Help! My son is struggling to adapt to his baby sister

Bc Sibilings
Preparing children for a new sibling
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As every mum of more than one child will tell you, pregnancy is just different the second time around. The nerves and flutters of excitement, the wide-eyed expectation and dreams of what could be – well, they’re all still there, but just a little more grounded by the reality of the impending dirty nappies and sleepless nights… But there is one thing that can’t be predicted: how that new little bundle will tilt your established family dynamic.

It’s a point of anxiety for many mothers, and the shift is bound to have some kind of an impact on the child or children you already have. “The main issue for older children is that they have to share family resources with their younger siblings,” says Dr Sarah Rasmi, licensed psychologist and founder of Thrive Wellbeing Centre in JLT. “They go from having their parents’ undivided attention to sharing it with a baby, who often has more immediate needs than they do. Older siblings don’t always understand this, which is where things become tricky. Many older siblings will express their frustration through sibling jealousy. In certain situations, it’s also quite common for older children to become more difficult as well.”

Dubai-based event MC, mum of two and former news anchor Laura Buckwell’s four-year old son Marnix started exhibiting some unusual behaviours after the arrival of his baby sister Annabelle. We sent her to a session with Dr Sarah Rasmi, to help her to understand how he was feeling and work out the best way of handling it…

BC mum Laura Buckwell
Mum of two Laura Buckwell with her four-year old son Marnix and Annabelle
Image Credit: Aiza Castillo-Domingo

Case study:

Laura Buckwell, Dubai-based event MC and former news anchor, wanted advice on how to help her four-year-old boy, Marnix, adjust to the arrival of his new little sister, Annabelle.

Laura’s family is very close, so she knew that a new sibling being thrown into the mix would have some repercussions for her four-year-old son, Marnix, who up until then had been used to being an only child. While Laura was pregnant, she and her husband did everything they could to prepare Marnix for the new arrival: “We spoke to him a lot about what was going to happen and he was very excited,” says Laura. “At first he wanted a brother, but with a bit of convincing he soon came round to the idea of having a sister. We also got him a present from the baby when she arrived, and he got something for her, which he was very excited about doing. I also made sure I wasn’t holding the baby when he first met her, so as to avoid any extra hurt or jealousy.”

Just before baby Annabelle was born in June 2018, Laura’s family moved house and then Laura’s mother arrived to help with the baby, so they were aware that Marnix’s routine and set-up was undergoing a lot of change.

The problem:

Although Laura had expected to see jealousy exhibited through anger or dislike of the new baby, she didn’t realise jealously could take different forms. “Marnix absolutely loves Annabelle,” says Laura, “the problem is that he can be very loud, and he won’t take direction unless we ask him more than a few times and rather sternly.”

Laura was resorting to ultimatums a lot in order to force Marnix to listen to instructions. “He wants to cuddle and talk to baby Annabelle all the time, which is very sweet, however it can be overbearing at times.” Marnix started to act out and do the opposite of what was being asked of him: “If we ask him to talk quietly, he raises his voice, and if we ask him to hold her gently, he does the opposite, so I do think it’s about him wanting attention. It can be incredibly frustrating when I’ve burped the baby and finally put her down for a nap, only for her to be woken up again by my four-year-old because he thinks it’s funny or wants to play with her.”

Laura was particularly concerned by the controlling behaviour that Marnix was starting to exhibit. “He always has to go first when we go out anywhere, he always has to choose his own clothes and he likes to tell us when we are allowed to go out.”

Marnix also started to show signs of clinginess with his father: “He will cry wildly if my husband, Ernest, forgets a kiss goodbye. He’s become very clingy to Ernest, and orders him around a lot, including sleeping with him every night. If he doesn’t get his way he’ll have a proper meltdown.”

The strategy so far…

Laura was doing her best to remain calm and negotiate with Marnix, as well as try to teach him how to be gentle with the baby. She also mostly let him have his way when it came to the controlling behaviours: “I’ve let him take the lead when it comes to pressing the door bell, going first through the doors, choosing his clothes and generally allowing him to feel in control,” she says.

However, it’s not easy to stay calm all of the time: “I’ve lost it quite a few times, and I worry that he copies my behaviour when he shouts back, but with a newborn and the sleep deprivation and hormones that come with it, it’s almost impossible. I tend to use ultimatums a lot; if I don’t see good behaviour then he’s not rewarded.”

Hopes for the session

Laura was keen to find out if her son’s behaviour is normal, and to get guidelines for how to handle his more boisterous behaviour. She visited Dr Sarah Rasmi’s office at Thrive Wellbeing Centre with a lot of questions on her mind: “How should I react? Should I use positive words or give stern warnings? How do I get him to listen? How do I reinforce his feeling of being safe?”.

After the session

1. The consultation

“The session was held at Dr Sarah’s office in JLT, and it was just myself and Dr Sarah as we wanted to talk in-depth about the children,” says Laura. “I told her my concerns and she reassured me that most of them were completely normal, thank goodness! She gave some amazing advice that I hadn’t thought about before and a number of ways to approach different behaviour.”

2. The advice

“The first thing Dr Sarah asked me was ‘what sort of people do you want your kids to be?’. This was an eye-opening question for me and good food for thought as the session went on.” The key advice Dr Sarah gave Laura was:

  • All children crave attention. “We just need to know how to react. This was reassuring.”
  • Repetition is good. “One of the things that sends me over the edge is asking Marnix not to do something again and again, but Dr Sarah said repetition is in fact the right way to achieve a positive result, and to just stick with it, but in a calm tone.”
  • Turn negatives to positives. “Rather than telling Marnix he can’t have something if he doesn’t listen, I need to say he can have something if he does listen. It’s a matter of rephrasing, and taking a softer approach.”
  • Identify family values. “I loved Dr Sarah’s suggestion of writing down five core things to identify as family values. Once this is cemented, I can then implement them into how I react to my son’s behaviour and how we communicate. Saying things like ‘We are a kind family’; ‘We are a caring family’, and so on, so that I can remind him of these values when he misbehaves. I’m to also give extra praise when he exercises one of these key values.”
  • Don’t force an apology. “One surprising piece of advice was to try to refrain from pushing him to apologise, as there’s no meaning behind it. Instead of ordering him to go and say sorry now, I should gently encourage an apology.”
  • Pick your moments. “Although Dr Sarah’s advice was generally to be very calm and gentle with Marnix, it was also interesting to learn that there is a right moment to be firm and strict, which is when there’s a potential health and safety issue.”

3. The action points

  • Know when to engage and when to let bad behaviour go
  • Get down to eye level and be tactile. Instead of shouting, touch his arm and say gently; ‘You shouldn’t talk to X like that…’
  • Interact and involve your child in the decision-making. Ask him: ‘What can we do differently next time?’ Let him think of something
  • Avoid comparisons between siblings
  • Give a lot of praise when they exercise a key family value

4. The reaction so far

By changing the way I ask Marnix for things I’ve really noticed a difference in his behaviour, and his response is a lot more positive. By putting a more encouraging spin on things it’s given both of us a better outlook and way of communicating. With sleep deprivation and a new baby in the mix it can be hard for me to keep calm at all times, so Dr Sarah advised me to just take a few moments to myself and take a few deep breaths. When I’m feeling calmer, I can revisit the situation with a different, more understanding approach – getting down to eye level, touching his arm – and then keep repeating myself until he understands.

BC Dr Sarah Rasm
Dr Sarah Rasmi is a licensed psychologist, assistant professor of practice at the American University of Sharjah, and founder of Thrive Wellbeing Centre in JLT. Here’s what she says…
Image Credit: Supplied

“Laura wanted to learn some strategies to help her four-year-old son Marnix adjust to big brotherhood. As a result, we spent most of the session discussing the impact of a new baby on the family dynamics. We regularly work with families like Laura’s. We see some of them at our centre, and others in the comfort of their own home. Laura’s concerns are very common – but that doesn’t make them easy to deal with! Luckily, there are some tips and tricks that can be used to help everyone in the family find a new equilibrium….”

Do you have a parenting challenge or question that you’d like some expert input on? Email us: babyand[email protected] and we’ll speak to the experts for you 

Read Dr Rasmi’s tips on how to prepare an older sibling for baby number two