Parenting: newborns to toddlers

Rookie Mum: sibling jealousy

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 22 April, 2015, 1:05pm

Recently, we held a children's party, which was a great success. However, one person seemed a little less than enthralled by the event - my 18-month-old son, Tom.

All of a sudden his house was full of other children, all of whom were playing with his toys. On top of this, his mother, who usually pays him plenty of attention, was busy chatting to them.

His nose was very clearly out of joint. It became evident when a friend's daughter climbed onto my lap. Tom scrambled up next to her and tried to wedge himself between us by sitting on top of my stomach. Since I am now bulging with baby number two, the arrangement was somewhat precarious.

That's the first time I've seen Tom display any signs of jealousy. I am keen to know what to do to minimise such behaviour once his sister is born. At the moment, he has my full attention, and also that of my husband and our helper. Come May, however, some of that attention will have to be shared with our new arrival.

"Envy is a very primitive emotion resulting from greed and related to the baby's intense desire to have the nurture and attention of his mother, who also provides for the needs of the sibling, only to himself," says Hadas Hecht, director of the Child and Family Development Practice.

Jealousy is a natural emotion which can have benefits, such as helping to "develop competitiveness, achievement, initiative and assertiveness", she says. "However, there is a fine line between fostering positive character traits and jealousy that can lead to aggressive behaviour and a sense of deprivation and helplessness."

A child growing up with siblings is usually more flexible and adapts better to change
Hadas Hecht, director, Child and Family Development Practice

I think Tom's level of jealousy is normal but I want to know how to manage it when his sister makes an appearance.

Some friends have had brilliant conversations with their eldest after their second child was born. One went something like: "Mummy, can you put Helen in the bin?" My favourite was my best friend who, as a wide-eyed child, suggested that her mother feed the "dangerous scraps" (their term for fish bones) to her new sister one evening.

Prevention is always better than cure. So how do I nip such thoughts in the bud?

Hecht suggests preparing Tom as much as possible for his sister's birth by giving him a doll to practise feeding and bathing, and so on. She recommends that when they first meet, I devote my time to him and then introduce his little sister.

She also advocates buying a special gift from her to him "to allow the firstborn to understand that, despite the major changes in the new situation, it also comes with new privileges and advantages".

Also on her list is making sure I spend one-on-one time with Tom every day and allow him to be involved in both looking after her and decisions related to her - such as where to put things in her bedroom or what toy to give her to play with. Hecht's reasoning is that if Tom feels like an important big brother, he is much less likely to feel threatened.

"Sibling relations are the best school for dealing with interpersonal and social situations," says Hecht. "In an atmosphere of mutual affection, siblings learn to solve crises, techniques of negotiation, compromise, dealing with the adults' world, and so on. A child growing up with siblings is usually more flexible and adapts better to changes."

This reminds me of a good friend who grew up with four sisters. They all vied for parental attention in the normal sibling way. When this happened, their wise mother used to tell them: "You know, you're not the only pebble on the beach."

This is quite possibly the best lesson that having a sibling can teach anyone. Yes, you are important, but there are other equally important people in the world.