How to Raise a Happy, Cooperative Child

Parenting Strategies for All Ages

Eight Steps For Raising A Happy First-born

Help her to feel secure and behave better

8 Steps for Raising a Happy Firstborn Child

Birth order has a powerful impact upon children's behavior, their emotions and their personality development. Freud said that birth order is the most important piece of information that you can have about an individual. Why? By the accident of birth, each child has a unique spot in the family with specific emotional experiences that shape the child. These experiences are comprised of positive elements and many challenges. It is crucial that parents become aware of these birth order issues so they can help their children to grow up feeling equally loved and self-confident.

The firstborn has the great fortune to receive all of his parents’ love and attention for a while. New parents are excited by the event and put all their efforts into doing it right. They research the best car seat and mobile for their new baby and read everything they can about pregnancy and childbirth. If it is the first baby in the entire extended family, grandparents, aunts and uncles and cousins join in to celebrate the new child. The firstborn benefits tremendously from all this attention and grows up feeling self-confident and is often a great success. Many of our presidents and heads of companies are firstborns. But there are challenges to this spot in the family. Parents tend to pressure their firstborn to achieve. After all, they feel this is the most important thing they have ever done in their lives and they want their child to be a success. They tend to view the child as a reflection of their abilities as parents, and want to feel they are valuable. It is not unusual to hear parents say to their firstborn, “What? You only got a 97% on your math test. What happened to the other three points?” As a result firstborns often become perfectionists. They are afraid to make a mistake. Unfortunately, this can lead to the conviction that their value is tied to their success.

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Firstborns also face an enormous challenge when a younger sibling is born. Though they have the positive experience of having a younger child to nurture and lead, they feel “dethroned” by the second-born. As the parents spend a tremendous amount of time tending to the baby, the older child concludes that the baby is loved more. This experience gives him a sense of loss with accompanying feelings of sadness and anger. In many cases, older siblings act out their anger by misbehaving.

Another challenge a firstborn faces is being asked to care for younger siblings too much and this can raise much resentment. Firstborns can also feel intruded upon by younger siblings. Whatever the older one does, his adoring younger brother or sister tags along or interferes. The older child often feels angry that the younger sibling takes his possessions and gives him little time alone. All these issues continue to fester and are often behind parent-child struggles and sibling rivalry throughout life. Here are some steps you can take to help your firstborn overcome these birth order challenges:

1. Try not to demand perfection from your firstborn. Praise him for his accomplishments, and avoid constant criticisms. When you feel you are constantly correcting him, it is wise to step back. He needs to feel he is loved unconditionally.

2. Show your older child photos or videos of how you cared for her when she was little, so she knows she had the same loving attention.

3. Talk about the change in your family and your child's feelings directly. You can tell him the “Family Story.” For instance: “We used to have mommy, Daddy and you in our family. We had lots of fun together. You used to be the only child in our family and we were able to give you all the attention. Now we have your little sister too, and you have to share the attention with her. It's natural for little children to feel angry and sad about this change. When you feel angry or sad, come and tell us. Say, 'I feel angry' or 'I need attention, and we’ll help you.'” Then, reassure your older child by telling him, “We have enough love for both of our children.”

4. If you need your older child's help, make sure to ask politely, thank her, and avoid relying on her too much.

5. Use general statements when both of your children are misbehaving, such as, “We don't hit anyone in our family,” rather than singling out the older one. Avoid statements such as, “You should know better. You're older.” Your older child will feel that he is less loved.

6. Help your older child to have some privacy. You can invite a friend for your younger child when your older one has a play date, or plan something special for her. Allow your older child to put away some special possessions that belong only to her. Encourage your firstborn to engage in special projects when the younger one is taking a nap, so her activities are not disrupted.

7. Involve your older child in your newborn's care. If he wants to help, he can be in charge of handing you a diaper, otherwise, he can sit next to you when you are feeding your infant and you can read him a story.

8. Address your child's birth order issues directly. For instance, “It's hard to be the oldest child. The baby needs so much care and attention. When you feel left out you can say, “I need attention.” When you acknowledge your child's difficulties and give her a phrase to use, she will act out less.

It is crucial to educate yourself about your children’s birth order issues. If you take steps based upon this knowledge early on, you can help each child to feel secure, behave better and diminish sibling rivalry in the family. Keep in mind that it is never too late to start these discussions with your children. You will need to address these issues on an on-going basis as your children grow.

Meri Wallace, LCSW, is a parenting expert and child and family therapist.

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