When my second son, Zeke, was born, we received a near constant stream of visitors to our home. Most brought a gift for the baby, and many a gift for my other son Henry, who had just turned two, so that he didn’t feel left out. Our visitors were thoughtful, kind, and generous. And almost to a one, they had something else in common. Upon saying hello to Henry, they all asked him the exact same questions:
Are you so excited to be a big brother?
Do you love Baby Zeke?
Henry typically paused, looked down at his truck (he was always holding a truck), looked back up, and responded, “Yeah.”
So why do people ask toddlers these leading questions when a new sibling arrives? I think the answer stems from the fact we – the grown-ups – are wary of complicated emotions. Although we accept them in adults, we would prefer that little children be shielded from them, and, simply put, be happy all the time. When we speak to young children, we attempt to distill complex questions into a simplified, digestible version that they feel safe answering. It may not be what we intend – most likely we aren’t even conscious of it – but we, as adults, parents, a culture as a whole, do not want to think about toddlers experiencing sadness, distress, anger, or anxiety so we guide them to certain feelings rather than engage in the real complexity of their emotions.
Jacob falls: “You’re OK!”
Olivia gets teary: “Honey, don’t be sad.”
Michael yells, and is met with: “There’s no reason to get so upset!”
The problem is that, although Jacob may not have gotten hurt, he was scared. And Olivia was feeling sad, despite instructions not to. And in Michael’s world, there was plenty of reason to be upset. When we limit our children’s emotional experiences, over time we send a clear message: happy feelings are OK, and not-happy feelings are not OK. But not-happy feelings are a part of life – like it or not. Our best intentions notwithstanding, we are not doing our children any favors.
Recently, a new client inquired: “My husband and I have a three-year-old daughter and a new baby on the way; we would love to talk to you about how to make the experience as easy as possible for her. We just want her to love her baby brother!” An understandable request, to be sure, but also one that isn’t realistic and that has the potential to set the whole family up for anxiety, disappointment, or both. Having a new sibling is not an easy transition for a toddler. Would my client’s little girl love her baby brother, as her parents wanted? Yes – sometimes. When she wasn’t busy hating him. Both reactions are normal and expected; it’s us, the parents, who tend to want to stamp out the latter.
Which brings me back to Henry. Was he excited to be a big brother? Sure. When he wasn’t furious about it. Did he love Baby Zeke? Absolutely. Though he also liked to bite him sometimes when we weren’t looking. My best guess is that he was thrilled about the newest member of our family, but that he also missed the way our family had been before. As his mom, I did my best – no doubt imperfectly – to accept all of his feelings, not just the happy ones. I told him I was proud of him when he was being “such a great big brother,” but I also told him how much I loved him when he seemed frustrated that he had to share Mommy at bedtime. I gave him the words for these feelings so that he could learn to use them himself as he got older.
After all, at the time I was experiencing those same emotions myself. Was I excited to be a mother of two? Sure. Excited and terrified and blissful and exhausted and incredulous, to name only the reactions I’d have in a single hour. Did I love Baby Zeke? Again: of course. Sometimes I loved him so much I wanted to inhale his whole little body, other times I wanted to shake him until he slept, other times I resented him for taking my time away from Henry, and still other times his small size and newness to this crazy planet brought a tear to my eye that I didn’t even have the words to explain.
It was only fair to allow Henry to share his range of emotions, too.
So a few months into this new transition, when one of our visitors asked Henry if he was excited to be a big brother and if he loved Baby Zeke, I waited for him to respond in his way, then gave him a squeeze and asked, “Sometimes?”
Dr. Rebecca Schrag Hershberg, PhD, is co-founder and clinical psychologist of Little House Calls Psychological Services, PLLC, an early childhood psychology practice serving New York City and Westchester, NY and Rockland, NJ Counties. Dr. Hershberg is the author of the Tantrum Survival Guide (Guilford Press), and has been published widely, including on Parents.Com, TODAY Parents, Modern Loss, Big City Moms, and the website of the Child Mind Institute. She has been featured as a guest on several podcasts, as well as on WAMC Public Radio and Good Day Wake Up. She currently lives in lower Westchester with her husband and two young sons, who both keep her busier – though also smiling! Connect with Dr. Hershberg on MyNestwell.