My youngest is not yet at that age, so most of this post will actually be about my oldest son. He was in senior kindergarten when his brother was born.
There’s a lot of anxiety when one is contemplating the advent of a second child. Most of it centers around the reaction of the first child. I’m going to assume that both parents are cognizant of the second child’s arrival, and that both parents have some say in it. I realize there are exceptions, but, that’s my general assumption for this post.
The other child, however, has no say. It’s not like we take him aside and consult with him, or ask his permission. He is going to have a sibling, regardless of how he feels. I have read in other places that for some children this is unwelcome and highly destabilizing - it would be akin to a husband telling his wife that today he has brought home a brand! new! wife! and his old wife is going to love! her!.
It can be traumatizing. It is also a fact of life. Second children do not arrive as trial runs; if things aren’t working out, there’s nowhere to send them back. So, regardless of trauma level, it has to be made to work.
My oldest son was fascinated by babies. He knew that as a child he was hopelessly indulged by all of the adults around him - but also by the handful of older cousins he’d met. He understood that children - younger children - were therefore meant to be indulged. They were a source of fun. He was not concerned about the pregnancy (although the morning sickness was perturbing for him). He accepted our explanations of why it occurred and how it would end.
But - he was nervous. He was old enough, at five, that we decided the best approach was to take him into our parent counsels as a co-parent in matters that concerned the new baby. When I say “we decided”, it has the usual meaning: We had a long discussion or three on how to make the baby a welcome addition and not a shadowy replacement.
My reasoning was this: He was old enough to feel the age difference.
When a child is a baby, there are all sorts of things you ignore. You don’t expect an eight month old to have good table manners. You don’t expect them to ask before they grab something out of your hands. You certainly don’t expect them to ask permission before they take a chewed up bit of food and plop it into your mouth.
You also don’t expect them to have survival instincts. Some babies who can crawl will home in on the light sockets with their forks. (My two never did this; my son’s godfather’s oldest never did this. His youngest? At every opportunity. He’d crawl off chairs onto the kitchen counter to attempt to stick knives and forks into the toaster.) They will crawl off the top of the stairs. They will attempt to use their stroller wheels as teething rings.
This is my roundabout way of saying: the rules of the household - the rules that we all followed when my son was age five - were of course not going to be rules we could expect an infant to even understand. But…they were the rules, right? For my ASD son, they were rules. He needed some sense that they would remain consistent in order to feel safe in his own home. Since we were the arbiters of rules - we were the ones who enforced timeouts, for example - he would be watching us.
We reasoned that if we allowed him some say - which in this case really means some responsibility - for his baby brother, he would possibly understand why the rules of the household were going to be more fluid for the baby than they were for any of the rest of us. We emphasized the fact that the baby not only did not know better, but would take some time to learn, and during the learning, we needed to pay very close attention and the baby was not really capable of being timed-out.
One of his first questions about the new baby was: “He can’t talk yet?”
So, clearly we did not do enough pre-baby education. He was very disappointed that the baby was not speaking and thinking because he wanted a small child as a playmate. When we told him it would be a couple of years before he was speaking, it seemed like an eternity for my oldest son. He heaved a sigh and wandered off.
And then: he had to endure. He had to be patient when his mother was tending to a newborn infant. I was home - but I wasn’t completely focused, as I had been in his earlier years. He had, by this point, reached an age where he could occupy and amuse himself - that happened at about four and a half. He still, at that age, did not realize that he had to acknowledge the presence of other people: he didn’t reply to greetings, he didn’t reply to (most) statements. He was confused and anxious about the world - so he needed to have an adult around him at all times to feel safe in it.
But he didn’t interact with that adult all that much. When we were playing, he did and would - but most of play involved chasing him while he shrieked with laughter and ran away. So, we knew he was aware of us and what we were doing, but he didn’t yet understand the need to interact with us; he just wanted us there.
Being there with a baby was not quite the same, and he knew it, although his level of interaction didn’t change at all. His level of anxiety did - and that, we expected. But during this time, I would talk to the oldest while interacting with the youngest. I would talk about what my oldest had been like as a baby. He couldn’t remember this, of course, so he had no sense of the elasticity of rules and their application.
And he had not yet developed theory of mind, so he had trouble understanding what a baby could--and could not--understand. The known world was known. Period.
As he watched our disappointing new playmate, he accepted certain things as truth: the baby could not crawl down the stairs. The baby had no teeth and couldn’t be expected to eat--or want--our food. It was fairly easy to make certain distinctions based on observable fact. While the second was basically a babe in arms there was very little friction.
When he began to toddle and walk, it was different. As he grew more independent, he became much more aware of what his brother was doing--and of course, in the way of small children everywhere, it was what his brother was doing that was interesting. In particular, it was his brother’s toys that were clearly the only fun toys in the room.
When my oldest was such a toddler he was, of course, allowed to play with anything that grabbed his attention. He was, after all, taking it from his parents, who understood that this, too, would pass. We didn’t feel particularly resentful because it was entirely our decision--and anything that amused him was a good thing, for us.
We could not allow that for my youngest child. I mean, we could allow ourselves to indulge his instant and fetching curiosity - but nothing we played with struck him as remotely interesting. He homed in on his brother, and the toys his brother had.
And I remember, when my youngest was about fifteen months old, he had trundled over to his brother and had grabbed the toy his brother was playing with. His brother did not yank it back - instead, he looked at me. And I understand that we had reached the point at which the rules were being tested. Not by my oldest son - and not by the youngest, who clearly had no sense of actual rules - but in total.
His younger brother had grabbed the toy he was playing with. The older son was not allowed to randomly grab things that other people were playing with; he was expected to ask, to be given permission, and also to share. (If something was too valuable to share, it was a room-toy - it was to stay in his room if there were visitors. In a like fashion, things we didn’t want to share with him were also room toys - they were to stay in our room. We did have some things that he was to handle with care in the public spaces, but in truth, not many; I wasn’t willing to have a two to four hour fight about random things.)
So…I made the baby give the toy back to his older brother. Would I have done this to my older son at the same age? No. If he grabbed something I might tell him to ask, but at base, I would let him play with it or show him how it worked.
I could not demand that my six year old do the same. It was a moment of clarity for me: If I did not insist that the baby give the toy back to his brother and negotiate in a polite and reasonable way - which, given his age, was entirely beyond him - something would break. He was remarkably tolerant of the younger son, but as the younger son began to walk and became more interactive - and therefore more trouble - he was narrowing the gap in “baby” behaviour and “child” behaviour.
My youngest, as you can imagine, was not thrilled to have his toy taken away. The fact that he had scarfed it from his brother counted for nothing. He had it, we were taking it away. But I could see my oldest relaxing because it confirmed, to him, that the baby was not the centre of the household, and that the rules that the oldest son had to live by were still the rules.
Of course, my oldest son hated it when the baby cried, and he all but shoved the toy back into my younger son’s hands and ran upstairs holding both hands to his ears just to get the crying to stop, and I then went upstairs to explain that his younger brother would grow out of this in a few years, but until that point, there were a couple of things we could do to get him to drop an interesting toy in favour of another. The biggest was having the older son move to a toy he wasn’t interested in, and feign interest in it.
And because he didn’t actually enjoy making his brother cry, he began to do this.
There were other difficulties, but we resolved most of them through discussion. In particular, if I wanted to set a household rule that I did not think fair to the older brother, I would discuss it with him first. I would discuss it before there was any obvious difficulty, because discussions outside of arguments, while time-intensive, are not emotionally fraught. Any discussion outside of a fight often meant that there were no fights in future, when difficulties did arise. I cannot emphasize this enough: Discussions that occur outside of the emotional bounds of an argument sink in in a way that they can’t when all emotions are engaged.
For instance, we have a PS3. When my youngest was about eight, he got extremely frustrated when his older brother could beat him at a game. His older brother--and his parents--explained that this was an artifact of age and experience, but, well. Explanations did not take. I did not enjoy the meltdowns, so I approached the oldest son and said, “I would like to institute a new rule. If someone has a meltdown while playing on the PS3, I would like to shut it off for the next 24 hour period. Since you don’t have meltdowns, you won’t have done anything wrong--but you’ll be unable to play for that 24 hour period, because I do not want it turned on.”
If my oldest had said No, I would not have instituted the rule. Because it was absolutely true: he would not have done anything to deserve to have the gaming console cut off.
He said yes. He said yes because “it’s no fun playing with him when he gets so upset.”
And that was pretty much the end of meltdowns. I shut the PS3 down exactly once. Thereafter, if there was about to be a meltdown, younger son stopped playing and headed up to his room to calm down - because he also understood that the older son had done nothing wrong, and that they wouldn’t be able to play.