When I asked my four year-old what is three plus one, my husband whispered behind his breath: “definitely not four”. The initial excitement and novelty of having a new little baby in the house has worn off and our sweet-natured first-born has turned into a monster. It is clear that it has become a competition of note. The rules of the game are: do anything to get attention – nag, complain, say “no” to everything, cry at a drop of a hat, throw yourself on the floor and refuse to do anything on your own. The love-triangle between me, my first-born and my husband has become a love-square. I’m wondering how I’m going to do this without losing it all – my joy, compassion, patience and sense of humour!
As humans we are wired for relationships. Our brains are programmed to form strong emotional bonds with other people. But as natural as it seems, it’s not always easy. At the best of times, relationships can get complicated, difficult and, truth be told, messy. But that is exactly where we as parents come into the picture. We have power in the sculpting process of our children’s brains. We don’t just have to sit back and watch nature do its job. We can, and should help our children in setting the stage for developing the skills to establishing strong, deep and meaningful relationships.
From the first time when your baby looks you in the eye, the building blocks for relating and communicating are taking shape. If your relationship with your baby, toddler and child is filled with lots of cuddles and loads of play, you are physically changing the structure of his brain, in a positive way. When your child is having fun within your warm and loving relationship, his brain is flooded with feel-good hormones. Your child learns that human relationships feel good.
Relationships and the effect on the brain
Healthy relationships results in healthy brains. A healthy relationship is one that is characterized by warmth, compassion, kindness and lots of empathy. Most of the time. Not all of the time. We’re human after all and expecting all of our interactions to always be perfect, is unrealistic. Difficult times in relationships are wonderful opportunities for learning how to deal with negative emotions and conflict. As long as your family relationships are filled with empathy, warmth, compassion and kindness most of the time, they are healthy and that will result in the growing and developing of healthy brains.
Your baby’s first experience of a relationship is with you. With the arrival of a new sibling, your growing child now has to make sense of that relationship too. Feelings of resentment, jealousy, frustration and isolation sets in and this overwhelms a young, undeveloped brain. And because little brains don’t know what to do with these feelings, it causes stress and an overwhelming urge for attention. It is that urge that results in behaviour which you might find difficult to explain, understand and manage.
Tips to nurture sibling relationships
Playing with your child in a special way, a way in which your child is the boss and leads the play, will strengthen the emotional bond between you and your child. It has a massive influence on the way that your child behaves. It is incredibly powerful. Your child’s self-esteem will improve because he feels that his ideas matter. Through the loving and playful encounters, feel-good hormones are released and his behaviour will improve. Self-regulation improves because through your time together your child is able to make sense of how he feels.
Set aside 15-30 minutes per day to play one-to-one with your child. Use a timer to indicate the beginning and end. Switch off your phone. Be present – physically and emotionally. Say to your child that this is your special time to play together. Ask what he would like to play and go with that. You might be having a tea-party for the gazillions time, play dress-up, or even bang and crash toy cars off mountain cliff. Just let your child be. Keep back on all judgement – whether its praise or criticism. Get involved in the game as much as you can. Step out of your adult shoes, pretend you’re a child and have fun!
This is probably the single best piece of advice that takes the biggest investment on your side, but bears the biggest fruit. Trust me.
Rough and tumble and other physical play, like blowing raspberries and chasing, also releases the feel-good-hormones. Make physical play part of your daily interaction with your child. This is a great way for dads to get involved too. Throw your child up in the air, hold him tight and roll with him, let him sit on your knees and play horsey-horsey, turn him upside down and swing him by his feet.
Nurture with rituals and predictable routines
Rituals and routines make us feel safe. For little children it helps make sense of this big overwhelming world. Attempt to keep things predictable and within a set, yet flexible routine as much as you possibly can. Especially those rituals and routines that your older child enjoys, like the bath time and bedtime routine and your once-a-week popcorn and movie nights. Resist establishing new routines and attempting new development stages, like potty training or going from half-day nursery to full-day nursery in those first few months after the arrival of the new baby.
Stick to the rules
Have a clear set of family rules which are based on kindness, goodness and respect for others. ”No hitting, no biting, no hurting in this house”. “We share our toys”, “We say sorry” and “We ask for help”. When you discipline, do so in a calm but firm way. Not by shaming or blaming.
Reward positive behaviour
Use different methods of rewarding good behaviour. Sometimes a simple sentence such as: “I am so proud of you” or “You shared beautifully with your sister” is enough. At other times the act of putting stickers on a chart and seeing how it becomes more over time, can be very encouraging and motivating to children. Some children might respond well to special treats and gifts, while others enjoy special times with you.
Don’t sweat the small stuff
It may be difficult, but try to ignore negative behaviour, especially those things that don’t interfere with your family rules and won’t cause harm to others and the environment.
Show that you care
Show sympathy when your child is distressed. Go down on your knees, put your child on your lap. Children who experience care and kindness from an early age, are kind and caring towards others.
Help your child to make sense of the negative emotions that he is feeling
Children need lots of attention for healthy brain development. The problem is that if they don’t get the attention they crave, they discover ways that guarantee getting attention, even if the attention they get from you are negative, like scolding and punishment.
We need to help our child with the big feelings they are having. When it comes to sibling relationships, children usually experience painful feelings like disappointment, jealously, loss and frustration. Big painful feelings activate the stress chemicals in the child’s brain and body. If we punish the child when they are having an emotional outburst, we are giving them the message that it is not okay to have these feelings and over time he will shut off or develop more challenging and negative behaviour. In situations like this, the child will not learn to manage stress.
Help your child to name his feelings. Say things like “I can see you feel frustrated because your toy broke”, “I understand that you angry because mommy can’t play with you now”. Read your favourite stories together, look at the emotions that the people, animals and even animated toys are portraying and say, “The rabbit looks sad. How do you look when you’re sad?” Give opportunities for expression of emotions. Hit pillows, throw water balloons, stamp your feet while pretending to be animals and say “~Sometimes when I’m angry my heart beats fast. When I hit a pillow or stamp my feet I feel better. But I never hit somebody else.”
By Lizanne du Plessis