When big sis leaves


by Susan Prosser on July 27, 2009

Dear Susan

My daughter is starting school in the fall (junior kindergarten).  We have tons of information about how to help her prepare, and she is very excited.  But with all this emphasis on her, it’s sometimes easy to forget that there is someone else for whom this event will have a major impact… her younger, sister!  

Her big sister is the centre of her universe and she seems to worship the ground her she walks on.  What (if anything) can I do to help a little sister prepare for a big upheaval?  At 15 months, I know she isn’t too young to be affected, but naturally – there are some limitations on the ways we can effectively communicate with her.  What do you suggest?

- M

Dear M,

This is a wonderful question and it helps me to explain our title for this column – Forest For The Trees.  As parents we sometimes focus on our little trees and lose sight of the big picture. 

When big sister (let’s call her Rebecca) disappears from little sister’s (let’s call her Lucy) life it will be a big change and perhaps not a happy one.  What is important here is that you realize that and have identified the situation as a wrinkle or a potential problem.  Identifying and being aware is 90 per cent of the solution because then you are plugged in and can help her to adapt.
So now what can you expect?  Perhaps Lucy’s behaviour will change.  Maybe she will get obstinate at certain times when she is missing Rebecca.  Maybe she will refuse her nap or her food.  Maybe it will affect her sleep for a while.  Her emotional response can manifest in any number of ways.  The key is knowing that.  The mistake many of us make is getting upset at what we perceive to be misbehaviour but in fact is simply Lucy trying to cope with the change in her life that she is not happy with.  So instead of trying to correct her behaviour you can help her to find different solutions for her problem.
Let’s say that Lucy refuses to eat her lunch and that this is a new behaviour and is therefore likely to have something to do with Rebecca’s absence.  Your emotional response will now be one of compassion and not worry or anger so right away, Lucy will feel supported and less troubled. 

You could try different approaches depending on her temperament like:  making it a time when she could help to feed her doll or a pet or even her caretaker; taking away the pressure of eating and allowing her to do something self-soothing like listening to music or having a story; offering her a snack so that it doesn’t feel like the same luncheon ritual she may have had with her sister; letting her help prepare a snack for Rebecca as an after school treat. 

She doesn’t necessarily have to understand what she is doing because what you are trying to help her with is how to manage her emotions and realize that she can cope even though life is different and she feels sad.
What Lucy will be learning throughout this type of process is:  life keeps changing and it is not easy; I don’t feel good sometimes; I can’t always get my way but I can manage myself when I don’t; there are other people who care about me and who are here to help me; I feel supported; and things get better as I learn to figure out my world.
If you realize that this is an opportunity to offer Lucy life skills you won’t need to worry about her at all.  It is so important to realize that it is not our job as parents to protect our children from hardship because that just strips them of coping abilities in life.  It is our job to help them to gain strength through difficult and challenging times.  This is what gives them the muscles they will need as adults to manage life.