Having a new sibling is an especially hard time for existing children. They aren’t conscious of it, but they have a lot of fear and feelings that they are losing their place in the family; they wonder where and how they fit? Am I still loved?
As a result of all of these big feelings that they aren’t conscious of, they usually act out with very annoying behaviors. This can be especially hard for tired, sleep deprived parents.
During this time of transition for a family, patterns can get set up that impact the family for the rest of their lives.
Strong boundaries are particularly needed for toddlers during this time. I wish I had realized this earlier and set more boundaries. The lack of sleep and guilt I felt made it harder for me to be the strong, confident leader my child needed during this transition for the first few months.
We need to stay extra present and kind to ourselves and our kids during this big change to the family unit. If we are, it will get easier after a few months!!!
Everyone told me that having a second kid would be hard - and not only hard, but much harder than having just one. I remember smiling at them and in my head thinking “we’ve got this!” You see, our lives had just calmed down. We felt like we had it all under control and some normalcy was returning to our lives. Our first child was potty trained. She stopped at cross walks and waited for us (we live in a busy city, so this was a HUGE upgrade in our lives when we didn’t have to fear she’d run into on coming traffic anymore!) She slept 12 hours every night in her crib and 2 hours everyday for nap time. We felt comfortable leaving her with family to watch her and she’d be on her best behavior with others.
Similar to me when I was little, our first child is what people today call a “spirited” child. A big feeler. Big, bold, outgoing personality. She displays "leadership capabilities", (yes, I was called bossy a lot when I was little, ha!) When she was a tiny baby, she cried a lot if we stayed home in the house. She always wanted to be out on the street. Checking things out. Watching, babbling and smiling at people. And as a toddler, she cried a lot starting about 14 months (which is the exact time I went searching and discovered Janet Lansbury). Janet Lansbury helped me to accept all the feelings. She gave me practical tools to deal with my spirited girl when she was more challenging to be around. And those tools had worked so well! Our daughter did cry for up to an hour a day many days when she was 1.5 - 2.5 years old...but by about 2.5 years old the crying was starting to lessen. And by this time we were so used to it, it didn’t bother us as much anymore, and she only did that with me and my husband (never with her grandparents or at school). This is because we were (and are) her safe space.
My daughter and I are CLOSE. She was named after my grandmother, who lived with me my whole life and who I was very close with, so I’ve always felt we have a special bond. Her original due date was two years to the day from the day my grandmother passed away. When she was a baby, she had always wanted mommy more than daddy. She was my very wonderful girl, and we were so in love. I really actually couldn’t imagine loving this new child as much as I loved my girl or having as deep a bond as we had. All in all, I felt on top of this parenting thing. I felt like I had figured it out and was a kick ass mom. I was certain that having a second baby may be hard for some people (aka people less evolved than me or with less stable marriages, etc.) but that for me - for us - it was going to be a cake walk.
Of course as you can guess, that is not what happened. Having a second baby was one of the hardest things I’ve ever experienced. And really the reason it was so hard, was the very complicated feelings I developed for my first child at the birth of my second. And the sadness and guilt I felt at those feelings. I found my first child to be SO ANNOYING. I was angry at her a lot of the time. Janet had warned me of this (Janet! My heart!), I’d read countless articles about how hard it can be for the first child when the second is born. But experiencing it was something else entirely for me.
About two months before my second child was born, and for at least 4-6 months after...my daughter regressed in every possible way. There was still screaming, but something much harder than the screaming started...extremely annoying behavior. The behavior, I intellectually knew, was not annoying on purpose. This lovely child did not want to be annoying (no child EVER wants to annoy us!), but because she was so deeply distressed by the arrival of this new person and what it meant for her life. Before this baby was born, she had two present parents that were well rested and had time and space just for her when they were not working. Now, she had two parents that were getting very little sleep and when they were awake needed to spend a lot of time caring for this new person. So here is what that looked like for us...
After being fully potty trained with no accidents for MONTHS (maybe 6?), a couple months before the baby was born the accidents started. The accidents started gradually - from time to time. And they increased in frequency for the next several months to the point where she was having 5 accidents a day shortly after baby was born. There was SO much pee in my life! Pee was all I could think about, and I was constantly on guard for it. The lowest point for me was a few months after the baby was born, I recall it was a weekend and my husband had just left to take a quick shower (how dare he leave me alone with these children?!) As soon as he was gone, and of course I was holding the baby who wasn’t really able to sleep without someone holding him yet, my daughter started acting up. She was running around the room. Shouting. Throwing things. I asked her to please be quieter, so the baby could sleep in a voice that was not calm or confident...more annoyed and borderline mad. She started to hold her vagina, and I said “Do you need to pee?” “Nooooo!” she screamed in an obnoxious howl. And then, she looked me in the eyes and peed herself with an expression that said “ha!”. My husband and I called it “hate peeing”. I was SO angry. This is after months and months of accidents. Every time we left the house I’d bring 5 outfits to be prepared for the accidents. I couldn’t take it anymore! I don’t 100% remember all the specifics, but I remember yelling “That is IT! You are going back in pull ups!”
And...the relief was immediate and amazing. Why had it taken us months to do this? I don’t know looking back, but I do know that we should have done it WAY sooner. I think I was so stubborn (She is already potty trained for months! She can do this! She is doing this on purpose! I expect more from her! How could she after all we’ve done for her?!) etc. the feelings. And my anger, increasing every time she peed herself. I knew that I was supposed to stay calm, but I couldn’t do it. To the point where I know I was shaming her when she peed and asking her repeatedly “Why? Why are you doing this?!” While she’d smile at me with a devil’s grin. Again, I knew intellectually not to be fooled by this. That she was a scared and stressed little human. But MAN, I was mad! And tired! I recall several times hurriedly forcing her into the shower and cleaning her while she screamed “No! No! No!” and physically fought me (and there was pee on me, of course). This was not working. Thank god we went back to pull ups! That allowed me to stop thinking about pee all the time, and it was a huge positive game changer. Wish I had done it months earlier (yes Mom, I know you told me so) as it would have saved me and our child a lot of stress. I needed to set the limit that it was not ok to pee herself all the time.
As noted, my older child is spirited, and when she was younger (maybe 18 months old?) she went through a phase when she’d walk up to other kids and hit them on the playground. I’d learned to follow her through this phase since I could usually feel it coming, and then I’d hold her arm calmly and say “I can’t let you hit”. By the time she was 2, this had stopped. She knew hitting wasn’t ok, etc. Even when she was upset with other kids, she wouldn’t resort to violence. Well...until second kid time. Then there were many times when she hit, or kicked, or threw things at other kids. The most horrific example that stands out in my mind was a night when her closest friend was over who had a similarly spirited temperament and actually also a recent sibling. We loved to hang out with this family since they understood our world and were nonjudgmental, (and also going through the same challenging time). The girls started to scream at each other fighting over some toy, and my child reached up, grabbed a huge chunk of the other little girl’s gorgeous curly locks, yanked and literally started dragging her across the room by her hair. I screamed (very loudly) and ran across the room - freed the other girl, yanked my daughter and took her upstairs where she screamed, tried to hit me, and cried for a good long time. In addition to violence with friends, there was INCREDIBLY triggering violence with the baby. We could not leave them alone together. On a number of occasions she’d walk by and just kick or hit her brother. And if I ever left the room even for 30 seconds, I'd return to find her picking his head up and dropping it to the floor repeatedly! Again, intellectually, I knew she was not evil, but it sure felt like it.
Right before our baby came, our first child was ready to transition out of her crib and into a big girl bed, which she did. And she also learned to open her door. These things seemed like cool developments and convenient since we needed a crib, but I was very wrong about this. This was HORRIBLE timing for these things! What this meant was that after sleeping in her room 12 hours straight for almost 3 years, she was now coming out all hours of the night. Taking hours to go to bed. In the middle of the night, I’d have JUST fallen asleep after putting the baby down for the 2nd or 3rd feeding that night...only to be woken up by my toddler in the middle of the 60 minutes I actually had to sleep (and always for no apparent reason). I was so tired!
Before baby, our older child could sprint down the block, and she would always stop at the "yellow bumpies" and wait for us before we’d arrive to cross the street with her. We trusted her, and she had done this dozens of times by the time she was 3 years old. This all went out the window after baby, but like the potty training, the regression was hard since it was so not like our girl and what I was used to - it took too long for me to see an adjustment was needed (in this case, to not open the garage door BEFORE I had her in her car seat). Also it wasn’t all the time, so it was unpredictable and terrifying.
I remember the worst time was when I opened our garage door, and instead of waiting next to the car like she almost always did, she took off sprinting down the street. I had hoped she’d change her mind and stop (running after someone usually makes them run faster), so I had delayed a moment. However, she didn’t stop, so I did take off after her since I was actually starting to get scared as she had rounded a corner and was now running towards an extremely busy street, and I could no longer see her. So here I am running down the street (in a bathrobe and also recently having given birth), and I can see her sprinting in front of me and laughing like a mad woman when she realizes I am now running after her (the uncomfortable laugh of an uncomfortable toddler! Don’t be fooled!). Have I mentioned I was breast feeding during this phase of my life and not wearing a bra for this morning jog? She ran right by a man, who stared at us bemused and said something like “She’s fast!” I finally caught her and picked her up right before she reached the edge of the busy street. I don’t actually think she would have run into traffic honestly, but who knows, at this moment I was out of my mind with worry - and of course anger. I grabbed her and picked her up and started walking angrily back to our house. The man called out again to me "She's quick!” as we walked by. I did not acknowledge him or look his way, and he then said “BITCH” at me because I didn’t respond (and very much loud enough for me to hear). At this point I turned around and started screaming at him: “I’m upset! My child just sprinted down the street and I was scared! Can’t you see how upset I am? GOD!” And then started sobbing and marched away from the bewildered man.
Why am I sharing all of this?
First of all, because I want to contribute to others who are trying to normalize these conversations and the sharing of this information. I know there is nothing “wrong with” my child, and the reason she did the above things is that she felt upset and had no idea how to process or express those feelings. She needed my help. So many times I've had conversations with other parents about their kids, and they say “But you don’t understand...my child did x, y or z” and recount some story that was horrifying to them and signals that their child is in fact evil. Listen up, I PROMISE ANY STORY YOU HAVE I CAN TOP IT. My girl is going to be leading in a big way in 20 + years - she is fierce! And no, you will not convince me there is something wrong with your 2 year old, and yes, I do think it is normal behavior (although totally agree it is SUPER ANNOYING and incredibly hard to deal with).
Janet says we need to stay calm or kids can’t stop doing the thing upsetting us. They are compelled to keep doing it actually since they are so disturbed that they have enough power to upset their adults. But the question was, how could I get calm again when I was soooo tired and angry?!
Our kids are almost 3 and almost 6 now. And the most important thing I learned from the early time during this big transition was how important it is to be aware. It would have been SO easy, and I see it so clearly, that I could have made my first child the “hard / bad” child, and my second child the “easy / good / victim” child. It would have been easy to punish and shame my first child during this impossibly hard time. It would have been so easy to wonder what was wrong with her and just write her off. To take all my pain and shame and anger at how hard things were and blame her over and over. To make her the reason for my anger and discomfort. To develop dynamics that could have lasted a lifetime between her and her little brother, or between her and her parents.
So what did we do?
For the first 3-4 months...we just tried to survive. After a few months though, when I was starting to sleep more I was able to start making progress. We did some hard work:
My husband and I talked SO MUCH each and every day in specific terms about how we did that day, and how she was doing.
We (eventually) set more and firmer boundaries that she desperately needed.
We put her back in pull ups.
We got a door knob for her room to keep her secured in at night after we put her to bed, so she couldn’t come out.
We stopped giving her so many choices (she could no longer handle them she was so overwhelmed by her feelings!)
We created a “yes” space for her where she could get away from the baby and have some alone time when she wanted it. (This also helped a lot once little brother was older and could crawl and knock down her towers!)
We sent her to school in pajamas a couple times when getting dressed was way too much work.
She had some time with mommy and daddy with no baby.
We provided a safe space with us for her to melt down and release all her intense feelings repeatedly for months.
We didn’t label our kids or compare them.
I talked to friends I could be honest with and did self care as much as possible.
I tried to have patience for myself.
I read Janet Lansbury articles almost everyday.
We told her that although all her feelings were ok, we couldn’t let her do certain things (especially if they were unsafe).
I knew the day would come that we’d get through it. And all through this hard time, her school kept telling us she was fine - great actually! It was only at home that she had these behavioral issues.
During this time, we also had lots of family quality time. I was privileged to have a job that allowed a 6 month maternity leave. My husband happened to be in between jobs, so we had more time together as a family than we’ll most likely ever have in our lives again (correction, I wrote this sentence BEFORE COVID existed, ha). I had baby cuddles and was (and still am) obsessed with my second child who is a very mellow soul and was a snuggly, wonderful baby. We took a trip to Hawaii as a family for a month! The downside to this was no childcare for our older kid, but the upside was WE WENT TO HAWAII FOR A MONTH. I split a (virgin) pina colada and watched the sunset with my girl every night. There was SO MUCH to be thankful for, and I’ll cherish these memories forever. Even though it was sometimes a very hard time, it was also a joyful and soul enriching one. And I am proud of us and how we handled it looking back on the whole, and of course it helped me learn, grow and also to have much more empathy for other parents.
(Side note: taking a long trip when baby is 2-4 months on maternity leave is a fabulous idea if you can afford it since baby is in between doctors appointments and can sleep anywhere / you likely aren’t crib training yet).
It was a hard time, but now that we are on the other side, and I see my vibrant, wonderful, brave girl in this world asking hard questions and loving on her brother (not all the time, but a lot of the time), I feel so proud of where we are and how we handled that time. Based on lots of conversations I’ve had with the parents of kids 2-4 years old...I think a lot of people wonder what is wrong with their kids (or them!) during the hard times, and I can see very clearly that there was nothing wrong with me, my family or my child. What was wrong was my expectation that things shouldn’t be hard. That it should be easy to be a mother or add a new human to a family dynamic. That I should instinctively know what to do and be able to do it all the time. And most of all, that kids ages 2-4 should be reasonable and rational - ha!
Most helpful book I've read on having siblings HERE (helping them to establish healthy relationships, etc.)
Books for your toddler: