorts of emotions in families. We so look forward to gifting a sibling to our firstborn child – it feels like a good and natural next step in building a family – but just like parenthood itself, the new dynamic we’re creating is an unknown quantity, full of possibilities that can be both positive and negative. Perhaps the human instinct for reproduction – which allows women to mostly put away memories of the pain of childbirth in order to repeat the experience – also prevents us from remembering how difficult our own sibling relationships are or may have been in the early days. Do we gloss over thoughts of sibling rivalry, the jealousy and challenges, to make sure our species survives? Or maybe we just think our children will eventually love each other, and until they do, our job is to steel ourselves for the difficulties that arise.

I frequently see the same tropes in the media about children: babies who are the butt of jokes when they pull funny faces or cry at certain things, or grumpy, uncooperative teenagers who sleep all day and can only grunt. Our cultural expectations are shaped by experience. Often, we reinforce what came before and accept the status quo, instead of striving for something better. History repeats itself and we comfort ourselves with the knowledge that everyone else is going through the same thing. 

But what if we step back for a moment, slow down and reframe the situation? Does parenting have to be like this? Do sibling relationships have to be this way? If any of this is ringing true for you, it’s never too late to make a few simple changes that could have a positive effect on all the relationships in your life but particularly those with – and between – your children.

Here are some basic principles to get you started.

Stop ‘othering’. Othering is when we treat others as different from ourselves and has become endemic in our society. It’s natural to some extent as we like to put each other in boxes so that we can decide how to behave. But babies, children and teenagers are not a different species. They’re whole human beings, just like us, only still unfolding and learning the skills needed to relate to each other and their worlds.

When we connect with this fact and reframe our relationships accordingly – seeing our role as more guide than teacher, more support than judge – we can put ourselves into our children’s shoes and begin to truly understand what they might be feeling and how to help them.

Observe. Slow down, breathe, take a step back. Release historical expectations that make you anticipate the worst, and notice what’s happening right now. As soon as we start thinking, ‘Here we go again!’ our energy drains away. We move into triggered or defensive mode and that’s what we pass on to our ever-observant children, never more observant of us than when a new baby arrives.

Acknowledge. The role of guide is also one of modelling behaviour we want to see. When siblings are having a struggle, they need to learn how to negotiate and be empathetic. Saying what you see in simple language with a calm voice that shows no judgement – just observation – immediately helps children to know that their needs and feelings are OK and acknowledged. Feelings happen and behaviour follows. Try to remove your ideas about good and bad – and the word ‘naughty’ from your vocabulary – and let your children realise that everything they feel is OK. After all, it’s not the feelings themselves, but what we do with them that matters. Acknowledgement can take the sting out of strong emotions and is a crucial step in guiding children towards resolving conflicting feelings. Saying what you see is also a great way to identify your own feelings. Using yourself as an example, you can let children know how you feel about a situation, modelling the importance of acknowledgement and using simple language. ‘I’m upset because I thought you were going to hurt the baby.’

Environment. Older siblings have to accept the changes we thrust upon them, but we can help them adjust. Making sure that they have protected space to play, away from the curiosity of a smaller, inquisitive brother or sister, is a good first step. In fact, creating a safe space for the baby where they can be away from more lively play, pets and the general hubbub of home life really helps. You can use a playpen if it has a firm base to lie on or use a low room divider or stairgate that they can see through and use to pull themselves up on when the time comes. Protecting favourite playthings also helps older siblings to feel that there are still things that are just for them and don’t need to be shared.

Put yourself in their shoes. Of course we’re protective of a new baby and might instinctively come down on the side of the youngest in any conflicting situation, but is that always fair? Children have a strong sense of fairness. Making sure they know that you know it’s difficult to accept the new situation is crucial, however triggering it may be for you to accept less than loving behaviour towards the baby. Acknowledging that an older child feels upset by the change in family dynamics can also make parents feel guilt and disappointment, and these feelings, too, need acknowledging so that we don’t pass them on to our children. 

Cooperation. When it’s offered, it’s lovely to have the cooperation of an older child in the care of a new baby. Think carefully, though, about asking for help from a reluctant sibling. Being pressured to help when one is already feeling put out may exacerbate any rivalry they’re already experiencing. And when help is offered but is beyond their skills, support them to see this and suggest something simpler or more appropriate.

Other forms of cooperation include letting your children know when it will be their turn for your time. New babies take up so much time and energy, but it’s important for each of your children to have one-to-one attention from you, even if it’s just for five or ten minutes. This promotes attachment and trust, and by strengthening those bonds, removes some of the jealousy, further encouraging a reluctant sibling to take an interest in the new arrival.

Boundaries. Instead of using naughty steps or time out, letting your child know that you understand their emotions while gently reinforcing fair and reasonable boundaries will help them to modify challenging behaviours and will help you to maintain your kind and loving relationships. Going back to my earlier point about slowing down, it’s all too easy when we’re tired, tempers are fraying and we’re at our wits’ end, to find ourselves losing our cool. Allowing yourself more time to observe, consider and then respond to a situation means that you can approach it calmly and with kindness. Observational language that removes judgement, acknowledges everyone’s feelings – including your own – and sets a clear boundary, will help you to remain calm and diffuse conflict before it gets too serious. Pausing before reacting will also help you to notice what may have caused a particular problem and give you the opportunity to plan ahead or step in sooner another time.

To praise or not. The kind of praise we hear every day from parents, caregivers and teachers for children who have completed some task or other can begin to sound very empty when it’s so often repeated. In the case of parenting, think very hard before you start praising your children or giving them rewards for ‘good’ behaviour. Instead, go back to acknowledgement. ‘I saw how careful you were with your brother’s head when you put him down. It didn’t bump at all.’ Or, ‘You really wanted to do that all by yourself, but you let your sister join in.’ This type of language and acknowledgement shows that you’ve seen and appreciated your child’s actions. Putting yourself in their shoes, isn’t it much more satisfying to be noticed in that way than just to be told you’re a ‘good’ girl or boy?

If all this has got you thinking, but you’re feeling a little overwhelmed, I get that. You may find that you have more questions than answers, but I hope that when you look at the bigger picture, you’ll see that this is a kind of common sense and follows a certain logic. We’ve somehow lost our way with how we communicate with children and what I’m hoping you’ll take from this is that there is a way that allows us to express ourselves honestly, with kindness and consideration, holding boundaries, but allowing for autonomy and individuality in our children. Let’s strive to be kind and true to ourselves, respectful of the small human beings we care for, and patient in knowing that it isn’t easy, but it is possible.


Rachel Tapping helps parents and caregivers to slow down and build loving, respectful relationships with their little ones. She guides adults through a process of investigation, experimentation and embodiment, in person or online, using techniques involving play, movement, self-awareness and discussion. She is an advanced student of the Pikler approach and has chaired Pikler UK for the last five years. balanced-beings.co.uk and pikler.co.uk

Rachel has a column in JUNO in which she answers your parenting questions. If you have a question for Rachel, you can email her at rachel@balanced-beings.co.uk.


A callout from Rachel

I’m gathering a group of like-minded parents together to study this approach and to support each other. If you’re interested in finding out more, please let me know here at balanced-beings.co.uk/yes-please


A shorter version appeared in issue 89 of JUNO. Accurate at the time this issue went to print. 

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