The Case Against “Special Time” For Sibling Transitions (and what to do instead)

There is well-worn advice in regards to helping an older child transition to having a younger sibling. One idea is this concept of carving out “special time”; a block of time where the parent is present with the older child one-on-one. This might happen while the younger child is with the other parent or napping but the premise is the same: the best time, is time when you’re sibling is not around and look, here is a small portion of that time.

Starting to see the flaw?

It begins the narrative that time with your sibling is unideal but a necessity given the new circumstances and time without them whilst ideal is largely unavailable. This is not conducive of building a relationship; between siblings or between parent and child considering the parent is the one responsible for the altering of the situation and the one in control of maintaining it.

If you are feeling drawn to “special time”, first consider why? Is it perhaps because you feel guilty? Is it perhaps not about making your child feel comfortable with the transition but yourself? If “special time” is for your child then why does it need to be framed as special? Could you not be present with your child when possible without building it up and distinguishing it from time spent with your now children?

What is it that children actually struggle with when a new sibling joins the family? What is it that they actually need?

Continue to see your older child.

So often when a new sibling joins the family, the older sibling is seen in the light of comparison; older, bigger, less dependent. They can be encouraged to wean, sleep on their own, use the toilet, limit carrying and to essentially need less from their parent before they are actually ready. It is important to remember that your older child did not choose to have a sibling, you made this decision and it is still your responsibility to be there for your child even though you have made a seperate commitment to another. A child’s needs are is no way correlated with whether or not they have a sibling.

This comparative light can also birth a range of new or more expectations for your older child that are often unreasonable as they are justified by circumstance beyond their control, not the individual and their capability. Your child is the same child whether they are an older sibling or not; they deserve to be seen for who they are and not their relationship status.

If your child is struggling, consider if it is due to the fact they have a new sibling or because they are being required to change because of it.

Spend time all together.

What can happen when a person goes from a parent to one to a parent to two (or more) is that they begin to time-share between children. They spend time with their newborn (generally a lot of time as newborns need quite constant care) and then they spend time with their older child; “special time” (generally not as much time). But what is usually more relevant to your new reality and more fun is trying to do as much as possible all together.

Older children can assist with the needs of the baby. This obviously shouldn’t be forced or expected but children are generally curious and motivated to do the things their parents are doing. All that is usually required to foster such is to simply make space; physically and mentally, in that children perhaps won’t achieve the same results that an adult partaking in the activity would. Conversely, the baby can be present while engaging in things the older child may prefer and join in at their own pace too. Don’t position having a sibling around as a burden by selling your child time away from them.

As children grow, time separately will most likely naturally occur as preferences are individual but the focus should not be on having time away from their sibling but instead having time focussed on something one enjoys.

Resist micromanaging.

So many people believe play is something that enters the sibling relationship later but people are born wired for play and keen to interact; with people and the world. Play is an important aspect of bonding, if not the entire basis and it need not (and should not) wait.

Babies can feel so fragile and older children so much bigger and stronger that it feels dangerous to let the two play without strict guidelines and constant input but the reality is that children learn best about the boundaries and capabilities of themselves and others through exploration; constant redirection and judgement only interrupts this process and can lead to feelings of resentfulness. Trust that if you have respectfully parented your older child, they should be well versed in the idea of consent and able to understand the signs that somebody is uncomfortable; only intervene when absolutely necessary for safety. Play is for those involved to define, not an external authority to control.

Violence is not the result of play gone wrong (though accidents do happen) but frustration and conflict. The antidote outside of ensuring needs are met is connection which is something readily fostered through play. Play is far from dangerous, it could actually be protective.

Cultivate understanding.

A baby comes into the world with so many needs and so much learning ahead of them. It can be confusing for older siblings to navigate connecting with a person who cannot comprehend or enact consideration as they’ve come to experience it thus far. The birth of a sibling is their first experience of an imbalanced relationship where it is not necessarily in their favour. In our experience, relationships between siblings become mutual quickly but it is a process.

One way in which we helped to cultivate understanding was by explaining how we all could assist our youngest in figuring the world out; we explained that the bulk of what she learns comes from watching us and so the more we invested in treating her how we felt it important to be treated, the easier it would be for her to understand. This, I feel, empowers the older sibling so that when things are not working out how they have come to appreciate within a mutual and respectful relationship, they know that they can do something beyond retaliating to influence the situation. They can present their idea of respect for their sibling to witness and absorb.

It is also important to offer protection in both directions; whilst a baby does not understand that hitting hurts or pressing on a tower will cause it to fall and that is only something that will emerge with experience and time, it is crucial your older child knows that their body and property rights are valid.

What we know of people is that they feel most secure and content when their personal needs are met, when the people they care about are present and when they have autonomy over their existence; and this is true no matter how many siblings they have.

If you focus on making their present a poor imitation of their past (such as “special time” trying to replace the reality they used to inhabit where time with you was standard), it is going to feel as though their life has changed — for worse.  And it is going to feel like an adjustment to less ideal circumstances and that is always going to be a difficult sell wrought with resistance. If you instead focus on making the present, one that best aligns with what people need given the circumstances of today then whilst things will be different, that is not necessarily a bad thing, family life could actually be even better than before having another person to share it with.

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  1. Great food for thought. Navigating an 8 year old with a nearly 8 month old and this has given me a lot to think about, thank you!

  2. We parents sometimes do feel like we have to “make it up to” an older sibling when a younger one comes along. Special Time won’t erase that feeling deep inside us. For that, Hand in Hand offers Listening Partnerships, to offoad their frustrations, their tears, and whatever other feelings they carry.

    Special Time can, at times, inoculate a child against feeling second-best in a sibling relationship. Special Time is designed to allow a child to absorb the connection we offer them. The connection they need in order to think positively about their siblings and about us. Children can absorb connection through play when we include their siblings, but every one of us, child and adult alike, wants to be seen as an individual, too. So Special Time, even just five or ten minutes, helps a parent meet what seems to our children’s essential need to feel our attention without distraction or dilution. It’s a small thing that means a great deal.

    There are rocky times between siblings, of course, but it’s not because of Special Time. And Special Time, used alone, isn’t the only tool a parent needs to foster sibling friendships. Our children need limits. They need us to listen to their feelings. They need play filled with laughter, but free from tickling. And we parents need listening partnerships to unpack the stresses we feel! Our worries, our irritations, our exhaustion, our sadness when the work of parenting overwhelms us. All these ingredients can help to make a good transition to being a bigger family. They don’t remove the challenges, but they do help us love our children for who they are, and guide them well.

    I hope this brief description helps clarify how we use special time and the unique benefits it can provide. If you or anyone else has questions on this tool please don’t hesitate to contact us here at Hand in Hand Parenting.

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