Born Too Close
Parents sometimes decide to have their children close together in the erroneous belief that this is an advantage, that they will be ‘close’ and be playmates for each other. However, this decision is not well founded.
For the first two years of a child’s life, the 'attachment' relationship with the mother is critical. Anything that interferes with the child having exclusive access to the mother or she being physically accessible and emotionally available when needed, is distressing for the child, impacting on their sense of security. The arrival of another baby during that first two years constitutes a major interference for the first child who may be just a ‘toddler’. Mum is no longer accessible if there is another baby on her lap. Mum is no longer readily available if she is always nursing, feeding, bathing or changing nappies. The toddler no longer has exclusive access. The new baby is now the focus of the parents’ attention – the place previously occupied by the toddler. The toddler feels unimportant, the new baby is more important to the parents.
To the toddler, the mother has violated her 'innate attachment contract'. The child, quite justifiably, is likely to feel angry about that violation. That anger towards the parents will be repressed so as to not alienate them. It will be displaced, even redirected towards the new baby, so don’t be surprised if the toddler hits or pinches the baby, or even tries to suffocate it, when no one is looking. If the toddler is placed in professional child care as a means of helping the mother cope, she has compounded her violation of the toddler’s 'attachment' needs, compounding his feelings of being unimportant to her and compounding his anger. This anger will be repressed and may be directed and expressed as hitting and biting other children. Sometimes a toddler may be placed in child care prior to the arrival of the new baby in the expectation this will give him a chance to adjust to forthcoming changes. This will not work since the toddler’s 'attachment' needs are still being violated on two counts. If the toddler’s entry into childcare coincides with the arrival of the baby, either after, as a means of helping Mum cope, or prior to the birth, this strategy may backfire. Feeling deprived of access to his mother, feeling neglected, rejected and unimportant, he may turn to a child carer to meet his 'attachment' needs, which is not an emotionally healthy situation for the toddler, his 'attachment' relationship with his mother, the toddlers’ attachment style or his long term emotional wellbeing. The significance of tertiary A. figures becoming elevated to surrogate-primary A. figure has been discussed in “Parents Misled” under "More Info". (Read about anger in "Anger" under "Self Esteem Parenting" and "Repressed Anger" under "More Info").
My clients who were under two when a new baby came along have acknowledged feeling displaced and also admitted the feelings of anger and resentment. Conversely, I have had clients who were the younger sibling. They may have always looked up to the older sibling and were bewildered by this sibling always being angry and resentful toward them. The explanation helped them understand and be more tolerant of the older sibling.
Driven by innate survival mechanisms, the toddler will, quite naturally, attempt to regain its former position as the focus of attention. This may take the form of what appears to be reverting to infantile behaviour, trying to climb onto parents’ laps, even if that means pushing the baby aside. The toddler is not actually reverting to infancy, but it sees that the baby’s infantile behaviour is gaining the parents’ attention, so if that is what it takes to get their attention, then that is what the toddler will do. Hence, the function of reverting to infantile behaviour by the toddler is actually a form of adaptive behaviour. Parents may
attempt to discourage this behaviour by pushing the child aside and making comments such as, “Don’t be a baby” or “You’re not a baby any more”, spoken with a disapproving facial expression. This is invalidating to the toddler and denying him the
right to be who he is, because with regard to the 'attachment' contract, the toddler is still a baby and innately has a rightful claim on the mother’s attention to meet 'attachment' requirements.
Other ways of regaining the parents’ attention and approval is showing affection towards the new baby and/or becoming mummy’s ‘little helper’. I am sorry to disillusion parents who may think their toddler is acting out of love and altruism. The toddler is simply doing as it is told: “Give your baby brother a kiss/hug”. The toddler is copying the parents’ behaviour in showing affection to the baby. The mother often enlists the help of the toddler to bring items in preparation for the baby’s bath or to help in other little ways with the baby, in the mistaken belief that making the toddler ‘feel included’ will alleviate any problems. When the mother smilingly refers to the toddler, in praise, as “Mummy’s little helper”, the toddler learns subconsciously, “I am no longer important to Mum, but this (kissing the baby and helping Mum) is what I can to do to gain Mum’s approval”. In addition, the young child may feel that this approval is conditional, ie, they won’t be loved unless they do what the parents want, which is showing affection to the baby and helping Mum.
Hence, these affectionate and cooperative behaviours are simply examples of adaptive behaviour in gaining parental affection, attention and approval. These behaviours are not motivated by love or altruism, but by instincts for survival. They are motivated by self interest in being taken care of. I recall with amusement, an example of this self interest which occurred many years ago when my father-in-law died. My young daughter became preoccupied with death, repeatedly asking me if I was going to die. The subconscious motivation in her interest was revealed when she asked, “Who’s going to look after me if you die, Mum”?
These reactions may also be experienced to some degree by a child over two years of age when there is a new baby, if due to ALIAS needs not being all met, the child is not feeling emotionally secure. My advice to parents who have a new baby is that just including the previous child is not the answer. All these ‘inclusive’ activities, whether it be at home or going out, the focus of interest is still always on the baby. I suggest that the solution lies in showing the previous child (whether a toddler or older) that they are important by arranging for each parent to spend time and engage in activities exclusively with that
older child - without the baby. I would recommend for the parents occasionally have an activity or outing with the older child, without the baby, just like they did before the arrival of the baby. The older child needs to be the focus of attention occasionally, needs to be shown that she is still special to her parents and that nothing has changed in that regard. She needs to be shown she is valued for who she is (unconditionally), not for what she does (conditionally) for the new baby.