Jealousy, joy and confusion: the sibling effect and how to smooth the transition

Rachel Howe is a graduate of our BA (Hons) Early Childhood Studies and has spent the past year working as a nursery assistant with three and four-year-olds. She is about to start teacher training and reflects here on her research into how children react when a new sibling comes into their lives.

“Transitioning into siblinghood” is not a phrase I had heard until I was researching for my dissertation at the University of Derby. Family dynamics have changed, especially over the last few decades.

The transition into having a sibling can be difficult for any child, no matter what their age, whether it is the first time of having a new sibling, the fourth or fifth time or gaining a step/half sibling. Siblings have a huge impact on not only childhood but a person’s whole life.

Looking back at my own experience, my excitement about the imminent arrival of my younger brother was profound. I was bursting with kisses and cuddles for the new baby.

Yet, when he arrived and he was sitting next to me in the back seat of our old burgundy Cavalier, I apparently changed my mind. I threw my cuddly sheep toy on the floor and, with a chubby toddler finger, I pointed at him and yelled “no, not home, not him”. I was only two years old. I was confused. Can you blame me?

The effects on children

It is not unusual for children to have mixed emotions about a new sibling or even to just be upset about the situation. Children react to having a sibling in entirely different ways – some get jealous, anxious, withdrawn and upset, yet others are happy, excited and take to the older-sibling role very well.

Children may struggle for several reasons, such as changes to routine, lack of attention and understanding, and being unable to express emotion. It can be very confusing for them, even more so if they are very young.

One of the ways we control our emotions as adults is through using ours words and communication. But what if you don’t have language yet? How do you express how you feel?

Many children use their behaviour to gain attention, such as having tantrums, biting and having outbursts of crying.

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Smoothing the transition

Bringing a new sibling into a household can be a stressful time for the whole family and this can cause dismay and unease. To enable a child to have consistency ahead of the transition, it can be a good idea for parents to work together with and communicate with nursery practitioners.

Involving the child during the pregnancy and after the birth can allow them to feel valued and included. As part of my Early Childhood Studies course, I found that this could be done by talking about the experience, sharing baby scans, reading specific story books, spending quality time and giving the child responsibility such as small tasks.

Nursery practitioners can have a great influence on the child. They can use this influence to help the child be at ease and help with their understanding. At nursery, they can do this by talking positively, giving the child time and extra cuddles, sending home a home diary, planning specific circle times and updating the book and home corner.

Although this can be a difficult time for families, it can also be a thrilling experience and positive relationships between siblings can create a lifelong bond.

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