Be Honest (and Encourage Your Child to Be, Too)
“I told Danielle that even though I was excited about having a baby, it was weird for me, because she’d always been my baby,” says JJ. “It was easy with her because she was going on 13 and was already eager to be treated like a teenager instead of a little kid. But by sharing my feelings, I left the door open for her to tell me if she was feeling the same way.”
Kids may be scared to say what they’re really feeling, especially if it’s negative. It’s OK to tell them, “You know you’ll still be very important to me when the baby comes, and I’ll love you just as much as I love the new baby.” You can also ask, “How do you feel about the baby coming?” or “Is there anything that worries you about me having a new baby?” When kids do express anxiety or jealousy, don’t dismiss it by telling them they’re being silly or that they have nothing to worry about. Instead, try saying, “I understand why you feel that way, but I will always love you and you’ll always be special to me. No baby is going to change the way I feel about you.”
It’s also critically important to create realistic expectations about what life with a newborn will be like. Don’t promise older kids that you’ll have just as much time for them as always, because you simply won’t. Talk about how often babies need to eat, how often they need diaper changes, how their sleeping habits differ from those of older kids and adults, and reasons why babies cry. Tell your stepchild, “Sometimes it might seem like I’m too busy with the baby to pay any attention to you, especially when the baby is very tiny. It doesn’t mean that I love you less or that the baby is more important. It’s just that the baby can’t do anything and needs lots of care. You can help me take care of the baby, too.” Do emphasize things your stepchild can do that baby can’t, like bike ride, sleep over at friends’ houses, and bake cookies.
Plan Special Outings with Your Stepchild
Family outings will be a virtual impossibility for at least the first several months. If you aren’t already in the habit of doing thing with your stepchild alone, start the tradition now. Perhaps the child and Dad can see a matinee, and the next day, the child and stepmom can take a bike ride to the local park. Once the baby comes and all attention is diverted to the little one, the stepchild will yearn for uninterrupted blocks of time where he or she can be the center of attention. Make this one-on-one time a priority whenever possible, no matter how tired or frazzled the family gets.
Accept Resistance and Don’t Force the Issue
No matter how well you’ve prepared your stepchild for the arrival of a new little one, and no matter how hard you strive to create one big happy family, your stepchild may have some resistance to the changes taking place. Difficult as it may be, all you can do is accept that things need to happen in their own time. Trying to force the stepchild to love the new baby or acting like nothing has changed will only serve to exacerbate negative feelings the child is harboring.
If the stepchild seems very resistant to bonding with the new baby, just tell yourself that in time, everyone will adjust. Don’t force the stepchild to help with baby care, and try not to center every activity around the baby, further alienating the stepchild. Make yourself available if the step-child wants to talk about feelings, and let things run their natural course.
Refuse to Tolerate Unacceptable Behaviors
Although the road may not be as smooth as you like, and although you have to let the stepchild adjust to the new family structure over time without forcing the issue, certain behaviors must not be tolerated. A common mistake is to allow older siblings greater behavioral leeway than normal in the difficult adjustment period after bringing baby home. If your stepchild is displaying a heightened amount or degree of acting out- crying, shouting, slamming doors, or just being generally disagreeable, confront it head-on right away. Try saying, “I know that you’re still adjusting to having a new baby around, and maybe you aren’t too happy about it. But this is a difficult time for everyone, and we need to you cooperate and behave yourself.” Don’t dole our harsher-than-normal punishments that will foster greater resentment, and sleep-deprived though you may be, try not to overreact to normal transgressions that wouldn’t have merited a scolding in pre-baby days. Do, however, draw the line at unacceptable behaviors and deal with them promptly and fairly in the same way you normally have.
Adjusting to a new baby isn’t easy for any older sibling, but for stepchildren, it’s much more difficult. Stepchildren may be in the home only part-time, making them feel like the baby is naturally getting a bigger chunk of love and attention. They may feel increased competition for the affections of the natural parent, or feel that the stepparent will now only love the new baby. It’s important to be sensitive to these insecurities, maintain honest and open communication, and be patient with the adjustment process.