Last Friday, I shared the first "point" from the research on how kids adjust to becoming big sisters or big brothers, which emphasized that there is no one common reaction. Kids' reactions vary and how each child responds depends on many different factors. Point 2 starts to explain some of the variation in how kids adjust.
Point 2: Your child’s age, developmental phase, and temperament (personality) play a role in shaping how he reacts.
Age - Younger kids (say, 2 and under) can't really understand the changes at a cognitive level. Research suggests they may have more problems than older kids when baby arrives, although the evidence isn't clear-cut on the matter.
It is probably easier to prepare older children for the birth of a sibling. During my pregnancy with Bee, he was old enough and his verbal skills were such that we could talk a lot about what it might be like to have a new baby, read books about it, and talk about what babies need. After Bee was born, Zippy and I could talk about how he felt and what things had changed vs. what was the same. The older the child, the more this type of preparation and discussion is possible. But a younger or less verbal child may not be able to process things in this way and as a result the transition may be bumpier.
Developmental phase - Kids are most likely to regress with newly acquired skills rather than old ones. To quote Dr. Volling: "Different age groups experienced different behavioral difficulties that corresponded to the children's different developmental level. For instance, toileting accidents were common for 2-year-olds following the birth...3- and 4-year olds were clingier." (pp. 17-18)
This must be why parents often hear the advice not to potty train right before the baby is due. And it might explain why, after Bee was born, Zippy started wanting me to dress him and spoon feed him again! While he was perfectly capable of doing these things himself, under stress he was reverting back to something more familiar and comfortable - Momma doing it for him! It might help to identify what skills are new for your child and keep in mind that, if she regresses a bit, it is understandable. Provide gentle encouragement to get back on track, rather than insisting she be a "big girl."
Temperament - During times of transition or stress, certain personality traits may be accentuated. Children who have very “emotionally reactive” personalities (kids who tend to get out of whack when they have changes to their routine and are very emotional) may have stronger reactions to changes in the family. These kids may need extra support and TLC, whereas an easy-going, super laid-back kid may just take it all in stride. Thinking about your child's personality may give you some idea of what to expect.
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Did I mention yet just how little research there is on this topic? When Dr. Volling searched for research publications to include in her review, she found only 23 published studies and 7 unpublished studies (like doctoral dissertations) that met her criteria. In the past 14 years, only one study has been published on this topic! One! Isn't that crazy? Think of the million of kids who go through this very common experience every year, and yet little to no research is being done to understand kids' reactions or how to ensure it is a smooth transition.
Well, stay tuned for next week as we continue learning what the research has to say. In the meantime, feel free to check out past posts on this topic, including how our family handled the transition. Just click here.
This is one of several posts on what research has to say about how kids handle the transition from only child to big sibling. It is based largely on a summary by Dr. Brenda Volling published in the Psychological Bulletin as an on-line first publication in January.