Each new school year often welcomes the arrival of students’ new siblings as well. With that, comes the anticipated preparations for social-emotional challenges a child might face both at home and at school as they witness their family structure and dynamics change. These social-emotional challenges are a natural part of a child’s development and create what I like to call “healthy challenges” for parents and educators to work together to best support the child.
Some behavioral changes you may observe as your older child transitions into siblinghood might involve more frequent attention-seeking tantrums, regression to more baby-like play and language, bathroom regression, sleep and meal disturbances, and in some cases, physical or violent behavior. No matter the change or struggle, rest assured, there is always a way through and your child will often outgrow these challenges with the right support. We always encourage parents to notify their child’s teachers in advance so that teachers can help equip a child at school with cathartic and appropriate outlets for redirection, dramatic play, and constructive processing.
I recently worked beside a set of parents to help support their almost-4-year-old with behavioral challenges he had been showing at home since the arrival of his baby brother two months prior. The child began waking in the middle of the night, screaming and demanding that he sleep in his parents’ room because his new baby brother was sleeping with his parents. His frustration, anger, and sadness manifested into a lot of furniture throwing, lamp breaking, and even busting the handle of his bedroom door. Needless to say, no one was getting any sleep in the house. Funny enough, each following morning, the child would easily and calmly discuss with his parents different alternatives to his attention-seeking and angered behavior and was able to empathically express the needs of both his younger brother and parents. Yet, every night, without fail, he would continue to act out.
The challenge this child was facing is not unlike most other preschool-aged children's. This inability to employ rational executive functioning when in an aroused state of emotion is almost impossible for a preschooler. Cognitively, a child at this stage of development will have difficulty communicating with others when they are experiencing a tantrum because their amygdala, the emotion-center of the brain, is basically on fire and unable to communicate across the brain to the prefrontal cortex, where all of our executive decisions and reasoning are made.
PLAN & ANTICIPATE
Thus, in working with this family, I encouraged them to make a consistent plan to approach discussion prior to the anticipated tantrum. Their new bed-time routine involved discussing with the child alternative, constructive, and soothing options the child could choose to employ when he woke up in the middle of the night. They had their child make the choices (curated by parents) so that the child felt a sense of ownership and agency in the decision. This allowed for a developmentally appropriate shortened amount of time for his reasoning and executive functioning to kick in and have a better chance of steering the brain before the urge to act out kicked in.
MAKE THE ABSTRACT CONCRETE
Additionally, we encouraged the family to not only incorporate these bed-time chats, but to include some tangible and visual representations of the challenge while having the discussions. Although children by the age of 4-5 have developed a more sophisticated understanding of abstract concepts along with a robust vocabulary, visual and physical tools always help support and ingrain the information with tactile, hands-on support. The child can then begin to see the effect his actions have on those around him. This helps strengthen his theory of mind, his ability to take on others’ perspectives. If employed with story-play, anonymous characters, and puppets, the child will also feel safer to discuss the topic because it’s not being explicitly directed at him. This avoids shame, blame, fear, or guilt - which you never want to use when resolving conflicts with children.
Try telling a picture story of the challenge and invite your child to help draw the story out. You can start by asking the child to dictate the events of the challenge while you draw the event on paper. Make sure to include the facial expressions each character experienced throughout the event. You can then change the expressions to reflect whether or not a conflict was resolved. Leave the picture-story with your child somewhere visible where they can independently revisit it or add to it.
Other helpful visual and tactile tools include saturating your child’s library with books about sibling rivalry, particularly books that help validate what the older sibling is feeling and add baby dolls to your play area. Make one-on-one time with your child and act out the events in anonymous ways using your play-dolls to help encourage alternative solutions. Children learn best through play.
POSITIVE REINFORCEMENT & CONFIDENT LEADERSHIP
Don’t forget to praise your child the instant you notice a change in behavior or self-corrected redirection. Lastly, it's important to believe that as a family, the needs of every member are extremely valid and important. You are the leaders of your home and your child’s tantrums indicate their lack of awareness of this leadership. Compassionate boundaries and leadership require confidence in knowing that you are steering the ship in order for your child to have an emotionally safe transition into siblinghood, one that he will trust, and soon, come to enjoy.