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I Don't Want To Be Big!
by Dr. Susan Bartell

When Jamie was born, Matthew was three and a half years old. He was thrilled to be a big brother and seemed to take to the role naturally. He loved to help feed, bathe and dress Jamie. He even tried his hand at diapering once in a while! Debbie and Ken, Matthew's parents, were relieved that he had adjusted so easily, and offered him frequent praise for being "such a big boy" and "a terrific big brother." Everything seemed to be going along wonderfully. And then all of a sudden, when Jamie was three months old, Matthew began to give his parents a really hard time about going to sleep and staying asleep. He also began having toileting accidents and real difficulty separating from his mom and dad. Matthew also became cranky and disobedient, an unpleasant trait that they'd never really seen before. Debbie and Ken were puzzled and upset by his behavior because until now they'd never had any problems with him.

What they didn't realize was that Matthew's behavior was actually quite typical for a young child who is adjusting to having a new sibling. But why was it three months before the problem behaviors showed up? An understanding of the behaviors and what triggered them will give us some insight into Matthew's situation.

Understanding the behaviors

Sleeping, toileting and separating are all behaviors that Matthew had successfully mastered. They are also behaviors that require a great deal of parental involvement before a child has been able to achieve success. So let's think, for a minute, about Matthew's regression in these areas. A child who has trouble going to sleep or staying asleep will require his parents to spend extra time at bedtime and then periodically during the night as well, in order to help him (and themselves) make it to morning without being up the entire night. A child who starts to have toileting accidents will of course, require his parents to clean him up and change his wet or soiled clothes. It may also be difficult to leave him in someone else's care unless that person can be expected to do the "dirty work." And if a child has significant difficulty separating, either mom or dad will always have to be available to take care of him. Lastly, disobedient and acting out behavior will require constant reprimands by his parents.

By now you probably see the thread linking all these behaviors. They are a way for the older child to ensure that he will not "lose" his parents to the new baby. He has somehow figured out that if he becomes less independent and more babyish, or even badly behaved, they will need to give him at least as much time and attention as they give the baby. It does sort of make sense, doesn't it? The baby is in diapers, waking up all night and staying with mom and dad most of the time. In other words, independent behaviors are often not seen as a virtue by an insecure older sibling because they signal a potential loss of attention from his parents. This is generally the cause for the regression in developmental milestones frequently seen in new big brothers and sisters. In fact from a young child's point of view, sometimes even being reprimanded for negative behavior is better than receiving no attention at all.

A parent's point of view

Parents use milestones such a toileting, sleeping and separating to determine how their child is growing up. They compare his achievements today with what he was like last month, and they also compare him to all the other kids in his class or playgroup (c'mon admit it, we've all done it!) So when we see a behavior start to "slip" after it has been mastered, it can be somewhat worrisome. With a new baby to care for, not to mention the exhaustion and stress, it can also be very annoying and aggravating to feel that you're back at the beginning of a path you thought you'd traveled to the end. So along with the worry, many a parent has been known to express exasperation and impatience with a child when he wakes up for the third time that night or comes home from school in his "spare clothes" after having had a toileting accident.

You're such a terrific big brother!"

Aside from exasperation and impatience, many parents try to address the regression by reminding their child that he is "such a big boy" (or girl, of course), "not a baby anymore" and "so grown-up", as if to say "big boys and girls don't have these problems" so neither should you. And in fact, parents often suddenly think of their older child (who was just a baby himself a few weeks ago) as big when they compare him to the new baby. But here's the rub. By saying these things parents may actually prolong the regressive behaviors without realizing it. If the child is trying to get attention by being a baby, telling him "big boys" use the toilet, go to sleep at night alone, or go to school without crying, will only confirm that he's right not to be doing these things any more.

Is it okay to compliment a "big brother" if he's not regressing?

Sometimes parents talk about how proud they are of their "big boy", telling friends what a wonderful big brother he is and how helpful he has been with the baby. Then all of a sudden, it could be months down the road, his behavior starts to deteriorate or he begins to show signs of regression in one or more areas. Your otherwise cooperative, pleasant child is now having tantrums, behaving badly and may also be having some of the other difficulties we've been discussing. I'm sure you're recognizing Matthew (or maybe your own child) in this description. So, what's going on? Sweet, brotherly Matthew has suddenly realized that just about the only way he gets attention these days is by being the big brother, and he doesn't like it anymore. So what seems like all of a sudden to his parents, he figures out other ways to get attention for himself that don't involve being a big brother. In fact they don't involve being big at all! As you can see, constant praise for being a wonderful big sister or brother can be another trigger that can cause regressive behaviors. And all this time you thought you were doing something good by complimenting his skill and caring for the baby.

So how do I know what to do and when to do it?

Of course, not all children will have a negative reaction to being praised for being a terrific big sister or brother. In fact some will thrive on it. Furthermore, as you can see from Matthew, some children will like it at first and then get fed up with it later. The key is to pay very close attention to your child's behaviors. If you see signs of regression in milestones or consistent changes in mood or personality it is worth asking yourself what might be going on that could be causing these changes. Perhaps you need to look closely at your interactions with your child because regression and big shifts in behavior are hallmark symptoms that some kind of sibling rivalry has kicked in, and is really eating away at the big sister or brother. Usually, all it takes is an adjustment in the amount and type of attention you give to your child.

  • Focus on your child's individual achievements and how special he is.
  • Don't focus only on his skill as a big brother.
  • If you want to encourage brotherly or sisterly behavior, do so gently without forcing it on the child.
  • If you see signs of regression in any skills that had been mastered, try and pay even closer attention to the interactions between you and your child.
  • Try to be as patient as possible with your child. If you are aggravated and short with him, it will confirm his worst fear, which is that you favor the baby.
  • Spend some "special time" alone with your older child. Even fifteen minutes a day can help him feel you value him and you don't want to be with the baby all the time (this goes for mom and dad.)

You'd be surprised how clearly kids can tell us what they need, and how resilient they can be when we are able to figure out how to meet their needs in the best way possible.

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