Every child has to accept that sooner or later he or she will outgrow the designation of a baby. The oldest child usually has the harshest time in dealing with being displaced. As the first and only child he was the featured child in every family event. The novelty of being the first meant everything. His early life was documented with a photo from every conceivable angle. The fall from being number one is devastating to his previously self-centered world similar to a king being dethroned.
All humans start life as the most helpless of all the offspring in the animal kingdom. A human infant cannot survive for a long duration without the assistance of adults. Screams, facial expressions and sudden body movements are the ways an infant can communicate its demands. In a healthy environment usually the caregiver responds to a child’s needs immediately.
In the infant’s mind he is the center of the universe. This is a very satisfying place to be. There is little urgency to leave and many reasons to remain the center of everyone’s attention.
One of my granddaughters is seven years old and is the oldest of four siblings. When I said she was so grown up she responded that she wanted to be a baby. According to her, her 8-month-old sister, was getting everyone’s attention. It is difficult and shocking to realizing you are no longer the cutest child in the family. The loss of being the focus of the family may be emotionally disturbing to the prince or princess but it is a natural repositioning in the family.
The attempt of the oldest child to regain the family spotlight can be rough for everyone. The dethroned child often directs his anger towards the parents. “I hate you”, “get away, I don’t like you any more,” “leave me alone.” These statements are directed at the parents to soften them up so the child can better manipulate them to once again be the top banana.
Another tactic is to divide and conquer by playing one parent off against another. “I don’t want you, I want Mama,” “Get away from me, I don’t like you,” Daddy, you put me to bed.” Young children intuitively know how to create and increase parent’s guilt.
The ultimate strategy to return to the spotlight again is to threaten to hurt himself or the new infant. He may say, “I hate that thing,” pointing to the baby. “I don’t want to live anymore.” A child may resort to hitting, squeezing, biting or jumping on the baby to inflict pain to insure the parents react.
All of these and many more behaviors are attempts by the displaced child to retrieve his lost status, which has changed forever. He can no longer go back to being an only child although me may cling to immature behavior in order to keep the attention on him.
In order to help their child make an easier transition of accepting a new member to the family, parents should not capitulate to the child’s whims but should consider the following.
- preparing him for the new family addition
- including him in all the infant’s activities
- always refer to the new baby as “our baby”
- enlist his help in getting things for the baby
- doing special activities when the infant is sleeping
- use baby feeding time as story time for the child
Never should the parent overlook or condone inappropriate behavior on the part of the older child. A negative comment or harmful act should be nipped in the bud. It should immediately be addressed with a consequence followed by an explanation. When he understands specific parameters he will not waste his time attempting to stretch the limits. These are teaching moments.
Discipline is love and love is discipline. When a child understands he does not have to be the center of attention to be loved, his suffering from dethroning will end. The child will mature into being the big brother or big sister.
The parents need to tell the older child how blessed he is to have a new brother or sister. A picture should be painted of the things they can do together and with the entire family. The child should be encouraged to hold and play with the infant with the supervision of the parent.
The once-baby has gone through the rite of passage into a transitional period: not old enough to be close to being an adult although definitely too old to act like a baby. This phase of childhood from the child’s perspective is a long and tedious process of learning what it means to be an adult.
The brisk and sudden boot out of his number one position often motivates the oldest to try harder to reach the high level positions in the adult world. This is one of the reasons studies have indicated the oldest child in the family is the most achievement oriented. He disciplines himself to reach his goal to keep the focus on him. He never wants to feel the pain again of looking in from the outside at someone else getting all the attention.
Dr. Domenick J. Maglio, PhD. Traditional Realist