Friday 19 January 2018

Top tips for coping with sibling rivalry

Princess Charlotte's arrival has changed her brother's life forever. Psychologist Marie Murray has some coping tips for parents and first-borns.

Prince George and dad Prince William
Prince George and dad Prince William
Kate Middleton and Prince William present Princess Charlotte to the world on the steps of the Lindo Wing at St Mary's hospital in London

Marie Murray

In all the media hype around the arrival of Princess Charlotte Elizabeth Diana, the first daughter and second child of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, one image stands out.

It is not the gun salute at her arrival. It is not the pictures of her juxtaposed with those of her late grandmother Diana Princess of Wales, although they are evocative for a generation who remembers her.

It is not even that of the happy couple William and Kate on the hospital steps with their second child, their new baby, a Princess who is fourth-in-line to the throne.

No, powerful as these pictures may be, the image that says it all has to be the slightly wary little face of Prince George in his father's arms waving to the cameras before going in to see 'the new baby', blissfully unaware of his 'dethronement' and the changes in his life that are about to take place.

These changes, the arrival of a new baby, issues of sibling affection and rivalry; birth order; position in family; family composition and competition, are the stuff of significant psychological theory and research for good reason, because the birth of the second child changes family life.

The arrival of a new baby in any family is a major psychological event. The second child radically alters family dynamics and changes forever the life of the first-born.

Depending on the age gap between first and second child; the gender of the first and second child; the capacity of parents to divide their attention between two children fairly; the awareness and sensitivity of family, extended family and friends to the emotions of the first child when the second child arrives (and to each subsequent child when a new sibling arrives) and many other factors depend how children get along with their parents and with each other throughout their lives.

Ever since the pioneering work of Austrian Psychiatrist Alfred Adler on the relationship between birth order and personality, and the subsequent work by many psychologists and family therapists on sibling relationships and rivalry, there has been understanding that where you come in the family and what happens at the time of your arrival and of your brothers' and sisters' arrivals, can be a major psychological influence on how you are.

Of course in traditional families being eldest has usually been associated with being responsible, more compliant, the leader, more likely to achieve academically, to keep the rules but also to be most prone to stress, and often to feel inferior despite achievements, as parents learn the skills of parenting on the famous first child.

The youngest child has always been regarded as the carefree, most pampered, socially confident and savvy in how to get their own way because they have had to negotiate with siblings from the start and parents are less anxious by the time they arrive anyway.

The middle child can feel lost, inconsequential, without a significant position yet middle children are often very socially able and look outside the family for status so that they enjoy many friends and interests.

But despite all the theorising, the truth is that in terms of birth order there is probably no right place to be in the family, for each birth order position has advantages and disadvantages.

The eldest can be heaped with responsibility, the middle child with 'neglect' and the youngest with attention and so never allowed to grow up, so that whatever way you look at it, family life is as it is.

Besides, children are different in temperament, in gender, in the attention they seek and receive, in the expectations they have of themselves and others have of them, in how they achieve parental time and attention and in what is happening in the family anyway.

And that is before we even begin to look at reconstituted families, blended families, at stepsiblings and at the many other family forms that make up family life today.

Sibling rivalry is natural and normal whatever the family constitution and it is a measure of how much each child wants to be loved and respected, recognised and successful in their parents' eyes that leads them to jockey for power and position yet to also love each other deeply with the special bond that being a sibling holds.

Shared history is a glue that binds brothers and sisters together.

So how do parents help their children to get along with each other and how can they welcome 'the new baby' into the home? See panel.

Dr Marie Murray is a Clinical Psychologist, broadcaster, author.

The arrival of the new baby is helped if:

The existing child (or children) is well prepared including for the absence of the mother from the home for delivery.

If they are given a little less attention before the new arrival and more after the new baby arrives.

If routines are continued as much as possible.

If special time with parents is allocated and protected so that they do not feel usurped.

If they are not expected to love the new baby but are allowed to participate in caring for the baby - being praised for the 'grown up' things they can do such as fetching nappies.

If they get to hold the baby and cuddle it often and safely with parents present.

If family and friends greet the existing child before they look at the new baby.

If a parent cuddles and continues to cuddle the older child when visitors arrive.

If gifts are brought for the older child as well as the new baby - it is hard to lose attention when you were just starting to enjoy being the only one in adults' lives.

Children often regress a little and want to act like the new baby to get the attention the new baby is getting - understanding regression as normal and allowing it is helpful.

If everyone remembers what it is like to be little and afraid and can reassure the older child that they continue to be just as important and loved as ever.

Irish Independent

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