It can be hard in early adolescence (around age 9 – 13) to have a little brother or sister who is captivating parental attention at a time when one is beginning the separation from childhood, is becoming more challenging for parents to live with, and increasingly is falling out of their traditional favor just as an adorable younger sibling is falling in.
An aggrieved ten-year-old described his adjustment something like this. “I don’t matter in the family like I used to. Now everything’s my younger sister. She’s so loveable and I’m nothing but trouble, the way I’ve changed. They enjoy her, but they’re always criticizing me. And when she plays with my stuff, it’s no big deal. They make excuses and say they’ll talk to her. But she just does it again. I should remember, she’s just a little kid, that’s what they tell me. She’ll grow out of it they say. And if I get angry and tease to get her back, that just makes things worse. They take her side. Who’s on my side? They’re playing favorites is how I see it, but they say ‘no.’ I don't believe them. She’s so special. They make a big deal of everything she learns to do. There’s nothing special they notice about me, except my being a problem. In my home, the youngest kid gets to rule!”
In general, it’s a significant adjustment for everyone in the family when the number of children increases from one to two. For parents, what this new member of the family means, in addition to them assuming more responsibility and having to broker competing and conflicting needs between multiple children, is accepting a reduction in what they have been accustomed to provide. Now they can no longer give to child number one as much focus as they once did, and they can never give to child number two all the attention that they previously lavished on their first born. Now they have to divide out the parenting they give.
As for child number one, she has been both dethroned and demoted at the same time. Now she is no longer the sole player on the family stage because of having to share parental admiration and applause with this new arrival. Her ruling position as sole performer for their devoted audience is over. Thus she has been dethroned. In addition, she has been demoted. As an only child, she considered herself one of the family three, identifying with the parents, the grown-up “we.” Now, however, she has been demoted to one of the lower status “they,” reduced to being considered as just one of the kids.
This dethronement and demotion can be more keenly felt when the second sibling’s arrival coincides with the elder’s entry into adolescence. Now young person begins pushing against and pulling away from parental authority for more social freedom. While the younger sibling is happy being dependent on parental care and living contentedly within the family circle, the adolescent bridles at family rules and restraints that limit his growing need for more independence and being out in the world with friends.
While the younger child loves being cuddled and hugged by parents, the older becomes less welcoming of this physical affection because he is growing too old to accept their loving touch. And yet, it can gall him to see the younger child enjoying physical intimacy with parents that the adolescent has given up, but still misses none-the-less. Add this to the list of all the care-taking tasks parents do for the younger that they no longer provide the adolescent and you can appreciate some of the envy and resentment that an early adolescent can sometimes feel.
A final slight can occur if the early adolescent notices how parents are more free and easy and fun loving with the younger child than they were with her, their trial child (the first experience with parenting they had.) Back then they were inexperienced and insecure. They were seriously concerned about what was right and wrong to do, tense with worry about whether their first born was going to be okay. Although parents may claim they treated her the same way as they do the younger child, she knows better because she has seen them change. They were never so loose and relaxed with her, the one with whom the anxious introduction to parenting began.
So what can parents do to help ease the early adolescent’s adjustment to a second child? The answer is, quite a lot. Consider ten options.
1) They can create opportunities for their older child to have time with each parent separately and with both parents together with the younger child not present, so the adolescent can feel special from enjoying this dedicated attention.
2) They can make a conscious effort to keep a positive attitude as they contend with the more negatively perceived changes in their early adolescent – the disorganization, complaining attitude, active and passive resistance, and limit testing that early adolescent typically exhibits.
3) They can emphasize the privileges of being the oldest – getting to do and have much that is denied the youngest child.
4) They can help the adolescent appreciate how they are looked up to by the younger child who prizes time with the more grown up, knowledgeable, and capable older sibling.
5) They can encourage the older child to take a leadership (and esteem-filling) role by teaching the younger child how to learn new knowledge and skills.
6) They can be vigilant in responding with attention, approval, and appreciation to the growth changes and accomplishments in their older child.
7) They can arrange special contacts for the early adolescent to get with extended family members and family friends who are eager to enjoy her company and excited to affirm how she grows.
8) They can let her know that although they may have more disagreements and tensions between them now, that is an expected part of her growing older and wanting more independence, and any problems that are encountered are the exception to the rule which is that most of the time she manages herself very well in their eyes.
9) They can let her know that the older she grows, the more often she will find them difficult to live with, more frequently in the way of what she wants, but hopefully she will see that as the exception to the rule that mostly she appreciates their loving care.
10) Finally, they do have to monitor the safety of the sibling relationship so that anger at displacement and demotion, and determination to dominate in the older do not result in bullying or hurt of the younger which could do lasting harm.
Fortunately, in most cases jealousy and concerns with parental favoritism toward the younger child tend to subside as growth into mid adolescence (ages 13 – 15) and forming a family of friends takes hold. As the teenager becomes more socially independent, preoccupied with peers, and less focused on family, parental coddling that the dependent younger child receives matters much less.
Call it progress: the little brother or sister who used to feel like a serious threat now just seems like an aggravating pest. To make matters even better, occasionally this former rival can become a source of affirmation. For example, when the teenager has had a really down social day at school, being greeted by a much younger sibling who looks up to him can provide a really welcome, ‘welcome home.’
For more about parenting adolescents, see my book, “SURVIVING YOUR CHILD’S ADOLESCENCE” (Wiley, 2013.) Information at www.carlpickhardt.com
I welcome questions and suggestions for future blogs.
Next week’s entry: Adolescence and the Marketplace Influence