Being second: When the most important person in your life falls in love with someone else
If you’re dealing with sibling relationships or your older child is hurting your younger one, this article is for you.
You’ve been together through thick and thin. The first shy smile. The first kiss. Everything was great. The first year, even the second, the third … I mean you’ve had some rough moments, but by the end of the day, he would always hold you in his arms and whisper how much he loves you.
But then one day it happened. He got all serious and asked you to sit down with him. He looked you in the eye and said,
“Honey, I love you so much that I’ve decided to get someone else just like you. She’ll be here in a couple of days and she’ll live with us. Forever. It would be great if you were nice to her so she feels welcome. She’ll sleep with us in our bedroom. We’ll put a new bed there for her, okay?
Do I love you? Of course I do. But I also love her.”
You’re sitting and blankly staring. Is he serious? He’s bringing someone else to live with us? Am I not enough? What did I do wrong?
But he doesn’t notice how numb you’ve become and keeps talking.
“Oh and when she gets here, we’ll give her some of your things, okay? Things you don’t need anymore. Like the purse you used to take when you went out with the girls. And some of your old clothes too. You can’t fit in them anymore anyway. You’ll see once you get to know her. You’ll like her. It will be great, I promise!” He pats you on the back.
You just can’t believe it. You struggle even to imagine this insanity.
But then in a few days she’s really here
She’s younger, skinnier and suddenly the world revolves around her.
“Look how cute she is! Those eyes and feet! Don’t you think she’s beautiful?” he raves about her all day long. And you have to listen to it.
You just want to scream: “She’s not as perfect as you think!” At night you cry, hidden under the covers, and pray for something to happen … You want her to leave. You want things to go back to how they used to be.
But it gets even worse.
You spend days watching your love cuddling with the new girl. He strokes her hair, kisses her, and carries her all the time. Suddenly, you’re invisible.
He doesn’t talk to you the way he used to anymore. The time you spend together – even your special whispers before falling asleep you loved so much – is now restricted to a couple of demands:
Wash your hands! Do it properly!
Put your things away! We don’t want to trip over them. Adele might get hurt!
Did you get your pajamas ready?
What about your teeth? Honey, we don’t go to bed without brushing our teeth!
After a couple of weeks, he sends you out to meet people so you don’t get bored. He says you’d be bored at home with Adele. You’ve never been there. He walks you there so you don’t feel nervous. But once you get to the door, he quickly says goodbye and leaves.
You’re looking around, examining the new place, new people, and a boss who gives you the look when you’re picking at your food during a lunch break. You’re sad. And the love of your life is at home. With the other girl. Having fun.
That’s all you can think about. The two of them being together, having a laugh and kissing. When you get home, things go back to:
Be careful so you don’t hurt Adele.
You know she’s younger.
Let her have your purse. She won’t ruin it.
You feel like you’re going to explode, but you try your best to keep it together. For him.
One day, you are in the living room with her. She’s lying on the couch, whining. You feel your blood bubbling and can’t hold yourself together.
You want to kick this girl
Yes, kick her. You want to physically hurt her.
Suddenly, you can’t control yourself and completely lose it … You walk up to her and smack her on the head as hard as you can.
“You stupid girl! I hate you! I want to throw you out of the window!”
She starts screaming at the top of her lungs.
Your sweetheart rushes from the kitchen and yells at you: “What in the world are you doing?” You’re crying. You want to cry out all the injustice, but he doesn’t get it. He doesn’t listen to you trying to explain everything you feel. He only listens to her.
He picks her up and tries to calm her. He frowns at you and says:
“Get out of my sight and don’t come back until you learn how to behave! You’re older. You should know better!”
What do you say? Does it sound far-fetched?
A little, maybe. But not that much.
Something similar happens in many families.
To our firstborns.
Yeah. This is how they can feel when a new baby “moves in” with their family.
Everything is suddenly upside down. Their parents have less time to play with Lego and long bedtime stories turn into a five-minute thing. They can’t even yell when playing make-believe because the baby could wake up.
And from now on they always have to be “the older one that should know better”. They have to share their beloved toys that until now only belonged to them. They even have to share their mom and dad.
And on top of that, they are expected to love this intruder.
It’s no great drama …
Of course, bringing a newborn home isn’t always this dramatic. Parents do their best to make this arrival as painless as possible for their firstborns. They also make sure to spend time with them and pay attention just to them …
They really want their kids to love each other. They want the older one to accept the younger and maybe even watch the baby while they’re in the other room. Not hurt the baby. So they patiently explain to the older child:
Adele is a baby. She needs me a lot now.
Why don’t you let her have your teddy? She’ll only have a look. You need to learn how to share with your sister.
You can’t leave Lego lying around now that your little sister is here. She could get hurt.
And then, after all your loving care and explaining, your firstborn blurts out something terrible:
That stupid baby is so annoying, Mom!
I hate her!
When is she going to leave?
I want to have you all to myself!
I want to throw her out of the window!
Or the minute you look away he hits her for no reason. Just to make her cry.
And your heart skips a beat. Why are they doing all these mean things?
How can they be jealous when they still get the same amount of kisses, you read them books while the baby sleeps, and you try to reason with them … Sometimes they even play together so nicely …
Where does this hatred come from? What’s happening?
If, while reading the beginning of this article, a chill went down your spine at the thought of your partner bringing home someone else, you have half of the answer to this question. Maybe you’ve experienced the painful feeling of danger that you’re not the No. 1 anymore. Your firstborn might feel the same.
The fear that the “new love” is better and loved more – when everything revolves around her – can be really painful. And then one day it explodes. All those feelings rise to the surface.
Parents are shocked by the hateful words that come from the tiny mouths. To stop the anger, they usually react impulsively. Most of the time it looks something like this:
What did you say? Why are you so mean?
We don’t say such things.
You have to be nice to him. He’s your little brother.
I’m angry with you because you hurt your little sister.
But when you’re angry at someone for taking away something that’s so dear to your heart – your beloved mom and dad – hearing this won’t make you love them more.
It only confirms your feeling that somehow you are not as good. You did something bad to your little brother or sister, that’s what Mom and Dad said, and now they’re mad at you. And the little baby wins, yet again!
Maybe next time, you won’t say anything and you’ll just hide your jealousy. Until one day it explodes again. And so on and so on …
So what now?
Let’s look at this anger and hurting the younger sibling from a different angle.
What if it’s a call for help: “Mom, Dad, I’m having a hard time with this.” What if this sudden and open hate is actually a good sign?
When children are completely honest and tell you that their younger siblings are a real pain and that they don’t really love them, it also means they trust you. They’re not afraid to tell you the naked truth about how they feel deep inside at this moment instead of hiding it from you.
When they don’t conceal their emotions, you have a chance to help them deal with what they feel. If you’re not immediately frightened by such “nasty” emotions and don’t make them taboo, you might even find out what’s behind them. The real reason might be less scary than it seemed at first.
Maybe they only hate the baby a little. Or maybe not at all. They don’t get as much attention as they used to, so it’s like all the feelings that had been piling up suddenly had to be let out.
Or maybe they are upset that ever since the baby got here, we often just bark out orders without even realizing it.
And this is the only way they can tell us.
So how can we help them?
Next time your firstborn is being jealous and mean to the baby, you can try these three steps:
1 Don’t judge their feelings
There’s no need to come up with some hardcore psychological analysis. All you have to do is hear them out instead of quickly stopping them from talking. You can even repeat what they said.
Ok, so you don’t like your sister. Because she’s too little and can’t do anything?
You would like to be the only child again? Yeah, I understand you.
Being a big brother can be really hard, right?
Don’t judge their feelings. Let them come out and fade away naturally. It’s healthy. This way they won’t be piling up inside, gaining intensity.
You might eventually realize that their jealousy is not as dramatic as it seemed a few weeks ago. Maybe one day you will even find yourself making fun of it, like this Unparenting family with two boys did:
This is a game we play with Tom (almost 7): “I hate him so much that I would throw him out of the window!” And I add: “And poke his eyes out!” Then we laugh … Our relationship is completely open and we both know that we do this just to let off steam. Neither of us means any harm. We also only play this game when Krystof (4 yo) is already asleep and can’t hear us.
But honestly, it doesn’t happen that often anymore. My older son is almost out of this I-hate-him phase. Now he only says: “Mom, Krystof can sometimes drive me nuts! But sometimes he’s actually a lot of fun!”
Just saying these dark and forbidden things out loud in a safe environment where nobody judges you can ease the tension. And by bringing them out to the daylight these dark things can fade away.
Just like when you wake up from a nightmare and turn on your bedside lamp. You realize that the fear of monsters fades away with the light.
But what if your older child doesn’t give you any warning in the form of angry words and goes straight to hitting the younger one?
Just try to remember that it’s a call for help and not some senseless aggression. Then you can do another thing to enhance the relationship between your children:
2 Hug them instead of getting onto them
Sound kind of backwards?
They hurt their little sibling and I should hug them for it? What?!
Our intuition tells us to get to the “crime scene” and protect the younger (weaker) child.
But remember it’s the older child crying for help.
Maybe they are feeling unhappy or an injustice has been done to them. Maybe they’ve been holding it inside and simply can’t anymore. The hitting might just be a coded message:
“Mom, Dad, please love me!”
The younger ones might be smaller, but unlike their older siblings they might never feel this kind of uncertainty: They never had Mom and Dad just for themselves, so they didn’t lose anything. They were born into a pack that will always be there for them.
But the older ones used to be the only ones, the best for mom and dad, and now that’s gone. They suddenly realize this is their life now. The kid is not moving out but staying with them forever. Ouch.
(Are you by any chance a firstborn? If you are, have you ever felt like someone pushed you off the winners’ podium? It might sound selfish, but you were just hurting because everyone was going crazy over that little baby. And suddenly you were not the only one anymore. Did you turn into a “mean girl” or a “mean boy”? Or were you just a little kid full of doubts who simply needed a couple of reassuring hugs once in a while?)
So the next time drama strikes, try a different approach. Do protect your younger one from getting hurt, of course, but refrain from chastising the older one. Instead, you might say:
Little brother making you mad? I can’t let you hit him like that, but I can see something is upsetting you. Can you tell me about it? Or would you like to cuddle? I’m here if you need me.
Something along those lines. You’re just acknowledging that they are allowed to feel the way they feel. And you’re letting them know that you’re here with them in this situation. Not against them.
You can also try another thing that will help your firstborn feel better and maybe even stop being aggressive:
3 Spend some time alone with your older one
Give them back the feeling they are “first” in the family. That they are still Mom’s and Dad’s pumpkin, just like they were before and nothing can change that.
Simply plan some regular alone time with them.
And plan it together so they can start looking forward to it.
It doesn’t have to be a whole day. If your baby is still too little, you can start with 15 minutes. The important thing is they will feel, even if for a moment, like they are their mom’s and dad’s No. 1 again. Just like it was before the baby came.
And that they can fully enjoy this time with you. Without the little sibling. :)
You can cuddle or talk when the baby is napping or once you get a babysitter. Or you two can go to a place you both love just like the old times. Just think of something together and do it.
And when getting those special 15 minutes seems impossibly far away and you see them frowning at the baby and can tell they’re about to do something not very nice, you can say something like:
You miss me, hon, don’t you? Would a kiss help?
I am really looking forward to our special time in the evening, but I can see that you need me now too, am I right?
I have five minutes, you want to snuggle?
You will see how relieved they’ll feel. And so will you and the baby. :)
Do you still think your older child is a meanie
who would bury your younger one if they had a chance? Or are you looking at things from a different perspective?
Can you see now that your firstborn didn’t go mad or get out of control when the baby came? They are just learning to adjust to the new family situation and the baby can make it really hard for them (same goes for you, doesn’t it?). :)
What if they just need a big hug and an ice cream with their mom once in a while?
Maybe they don’t need much to start building a nice relationship with their sibling. Love has to come naturally. It can’t be forced :) But with understanding – yeah, skip the moralizing and forceful “you have to love the baby” – it can happen even in your family.
Just like it did for this mom after completing the Unparenting course:
I have two boys (1 and almost 4). I love them with all my heart and would move mountains for them, but before starting the course I felt like I was losing my footing. My older son was jealous of the younger one. He wouldn’t stop teasing him, and that made me very angry. He suddenly wouldn’t go to preschool or to see his grandparents.
I’ve been struggling to cope for some time and I even found myself taking my frustration out on the kids. They were then getting back at me by throwing tantrums. My whole family criticized me for not being able to handle my own kids…
… I started the course a month ago and since then I haven’t had to yell or get really angry one single time.\4 I’ve been able to relax and it’s had a positive effect on my kids. They are happier and snuggle more, and they fight less often. Our life is more peaceful.
I’m so excited to be here and to finally have a happy family where everyone feels good and communicates. Thank you, Unparenting!
Here’s hoping today’s three steps help your little ones finally start having a good relationship. But keep in mind that
A good sibling relationship is not all roses and rainbows
That sort of thing only happens in commercials!
In the real world, it’s full of colors and adventure. It’s filled with all sorts of moods, emotions and real love. That kind that comes from the bottom of the heart when they stand up for their sibling to another kid – even though just an hour ago you thought they were going to kill each other over some Lego blocks. Thank goodness they managed to work it out. :) It might look like this:
Hi Unparenting, I want to say thank you for what you do and for promoting respectful parenting. I’d like to share a story from today.
My 2 ½-year-old daughter was playing in the play kitchen outside and poured out the “soup” her big sister (4 ½) had made the previous day. Big sister got mad, they started tussling with each other, and the little one started to cry. Big sister felt bad and said, “I’ll say sorry for pushing you, but will you tell me why you did that?”
Little sister: “I wanted to bake you a chocolate cake.”
Big sister: “Next time let’s decide who will have which pot, okay?”
Little sister: “Okay.”
All of this took place without the slightest input from me. I know it’s not perfect, but they can work out their conflicts on their own and I see that as a major victory for how we’ve been communicating with them both since they were tiny.
If you like this type of communication and you’d like to learn more about it so that you and your children learn to work things out and meet each other halfway, then you can build on the first steps described in this article with the full Unparenting course. We’ve dedicated one full week to the topic of sibling relationships.