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How to Prepare 8 Year Old for New Step-Sibling?

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My partner has an 8 year old from a previous relationship. She lives 200 miles away with her mother but sees her dad every other weekend / holidays etc.

I am expecting in Oct and when we've raised the topic of a baby brother or sister she reacts very negatively. Her mother has previously said to us that she doesn't want her ex (my partner) to have another child and has told the 8 year old that it would mean her dad wouldn't have time for her anymore / wouldn't love her as much.

My partner is worried about telling his daughter - despite the fact that I think her reaction will be fairly shortlived so long as he ensures she knows she's loved, feels involved in the pregnancy and he continues to see her every other weekend. I do not believe that my partner and his ex will be able to sit down and discuss this rationally - and am 99% certain that his ex will make it as difficult for us as possible unfortunately by using her own child.

I am looking for some books (that the 8 year old can read herself and also that we can give to grandparents and her mother) which would help explain the situation to her from an independent perspective which might lessen the impact of what her mother will be telling her? JH


Dear JH,

First, congratulations on your pregnancy!

Second, your concern for your partner's 8 year old daughter is admirable, and I'm honored that you're asking for my help in nurturing her through this transition. I will give you some suggestions about books at the end of this note, but wanted to say a few other things first that I hope will be helpful.

If your partner's ex does not want him to have another child, you are right that her negativity cannot help but impact her 8 year old. So you have two challenges: the child and the ex. In both cases, the proof will be in the pudding, so to speak, and you cannot expect either one to really believe your reassurances until after the birth of the baby when you and your partner live out your verbal commitment by continuing to care deeply for his daughter and keep her part of your family.

In other words, I would put off telling them about the pregnancy as long as possible, since they will simply be anxious until after the birth, when your continuing love for your stepdaughter will be obvious and everyone will relax.

I should add that I'm assuming that your partner's ex is motivated here out of protectiveness for her daughter. If, instead, she is motivated out of not wanting your partner to go on with his life and create a family with you, then it could take her years to accept the new baby. However, her daughter is now old enough to form her own opinions, and if she feels loved, accepted and embraced by you and your partner, she will know, even if she can't express it, that she does not have to buy into her mother's view.

So, what can you do? When you decide to tell them -- which will be when an eight year old would notice that you're showing -- you will need to tell the daughter first, toward the beginning of a weekend visit. Give her time to get angry and sad, throughout the weekend. Expect her to test out whether she is truly loved, probably by being obnoxious to both of you. Tell her that you love her and know she will be a great big sister, that any little one would look up to. But don't expect her to be excited. Instead, tell her that most kids wonder if a new baby will mean there will be less love to go around, and reassure her that you adore her and always will. Listen -- really listen -- to her feelings, and let her know you accept them, even if you don't agree with them. That may seem inconvenient, but it is a lot easier than forcing her to repress them and act out later.

You might do the candle demonstration: Each parent holds and lights a candle. Give her a smaller candle, and have her light it from your two candles, holding your flames together, saying "This is our love for you." Then hold all three candle flames together, and light a still smaller candle from them. Point out to her that the amount of light has not diminished, the light has only increased, and tell her that love is like the candle flames -- it only increases as more people join a family.

While she may be reassured by this little ritual, she is unlikely to give you the satisfaction of showing it. If she's like most kids, she'll have big feelings about this. So offer her empathy, saying "It's natural to feel scared and wonder what kind of difference a new baby will make in the family. We could not love you any more than we do, and you'll see that we will love you just as much once you're a big sister, but we understand that you're worried right now."

I would suggest that your partner telephone his ex early in the weekend so that she has time to get used to the news before her daughter comes home. He should reassure his ex that he is devoted to his daughter and that will not change with the new baby. (If he contributes financially to his daughter, he should be sure to reassure his ex that of course that will not change.) While your sense that they will not be able to discuss this rationally may be correct, it will help if your partner can subliminally call on his ex's best self by asking her to "work together" to help their daughter through this big transition. He should keep the call short, not be defensive about his natural choice to have another child, and simply refuse to fight with her.

Now to involving your step-daughter in the pregnancy. If you know whether it will be a girl or boy you can personalize the baby by saying "Your sister" or "Your brother" which will give her a sense of ownership. That's a bit harder with "the baby," but here are some additional ideas:

*Any place it is possible to involve her, do so. For instance, let her pick the paint color for the baby's room, or the crib bunting, or some clothing. The more the better.

*Let her contribute ideas for the new baby's name. In fact, if you can't decide between two great names, why not let her pick? Her pride in that will go a long way toward getting her excited to see the baby she's named.

*When the baby starts kicking, let her feel it.

*If it's convenient for her to accompany you for a check-up so that she can hear the heartbeat, she might love that and the excitement might be contagious.

*Ask her to talk to and sing to the baby because then the baby will recognize her voice.

*Don't always make it about the baby. Do a special project with your stepdaughter that emphasizes her specialness. For instance, make a photo album with her of her life, including her baby pictures and continuing into the present with pictures of your family of three. Talk about how cute she is in the pictures, what a great little girl she was, how she's even more beautiful now.

*Work now to create a special family identity for the three of you. Adopt some traditions that your "family" always does when she visits, that will be easy to continue after the birth of the baby. For instance, pizza on Friday night, or the library on Saturday morning, or the playground on Sundays with her dad while you sleep late. The baby can easily be added into these traditions, and it will make her feel safe to know that "our family" always does this particular thing. If she clearly feels part of that family, rather than just feeling like an interloper who lives somewhere else and can be pushed aside by the new kid, she will feel much more secure.

*Be sure that you and her dad cuddle her a lot and give her lots of extra affection. Realize that her fear of losing her dad will make her act out, so enforce your basic rules but respond to the underlying fear by reassuring and offering lots of extra love.

*When it comes time to pack the bag you'll take to the hospital, let her help you. Be sure to make a big deal about packing her picture so that it will be one of the first things the new baby sees.

*You'll probably want to read the Pregnancy - Second Trimester section of this website, which has a list of tips for introducing big siblings to the idea of the new baby.

When the baby arrives,

*Be sure your partner spends the usual amount of time with his daughter. Definitely don't scrimp on visits, and be sure she gets plenty of alone time with him at the playground, playing games, snuggling, etc.

* Buy a nice present and wrap it from the new baby to the big sister.

* As soon as the baby is born, have your partner call his daughter to tell her the news and arrange for her to come for a visit as soon as possible. If possible, he can say something positive about his daughter that links her to the baby, but still gently observe that his daughter is still unique and "better" -- "It looks like she might have your beautiful dark eyes, but she's not beautiful like you yet -- her head is shaped funny from the birth and she has baby acne. But we love her, and we know you will come to love her too."

*Research shows that when we smell the top of an infant's head, we inhale pheromones that awaken our protective instincts toward the baby. Let your stepdaughter hold the baby as much as she wants. Stay with her, of course, to be sure the baby is safe, but the more time she interacts with the baby, the more her natural positive connection will emerge.

*Point out that the baby obviously recognizes her voice and likes her, and already looks up to her.

*Privately ask grandparents and others to make a fuss over big sister rather than the baby. I would even go so far as to ask them to give "big sister" presents and you can buy whatever the baby needs yourself. That may seem excessive, but it goes a long way in giving her something to celebrate, and also toys to keep her busy while you tend to the baby. Otherwise, she can't help but feel left out, watching a stream of presents for someone else.

*Make sure she has some space of her own, not shared with her sibling. If they will share a room, don't let the baby's things take over her space.

*Let your stepdaughter express her feelings honestly. She may find the baby an unattractive nuisance now, but once the baby starts smiling at her, she will come around. For now, let her talk, empathize, and reassure her of your love.

*Relax if she regresses in any way. She may panic and cling to her dad. She may pout. She may wet her bed. It's all ok. Stay calm, reassure her that you will always love her and now the baby will love her too, and that it is normal to worry but she will see that there is nothing to worry about. This too shall pass. And remember that babying her will help prevent regression.

*It is unlikely given that she is eight rather than three, but if your stepdaughter expresses any anger at all toward the baby, you can tell her that you understand she feels jealous, but absolutely no hurting is ever allowed in your family. You would never let anyone hurt her, and of course you would never let anyone hurt the baby. She will actually be reassured by that. It is fine for her to acknowledge angry feelings by drawing an angry picture in which the baby is sent away, or whatever she likes. Everyone is given feelings, as we are given arms and legs. It is our job, even at age 8, to take responsibility for what we do with them.

*Read the book "Siblings without Rivalry" by Faber and Mazlish. The only way to eliminate sibling rivalry is to limit yourself to one child, but this is the best book I know to help parents keep sibling rivalry to a minimum.

You are lucky that your step-daughter is at the age when many girls begin to really like babies. My father and my stepmother had a daughter when I was a bit younger than your stepdaughter, and I completely adored her.

As for books for your stepdaughter: Some of these are picture books for younger kids but therefore still great for an 8 year old to read to herself. If you can find them at the library a few at a time, and mix them in with non-baby-related books, she won't feel too pressured or propagandized!

1. Julius, the Baby of the World - The heroine hates the new baby, who is smelly, but comes to love him.

2. The New Baby by Mercer Mayer

3. The New Baby at Your House by Joanna Cole

4. The Berenstain Bears' New Baby

5. Frog Face: My Little Sister and Me

6. When the New Baby Comes, I'm Moving Out , and Nobody Asked ME If I Wanted a Baby Sister by Martha Alexander

7. Aren't You Lucky! (Red Fox Picture Books) by Catherine & Laurence Anholt

8. Darcy and Gran Don't Like Babies , by Jane Cutler

9. A Baby Sister for Frances , by Russell & Lillian Hoban

10. Pinky And Rex And The New Baby , by James Howe - the big sister fears displacement, perfect to read to her if she isn't quite old enough to read it herself, depending on her reading level.

More books can be found on this page:

Many blessings to you and your growing family!

Dr. Laura

Thank you so much. - your reply is incredibly detailed and very helpful. I really appreciate all the info in addition to the book recommendations - it includes some ideas I hadn't thought of but will be trying!

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