Every child, no matter how excited or well-prepared for the arrival of a new sibling, experiences some degree of concern, jealousy, anxiety, or insecurity about the prospect of having a baby to share Mom’s and Dad’s affection. For stepchildren, however, those emotions are amplified tenfold, especially when they see the expectant parent only for visitation instead of daily. Will my dad love the new baby more than me because the baby lives with him and I don’t? Will my stepmom still love me when she has a baby of her own? Will they pay any attention to me when I go there for the weekends?
Every stepfamily’s situation is different, and the degree of difficulty of the transition will vary based on the child’s age, living arrangements, and many other factors. But there are some basic things any family can do to prepare stepchildren for the arrival of a new sibling and make the transition a little easier.
The sooner you can bring the stepchild into your pregnancy, the better. Not only will the child have that much more time to adjust to the concept of a baby, but he or she can also share in your excitement and assist with preparations. “I remarried when my daughter was 10,” says JJ, father of now 12-year-old Danielle. “My wife and I were always open with Danielle about planning to have a baby at some point. Once we became pregnant, we told her right away to give her time to get excited about it.”
It’s best to inform the child of your pregnancy as early as you feel comfortable. Some couples feel better waiting until the 12-week mark when the risk of miscarriage drops dramatically, while others tell as soon as they see the blue line on the pregnancy test. “It’s best to wait until the safety zone of the second trimester when telling very young children,” advises Vicky Sullivan, a pediatric social worker at Montefiore Medical Center in Bronx, New York. “Explaining loss of a pregnancy to a young child would be upsetting for everyone, and while they’re likely to become scared or sad, they won’t really comprehend what’s happening.
Also, kids who are preschool aged have very short attention spans and aren’t likely to be able to remain focused on a pregnancy for an entire nine months. Waiting until the second trimester, when there’s physical evidence of a growing baby, will make it seem more real and keep young children engaged.”
Once the pregnancy is out in the open, include the child in any way possible. Take him or her shopping for the layette with you and let the stepchild pick out one special toy or blanket as a gift for the baby. Older kids can help paint or decorate the nursery. Come up with craft projects that kids can participate in, like stamping or stenciling a customized bodysuit or baby T-shirt.
If feasible, take your stepchild to an OB appointment to hear the heartbeat or see the baby on an ultrasound. Avoid taking any child to an appointment when a potentially frightening procedure will be performed, including an amniocentesis or even an internal exam.
While it’s important to include the child in the pregnancy, don’t allow all your time with the stepchild to be baby focused. That might serve to reinforce the child’s fear that the baby will rule the roost and the older child will be left out. Do select one baby-preparation activity to share each time the stepchild visits, to continue reinforcing the idea that a baby is really on the way, but make sure there’s plenty of time to do fun things that have nothing to do with your upcoming special delivery.
Be prepared that the revelation of your pregnancy will bring up lots of questions about the facts of life. Be sure to answer the questions with age-appropriate and simple answers, but never be dishonest or give misinformation for the sake of keeping things kid-friendly. For example, don’t let kids believe that babies come out through the bellybutton to avoid using words like vagina. Use correct language and terminology, and if a concept is too mature for a child, he or she will tend to just skip over it. When dealing with your stepchild, however, do make sure that his or her mom feels comfortable with you having this kind of conversation with the child.
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.