Second Time Around: The Transition from One to Two Children

Mother enjoying nature with her daughter and babyThere are few events in life that are as transformative as becoming a parent. So many aspects of your life—your identity, the dynamics with your partner, your sense of control (or lack thereof)—change in ways you can’t possibly imagine or emotionally prepare for. In these ways, having a second child is far less transformative. Nonetheless, there are aspects of having a second child that are novel and unpredictable, and the transition can be quite disruptive to the family system, particularly in terms of its impact on your firstborn.

Fortunately, despite the many disruptions and unknowns, there are some things you can predict about having a second child. Preparing your first child for the arrival of your baby, and yourself to handle issues as they arise after your baby comes home, can greatly help. If you can find ways to include your child in preparations for the baby, set aside time to spend with your child after the baby arrives, set firm limits with your child (particularly around aggressive behavior), and tolerate your feelings of guilt (and your child’s feelings of anger), you may help ease this transition and create an environment of safety and reassurance for your family.

How Can I Prepare My Child for the Arrival of a Sibling?

Unless you are face to face with one, “baby” is a pretty abstract concept, particularly for a child. Before the baby comes home, one of the few concrete manifestations of this concept is pregnancy (assuming the birth mother is part of the family). Children can have very different reactions to watching their mother’s belly grow. Some worry about the health of their mother; others feel alienated and uncomfortable with their mother’s changing body; others still may feel protective toward their mother.

As a mother, reassuring your child that you are OK and explaining the growth of the fetus along the way is one way to help make the whole baby thing a bit less mysterious and scary. There are also several age-appropriate books that show the growth of the fetus and the journey to birth that you can read to your child.

If you are adopting or using a surrogate, you may not be able to follow the process of pregnancy in vivo. Nonetheless, there are several other ways for adoptive as well as all parents to make the arrival of a second child more concrete for firstborn children.

The more you can share with your child the concrete steps needed to prepare for the baby’s arrival—picking out a crib, buying diapers, etc.—the more real it may feel to your child, and the greater sense of ownership they may have (“It’s my baby, too!”). It’s also a good idea to discuss with your child what is going to happen when you go to the hospital (or, if adopting, go to pick up the baby), and any changes that may affect your child’s schedule (“Grandma is coming to help take care of the baby”). Children need routine and predictability. The fewer surprises and changes to their schedule during this time, the better.

This might also be a good time look at your child’s baby photos with your child, to remind your child they were a baby once, too, and to plant a seed for identification with the baby (“The baby is going to be like me”). You may also want to read your child some books on babies—what they do (eat, sleep, and cry, mostly) as well as books on being a big sibling. Using photos and books as a springboard, you may ask your child about any feelings your child is having about the arrival of the baby, both negative and positive. Given how abstract the birth is at this stage for your child, do not be surprised or disappointed if your child does not wish to discuss or cannot discuss their feelings yet.

What Can I Expect My Child to Feel After the Arrival of the Baby?

Imagine this: Your partner comes home one evening and announces that, as much as they love you, they have met someone new they also love, and this person will now be moving in with the two of you. For many children, the arrival of a younger sibling feels much the same, at least at the beginning. Children typically feel a bit stunned initially, and then start to feel some anger (along with other, positive feelings) toward the baby and/or you.

What Will I Be Feeling After the Baby Comes Home?

Well, imagine that now you are the one who brings home your new great love to live with your partner. How do you think you’d feel toward your partner? Guilt city! One of the hardest things about becoming a parent a second time around is the guilt. It can feel like you are destroying your child’s life, that you have done this horrible, cruel thing. When you have these feelings, it can be helpful to remember that while this transition may be rough on your child, ultimately it is gift you are giving your child (albeit one that may not pay off for a few years).

While there are things you can do to help your child with the transition and offer reassurance of your love, many children struggle with feelings of anger, hurt, confusion, etc., when a sibling is brought home. You may simply not be able to love away these feelings, which means in addition to having to tolerate a certain amount of guilt, you also have to tolerate a certain amount of hurt and anger on your child’s part. Accepting that your child might have a tough time for a while and reminding yourself (and your child) of your love for them may take the edge off this emotional burden.

How Can I Help My Child Through This Difficult Transition?

Feeling guilty can make it difficult to know what’s best for your child and yourself. Learning to tolerate your guilt and set reasonable expectations for yourself, and spending special time with your older child while continuing to set limits, may provide the foundation for your child feeling safe and secure and for you staying grounded.

Feeling guilty can make it difficult to know what’s best for your child and yourself. Learning to tolerate your guilt and set reasonable expectations for yourself, and spending special time with your older child while continuing to set limits, may provide the foundation for your child feeling safe and secure and for you staying grounded.

Although it may be difficult, especially at the beginning, spending baby-free time with your child can go a long way toward reassuring your child that your feelings have not changed and that you still value the intimacy of your relationship. Even if you can’t spend much time alone, set whatever time you do have aside as “special” time where you do something one-on-one, preferably on a regular, routine basis. This way, you and your child can anticipate your date in advance, which might help your child when they are feeling neglected.

If you have to leave your child to attend to the baby and your child seems upset, acknowledge these feelings (“I know it’s hard when I have to leave our game to go take care of the baby”). If your child is interested, you can include your child in helping out with the baby—diapering, bathing, etc. Feeling that they are part of taking care of the baby can be a very bonding experience for your child with the baby and give your child a sense of ownership and responsibility for the baby. There can also be a “well, if you can’t lick ’em, join ’em” quality to these activities.

You may find that there are certain times of the day when your older child becomes more jealous or angry, times such as bath time or bedtime, when your child is used to having all the attention focused on them. Consider alternating care with your partner or caregiver so that you can spend some time with your older child.

Breastfeeding obviously makes this more difficult. Even if you can’t change your behavior at these difficult times, you might give your child a heads-up beforehand (“Hey, I have to feed the baby in a few minutes, and I know that’s a hard time for you”) and, if the child is old enough, ask if they have any ideas about how to make it easier.

How Do I Handle Negative Behavior in My Child?

Children have different ways of handling their negative feelings regarding the arrival of a younger sibling. Some children seem totally happy, but might start regressing in some aspects of their development, such as toilet training, becoming more dependent, showing signs of separation anxiety, etc. Some children may be very sweet with the baby but get very angry with the parents. And, of course, some children may act aggressively toward the baby.

Regression

Regression during this phase is normal. Many children do not feel ready to give up their status as baby or young child. Others see how much attention their baby sibling is getting and want some of that. To a large extent, regression is a call for attention. As such, if you are able to tolerate the regression without focusing too much on it, and give your child positive attention where possible, this behavior generally passes relatively quickly. If your child wants to pretend to be a baby and crawl around and cuddle in your lap from time to time, why not? To some extent, all of our children, no matter how old, are still our babies, and need this reassurance from time to time. Telling our children that they have to be “big kids” now may very well feel like a withdrawal of love or attention.

This is not to say you should allow your 4-year-old to go back to wearing diapers. However, when saying no to your child, you might want to offer an alternative activity, such as being rocked in your lap, etc., that allows your child to regress and feel loved in that special, nurturing way.

Anger at Parents

Some children start to express aggression toward their parents when a sibling arrives, such as hitting, temper tantruming, or acting out in other ways. The tricky part here is that because parents often feel responsible for or guilty about their child’s anger, they find it hard to set limits.

While it is important to be empathic with your child during this time and make some allowances for how difficult this period might be for them, setting firm limits when your child is acting out or being aggressive is still very important, as much for the child as for you. No child wants to feel like a monster or feel out of control.

Anger at the Baby

If there is one activity that sweeps away our guilt over having a second child and gets us in touch with our anger, it is witnessing our child acting aggressively toward our baby. Evolution has hardwired us to protect our baby, and those instincts need to be heeded. We must protect the baby from harm, first and foremost. This means making it clear to our child that aggressive acts—hitting, pushing, shaking, etc.—will not be tolerated.

When children are acting aggressively toward baby siblings, their intention generally is not to harm the baby (though maybe getting the baby to cry would be fun). The issue is that children simply do not always know what is safe. Our job is to teach our children how to be safe around the baby and how to express their anger and resentment in other, more appropriate ways. Limits must be implemented firmly in the area of baby safety.

Feelings-wise, though, when children say they hate their baby siblings, our role is not to tell them they do not hate the baby or that it is not OK to hate the baby, but to acknowledge their feelings and help make the feelings less scary. If “hate” is not a word that you are comfortable with, you can always mirror back to your child, “You are really angry at the baby right now.” If your child says they want the baby dead, you can restate it as, “You really don’t want the baby here right now!” In this way, you are both validating your child’s negative feelings (all feelings are OK) and making those feelings less scary. Your child will learn that although there are moments when they do hate the baby or wish the baby was gone, these are just feelings, not actions, and they will pass and change over time. It is rare for siblings to love each other without hating each other at times, or at least having some negative feelings.

Reading books to your child is another great way to help children express their negative feelings about a younger sibling. When my second child was born, my older child, then 3 years old, could not get enough of Julius, the Baby of the World by Kevin Henkes (1995)—a book about, well, a child who hates her baby sibling … at least at first.

In Julius, the Baby of the World and, for the most part, in life, siblings do come, over time, to love each other (and sometimes even like each other), and your gift of a younger sibling to your older child will become just that, a gift. In the meantime, if you can hold tight and tolerate your and your child’s tough feelings, spend alone time with your child, and maintain firm limits, you will be well on your way!

© Copyright 2016 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Ruth Wyatt, MA, LCSW, therapist in New York City, New York

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • 9 comments
  • Leave a Comment
  • Rudy

    Rudy

    February 8th, 2016 at 6:20 AM

    We felt so much more confident in our abilities as parents the second time around than we ever did with our first. There is something that is pretty comforting about having done this all before, so it feels like with the first child you were always practicing and with the second and third you sort of feel like an old pro. Now that does not mean that there are not some obstacles and kinks in the road, but you do halfway feel like you are doing this right and you are not scared to go off on your own, avoid the playbooks so to speak, and do the thing that is right for your unique family.

  • Wanda c

    Wanda c

    February 8th, 2016 at 10:07 AM

    We all must do our best not to play favorites and to make sure that the first child does not get pushed aside for the second.

  • Jack

    Jack

    February 8th, 2016 at 3:02 PM

    Our first son was very jealous of the new baby when we brought him home. I swear that we had to keep a very keen eye on him as we were afraid what he would do to his brother if we were not watching and paying attention all the time. It felt like it took forever just to leave the two of them alone in the same room, and even after so many years it sometimes feels like that jealousy still has not quite dissipated!

  • Tara

    Tara

    February 9th, 2016 at 9:45 AM

    My kids are 13 years apart so I sort of had a built in helper babysitter. KInd of nice to tell you the truth

  • polly G

    polly G

    February 10th, 2016 at 7:26 AM

    Please remember that your pets will need time to adjust to the new arrival too.

  • Marie

    Marie

    February 11th, 2016 at 3:28 PM

    two is a whole new ball game, and then throw the third into the mix, all under the age pf 5, and you can tell that I have my hands full!
    but I love it! I learn something new from my kids everyday, something new about them and something new about me too. I like that every day is always something new.

  • ReGiNa

    ReGiNa

    February 12th, 2016 at 1:14 PM

    we thought that it would be easy… apparently we were lying to ourselves. lol

  • stressmom

    stressmom

    February 14th, 2016 at 4:23 AM

    I had all of my kids pretty close together, stair steps if you will, and while it was not always the easiest things to do in terms of juggling schedules and such, it has made them all closer than I think that they would have been had there been more years between them. I do not regret that choice for a moment.

  • Aaron

    Aaron

    February 16th, 2016 at 3:59 PM

    I believe that I am actually a little happier now that we have the 2nd child. There is something about her being here that now makes the family feel a little more complete.
    I take a real comfort from that.

Leave a Comment

By commenting you acknowledge acceptance of GoodTherapy.org's Terms and Conditions of Use.

* Indicates required field.

GoodTherapy uses cookies to personalize content and ads to provide better services for our users and to analyze our traffic. By continuing to use this site you consent to our cookies.