Once a month, I will target a specific way play can be used as a transitioning tool. In this blog post for ¨Connecting Through Play¨, we’ll talk about how to use play to ease the transition of a new sibling.
Studies confirm that the birth of a sibling is a challenging situation for all members of the family. Parents now have the daunting task to split their time, attention and finances into two; and, the first child has to share space, belongings, and affection with this new sibling. As the child is older, the easier it is for her/him to adapt to what this change in family dynamics entails. However, when the child is smaller (typically, younger than 6 years old) the more difficult it is for her/him to accept this change.
There’s a wide range of emotions which are associated with this event: excitement, confusion, anticipation, anger, sadness, jealousy, anxiety, among others. Depending on parental openness, some kids might not feel confident enough to share what they’re feeling – especially those negative feelings. In their heads, it makes little sense for them to feel angry or jealous at a new sibling. Most of them are trying to put their best foot forward.
When children or even we as adults push down our feelings, we might unknowingly act them out. The more effort put into hiding the feelings, the higher the rate of acting out through maladaptive behaviors (for children, this can look like biting, yelling, having tantrums, or acting out at school).
In play therapy, we believe play is the medium par excellence through which a child can bring out its anxieties and emotional conflicts. Often, parents bring in children who struggle with transitions. Playing is a great medium because it allows us to indirectly work through the issue. To the child, it is the doll or the stuffed animal going through a hard time – not her/him. When we work as a team – child and therapist – to help the doll or stuffed animal overcome their struggles, we are in reality helping the child do so.
Here some helpful tips to use play as a healthy medium at home to (indirectly) address some of these issues:
Choose toys that will help them expect what this means for the family dynamic
Parents are often eager to explain to their 5-year-olds exactly when the baby will come, where he/she will sleep, how they will never stop loving them, and the perfect crib they found online. All of this information is, sometimes, too overwhelming for them.
When we use toy family sets and direct the conversation through these toys, we are turning this into a game (helping it become more attractive to the child) and we are taking the pressure away from her/him. If your child is particularly fond of a certain TV show, you can choose from a variety of toy families to increase your child’s engagement.
Direct the playing scenario, but allow room for your child’s active participation
You can have the pretend family set up the baby’s room, have the toy parents talk to each other about how much they love both their children or ask the child questions about what will happen next. Remember the golden rule: there’s no judging in play, only curiosity.
If your child takes the baby sibling and hides it in a drawer, ask what made her/him do that rather than jumping out and scolding them for it. In play, your child openly displays its anxieties and they need to be able to do this in a safe space. For more practical tips on how to respond during play time, I strongly recommend reading my blog post about how to maximize play time.
Constantly ask for their thoughts and feelings throughout the playing session
My motto is: when in doubt, play it out. Are you worried your child won’t be able to take well the fact that you’ll be breastfeeding instead of playing as often with her/him? Play it out. Do you wonder how your child will handle sharing a room? Play it out.
The wonderful thing about play is that offers you an infinite amount of possibilities and scenarios to work with. The second best thing? Your child will feel freer to honestly answer questions when they’re directed towards the playing scene, the characters in the story and the actual game. Questions like: ¨what do you think about the mom doing this?¨ or ¨what would you like the dad to do with the older child?¨
When we play with our kids, we need to be able to put on our ¨understanding armor¨ and keep our ¨judgement and shame boots¨ outside. The more open and curious a parent is towards their child’s play, the more open the child will be about their inner feelings and struggles.