One of the things to look most forward to after birth is introducing your new baby to your first-born baby. Watching their eyes light up as they see their sibling for the first time and step into the role of “big brother” or “big sister” is truly magical.
But soon the magic starts to wear off a little bit. Sibling realizes that Baby isn’t here on vacation. Baby is staying. Baby is permanent. Baby starts to really cramp their style. This is where we can expect some acting out, tantrums, and even some developmental regressions. These reactions are not only common; they’re normal.
With the stresses you are experiencing through your own adjustment, it’s easy to want to MAKE. IT. STOP. when your older child is melting down. You may even snap at them if pushed hard enough. You’re still a wonderful parent. You’re a human. It happens. It’s a result of your new, big emotions.
You have the opportunity to help your child adjust to a new baby in a positive way.
Helping your child adjust to a new baby begins by identifying and expressing emotions.
Your child’s emotional range is huge. Their ability to recognize the emotions, not so much.
They likely know happy, sad, mad. Helping them to identify the shades of gray can give them tools to express themself without resorting to so many nuclear meltdowns. It doesn’t happen overnight and it’s a long-term work in progress, but starting as soon as possible will mean results as soon as possible.
In this blog, we’ll explore teaching your child about identifying and expressing emotion. In the next, we’ll take a look at how you can implement simple structures in your child’s daily routine to empower them and meet their needs as they adjust to this new family member.
During a time when your child is content and engaged, use explicit emotional exploration techniques.
Ask your child to make a face that shows they’re ___ (excited, surprised, scared, confused, etc.). Point out when other people – in real life, in books, on TV – are expressing an emotion. Challenge your child to identify that person’s emotion and ask how they know. For example, their mouth is frowning, their arms are crossed, their face turns red, etc.
Help mind and body connect. “When you feel really angry, what does your face feel like? How does your tummy feel? What do your arms do?” Encouraging your child to take stock in the physical sensations of emotion will prepare them to begin using cool-down techniques when necessary.
In the moment, label the feelings you see them expressing.
“Wow! When you clap your hands and laugh, I can tell you’re feeling overjoyed by that music!”
“Oh dear. I can see you’re having a big feeling right now. Because you’re crying and throwing your shoe on the floor, it looks like you’re frustrated that your shoe won’t go on your foot. Is that right?”
“You must feel disappointed that we have to leave Grandma’s house when you want to stay.”
Give them the opportunity to agree with your assessment or disagree. Sometimes, they won’t acknowledge it at all, and that’s okay, too. You’re still giving them valuable input that their little brains and hearts are internalizing.
Give Them Language
Once your child can recognize an emotion, they need strategies for sharing it out loud and getting their message across. A tantrum is the best way your child knows to show you how they feel and ask for help working through it. Giving them the tools to use words instead can help.
Sentence frames are a great way to do this. During calm times, have your child practice:
“I feel _____ and I need your help, please.”
“I need attention right now because _____.”
These sentences won’t be super complex, but they are effective.
Let your child know that you are good at reading their faces and actions, but sometimes you get distracted by the baby and you need them to tell you what they need. After all, you’re not a mind reader. Then, when the tantrum begins, point them back to their feeling words and encourage them to use them.
Catch the Tantrum Early
When your child is acting out, and even when they’re resorting to WWIII-level hysterics, they are simply communicating a need. But getting to their core message is impossible when they’re in the midst of the meltdown. If you can do your best to head it off before it escalates, you have a much greater chance of understanding what the need is.
Here’s a simple strategy that can help your child pause before they erupt:
Put their hands on their tummy and take in a long, deep breath so their belly looks like yours did when Baby was still inside.
Hold an imaginary bubble wand and “blow bubbles” with a long, gentle exhale.
Smash the bubbles! Clap them in the air, stomp them on the ground.
Once your child is calm (and probably giggling!), you can help them identify what their feeling is, and you can ask them to tell you what they need from you.
Open, simple dialogue is the goal here.
Your child is a person, but they aren’t exactly just a small adult. Teaching them how to identify and appropriately express emotion will serve them well in this transition time, and also throughout their whole life. And it’ll make your life a little easier in the process.