Only child: Easing the transition for long-time only child

I have two children, a 15-year-old son and a 2-year-old daughter. After 13 years as an only child my son has had a great deal of difficulty dealing with this family change. He has exhibited a lot of anger and frustration and I don't know what to do. What can we do to help ease this transition for my son and return harmony to my family?

Question:

Your son is at an important point in his development and it may be difficult to determine which part of his struggles are about his younger sister and which are part of becoming a teenager. As a teenager, your son is likely experiencing much of the excitement, confusion, attempts at independence and peer influence that is typical of his stage of development. These, along with physical and hormonal changes, can contribute to feelings of frustration and anger.

Another factor in your son’s frustration may be his adjustment to sibling relationships. Sibling conflict is a natural part of family relationships and when dealt with constructively, it can offer opportunities to learn effective communication and relationship skills.

Any time a new person joins a family, every other person in the family makes adjustments in relationships. Even though your son is not a young child himself, he has to figure out how his family works now that there is a little sister. Adapting to a sibling is complicated by the fact that she starts out as a baby and just when your son figures out how to deal with a baby, she turns into a toddler.

Some of the questions older children have when they get a new sibling include: Will there still be a place for me? How will the attention and energy in the family be distributed now that there is a new person? What will my relationship with my sibling be? These are natural feelings and questions which children usually resolve in the months and years after a sibling comes.

However, there are other factors that can negatively influence an older child’s ability to make peace with a new sibling. Often parents have their own concerns about having enough time, energy and love to go around. Many parents feel it is their responsibility to fill every need their children might have. Another child coming into the family isn’t seen as another resource for everyone in the family to enjoy. Rather, she is seen as an interloper who will take attention away from the other children.

As parents, you may have your own unresolved issues from difficult relationships with your siblings. It may be hard for you to imagine that siblings can have wonderful, reciprocal, nurturing relationships. When parents have their own ambivalence about the sibling relationship they may convey those feelings to their kids.

Your son may not be clear what the source of his frustration is. Often kids identify a "safe" or obvious target at home for their anger, when in fact it is largely caused by developmental struggles or outside stresses. "If only I didn’t have a little sister, my life wouldn’t be so difficult." When parents feel guilty about having another child and are worried that there isn’t enough of themselves to go around, they may believe that the younger child really is the cause of the older child’s woes. In this case, everyone assumes that the problem is sibling rivalry and the older child doesn’t get a chance to face and deal with the many other issues that may be contributing to his frustration. Here are some suggestions to help clarify and address the issues your son is dealing with:

  • Listen to your son’s feelings. When he expresses frustration about his sibling, try to really listen to his concerns and acknowledge the changes that have occurred because of her. After he has named all of the things that are hard about having a sister, ask him if there are other frustrations he is facing. He may be able to identify some other sources of hurt. Often, after kids have made the list of all the things that are hard in their lives, they can go back and name some things about their sibling that they enjoy.

    When you are listening to his feelings, remember that it is not your job to feel responsible for his feelings or to come up with a bunch of solutions. Often what kids need is just an attentive, empathetic listening ear.

  • Ask him for ideas of what would make things better. Often kids complain about what’s not going right. "She gets into all my stuff. She embarrasses me in front of my friends. She is always crying. You don’t pay any attention to me anymore." After you listen to his concerns, ask him what he would like from his sister and from you. Ask him what would make him feel better. After he runs through ideas like, "Put her up for adoption," he may be able to say, "I want to spend some time just with you." "I want to be able to have my friends over without her hanging around." Together you may be able to come up with some ways to minimize the irritations he has been feeling. You may discover that if he understands that his needs can be met, as well as his sisters, he may start to enjoy her more.
  • Support his relationship with his sister. One of the things that sometimes happens in families is that siblings don’t really get a chance to build a positive relationship. There may be a large age difference and they don’t have enough opportunities to figure out ways to play with each other. Parents may feel protective and intervene too soon in the kids’ interactions. Parents may separate kids, rather than help them work out their conflicts. Parents may be so concerned about meeting all of the needs and about keeping siblings from bothering each other that siblings just don’t get enough time together to get to know each other well.

    Think about things they enjoy or are successful doing together. Make sure they have uninterrupted time to goof around with each other. If he has an accomplishment, you can include his sister in cheering him on. "Look at the trophy he got in wrestling. Let’s clap and say, ‘Yea!’ for him." Likewise, when she learns to ride her tricycle, you can tell him that she has a surprise to show him.

  • Help them work through their conflicts.When they are arguing or treating each other unkindly, step-in to help them communicate more constructively. If you separate them or just leave them alone to battle it out, they may never have the experience of working their conflict through to a successful conclusion. Remember that it is important to give each of them turns to talk and to listen. If you are "siding" with one or the other, they won’t be able to listen to each other.
  • Remember that they are building a relationship for a lifetime. Usually, siblings have each other for much longer than they have their parents. Siblings know your history and share a generation. There are many things siblings can offer each other that parents can’t. In light of this reality, think about ways you can allow and support your children to maximize their positive connection with each other.
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