“When your first baby drops her pacifier, you sterilize it. When your second baby drops her pacifier, you tell the dog: ”˜Fetch!’.” –Bruce Lansky
It is a tough job tending to your first child and then add another and it feels like thirty children.
My husband and I are both firstborn children and so we know the firstborn struggle. We promised to guard against this because we didn’t want our first to feel forgotten. But OMG, tending to multiple kids is an extreme sport!
You go from worrying about the needs of one to worrying about all their needs combined. It truly can feel like your physical body is being ripped apart. Your mental and emotion tank can feel like it is constantly on empty. And you just keep going until something gives.
In my case, my firstborn is what eventually cracked me.
My first child feels forgotten
It started with things, like, “I don’t like being a big brother,” to hurting his brother when we aren’t looking. And then denies that he hurt him. When he does admit to hurting his brother, he insists it isn’t sore. This did raise a flag for us but we delayed getting to the root cause.
I, specifically, passed the responsibilities to my eldest by saying things like, “you need to get along with your brother,” or “you and your brother only have one another and as the big brother you need to show him how to love.” And many other statements and rules on how to navigate being the firstborn, with no real tangible solution for him.
This kind of talk does not help change his feelings, it just adds to his frustrations.
The firstborn syndrome-pains of the first child
The firstborn syndrome is the child’s need to be first at everything. And when we had our second baby boy, we placed our first in a position that demanded that he fight for a place he has occupied for six years alone.
The firstborn syndrome is a child reminding you that he comes first. And he will do whatever it takes to be noticed. As a society, we usually brush off this behaviour as part and parcel of raising children but, it doesn’t have to be.
See it through your firstborn’s eyes
As mentioned, for us the signs started about a year in. Before that, Qhawe was very excited to have a little brother. With time he began to feel forgotten. And it was easier for me to force them to get along than, to face the reality of my eldest feeling left out.
My first and I used to go on dates all the time before my second came along. Even in the first year of being a mom of two, I snuck out with my firstborn for dates. Then, the struggle of juggling two sets of different needs consumed me.
It was simpler to convince myself that watching my first child play a soccer match counts as time spent together. And when we got home, I let him go off and do his own thing while I “pay” back the hours missed with the little one.
What my firstborn saw was, his brother getting all the one-on-one time. And let us face it, wouldn’t you feel replaced if the first six years of your life were all about you? And then overnight you have to share?
My son is also the first grandchild on both sides of the family, so attention is all he had all the time from every adult. And then poof! his brother is the new cutie in the family and he must get along with him? WHAT?
Signs your first child feels forgotten
We saw the early signs and ignored them because we were tired. I hoped by looking the other way they would resolve themselves.
Tells on their siblings
Children tell on one another but, it is important to figure out what the motive is. Firstborns are used to being the centre of attention. Sometimes, telling on their siblings is a way to remind parents that they are better than their siblings.
Of course, it is important to hear your children out when they are not happy. But don’t fall for the trap of getting involved in their mess. If there’s no danger, give them room to work out their own drama. Stay out of it, mama.
Hurts their sibling verbally or physically
When your first child hurts your other baby, this is a sign the elder one is feeling forgotten and blames the new baby for it.
Take a deep breath. Then talk to your child, without yelling. Tell your child that you will not tolerate violent behaviour. Remind your child that if there is a problem we have to sit down and talk about it and not lash out.
I tell the boys, we talk things out in this house. Big feelings are allowed and validated but the goal is never to take our frustrations out on other people.
Beyond this, recognize that your firstborn is crying out for attention. Her/his love bank account is overdrawn and she/he needs you to fill it up.
Do not punish your child when she/he feels forgotten. The best thing you can do is turn towards him/her, it sounds like enabling feels like it too but, it is when we are hurt that we need the most love.
Disruptive in different environments
I was thrown when my son’s teacher reached out to tell us he is disruptive in class. We have only ever received rave reviews from teachers.
I had the option to yell at him for disrupting his class or to draw him closer. I chose the latter. We spoke about his feelings and he opened up about feeling neglected.
I explained there are consequences to disrupting other students, so he lost his gadgets for a week. And he had to go back to his teacher and recommit to showing up in a way that makes the classroom environment conducive for all in it.
The takeaway here: be slow to anger. Recognize you may be angry because you believe your child’s behaviour represents you, it does not, not always, anyway. When your child knows right from wrong, give yourself a little grace from believing their behaviour represents you. And then give your child some grace too.
A withdrawn child is easier to ignore. When your child goes with the flow and makes sure not to step on anyone’s toes and asks little to zero questions, it can feel like a dream.
It is easier to ignore because it gives you space to breathe, and I get it, mama. We are so stretched for time, we are sleep deprived that one child who seems okay doing their own thing, is one less worry.
It’s a trap!
Your withdrawn child needs you the most during this time. The child has just decided it is no longer worth the effort to fight for your attention. The unintentional rejection on your part has exhausted them. This child has made themselves believe they no longer matter and their job is to stay out of the way.
Some firstborns resign themselves to being the helper. I fell into this category, I was the peacekeeper and tried my best to give my mom one less thing to worry about.
The result of this people-pleasing is, it takes a long time to get out of it. And when you begin to set up the boundaries, you feel guilty for putting yourself first.
Again, it easy to ignore the needs of your people-pleasing first child. I get it, you are being pulled in different directions and one less thing that does not demand your attention by yelling is easier to push down your list of priorities.
My firstborn gets into a mean competitive streak with his brother when he starts to feel neglected. Every single thing is a competition and it is draining. When the need to win supersedes how the other person is treated, it is a problem and a cry for help.
All of the above are symptoms of your first child feeling emotionally neglected or that they are no longer number one in your heart. It is not for us to punish these real emotions but it is time to figure out how to help our precious little humans.
How to deal with your first feeling forgotten
Talk to your firstborn child
Communication is key in any relationship. The first thing to do is to talk to your child. Be open to the idea that you have fallen short when it comes to showing up for him/her and then apologise.
Listen more than you talk and don’t justify your behaviour or explain away certain things. For example my firstborn told us we never ask where he wants to go for lunch on weekends, we default to the place our youngest loves.
When he said this, my initial urge was to excuse it by saying, “but why don’t you just say you would rather go somewhere else?” I am so glad I didn’t utter those words.
Instead, we agreed with him. We have slacked on asking where he would rather go and assumed we all love our usual spot for lunch.
It is important to recognise the power dynamics that exist in a family structure. Our firstborn does not feel like he is a priority therefore it is difficult for him to believe his preferences are a priority.
The goal is to make him feel safe again. And that starts by seeing things from his point of view. It is about validating his feelings and making sure he knows, our main priority as his parents, is for him to feel loved, seen and happy.
Remind him/her that he/she is still a child
Firstborns get the flack for being the oldest, it is easy for us (parents) to expect miracles from them just because there is someone younger than them. Remind your first that she/he is still a child too.
This means we stop putting too much blame on the first child, phrases such as, “you should know better, you are the big one here.” Even if we believe they should know better, they are still developing and some things take time to process.
Instead, this is a time to reassure your child. As much as possible, catch them when they are doing something you approve of, and specifically point that out. We need to remember that we can’t shame kids into behaving better. Shaming creates a difficult internal critic for them. And when you do find your child doing something you believe they should know better than to do, calmly sit them down and ask questions.
Questions like: I know we have spoken about this before but maybe there is something I have not made clear. Please tell me the parts you remember about this conversation/request? I remember being your age and how I would sometimes forget things, so I understand how we may need to go through this again.
After your child tells you what they remember. Help them fill in the gaps if there any. And if the child remembers everything then your next question can be, “Is there a reason you decided not to do xyz?” or “Can you think of anything I can do to help you do xyz better next time?”
Questions encourage openness and drastically reduce feelings of being judged or rejected. The goal is always to connect, keep thins in mind whenever you communicate with your child. Yes, some days are easier than others, the point is to do our best and forgive ourselves for the days that go pear shaped.
Spend one-on-one time
Children understand love as time spent together. It is vital to spend one-on-one time with all of your children. It is more important to carve time out for your firstborn when there is a new kid in the house.
Find out what matters to your child and make the activity your special time based hang out. It can be a place he/she loves going to. My son loves playing video games, I try to learn how to play his video games and this always lights up his world. He is also a newbie YouTuber and I watch his videos and comment on his editing. This makes him feel seen and validates the things he loves spending his time on.
The time you spend with your child must be focused time, this means getting rid of all distractions-no siblings invited. It doesn’t have to be an all day affair, for older kids it can be the duration of picked activity. If your firstborn is a toddler, try carve our 10 mins a few times throughout the day, ideally start in the morning.
Juggling multiple children is a hard job! And it is important not to beat yourself up for slipping but work to reconnect with your forgotten firstborn. Be open to how your first child feels and don’t take it too personally. You are not being attacked by your child. The goal is always connection so be open on how that can be reestablished once it has diminished.
Listen more than you talk. Spend one-on-one time regularly. Remind your first child that he/she is still a child and don’t load them with too much responsibility. Guide your kids into having a great relationship but don’t force it. Stay out of their fights if no one is in physical danger, this helps them figure out their own rhythm.
Remember to give yourself some grace, you are doing the best you can.
I wish you the courage to parent from a healed place.
Download Ways to Reconnect with your firstborn by entering your details below. Gain access to all other membership only access content.