I have no memory of bringing my sister, Tess, home from the hospital. It’s not surprising: I was two. My mother, on the other hand, has a very clear memory. She had been telling me for nine months how small Tess was going to be; her tiny hands, her tiny feet, her tiny eyes and mouth.
My first words upon entering the room were “where is Tess? I want to see her tiny bum.” The words are saved in my baby book, for some future spouse or great aunt to find and chuckle at.
On the other hand, I DO have a memory of my brother’s birth, two years later. It’s not a memory of him, rather of my sister and I having an epic squabble – as epic as a six and four year old could manage – about who would get to hold him first.
Through the births of my four other siblings less embarrassing memories begin to appear, culminating in my youngest brother. At almost fifteen, I remember holding him on the edge of the bed, so small, even in my scrawny arms. He was, as Mum says about all of us, perfect.
With each of those births came a series of adjustments. New chores, new routines. A weary mother and a new source of her attention. A father who cooked more often than he used to. And laundry. Spit[up] clothes and onesies and other words that most of my friends had never heard of, let alone washed.
I know what baby food feels like when it soaks through a blouse; I know how long to let a child scream before checking on them. And I know what it feels like to feel responsible for the world, even if that responsibility wasn’t handed to me. Oldest children learn how to care for a new baby by virtue of our birth order. We know how to shoulder and solve problems. It’s a useful mentality, and one that has served me well.
But sometimes, even as an adult, I forget that I don’t have to do it all. That no one is asking me to fold the extra load of laundry or clean the kitchen. That, in fact, it might be better for all parties involved if I stopped trying to figure it all out.
This situation was a source of some bafflement to my parents. On one end of our supersized family spectrum, they had an infant, who needed feeding every four hours. On the other teenagers who needed a completely different, but no less valuable, sort of love.
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In the bustle of little league carpools and diaper runs, National Honors Society inductions and Sunday School picnics, where were they supposed to find time to affirm and value me, to remind me I was fifteen and not seventy-five?
I was not the child in danger of toddling off and falling down a flight of stairs. But I still needed my parents to care for me. How can parents of large families find ways to love and value their oldest children while still providing the intensive care needed by their youngest?
It’s not a neat solution. Every family is different, and every child has a unique personality. But I do have some general suggestions, based on my experience as the oldest of a large family, that might help.
7 Ways to Remain Connected with Your Teen When You Have a New Baby
1. Make Verbal Routines with Your Children
Say good morning. Ask them about school when they walk through the door. Play two truths and a lie at dinner. Start a bedtime routine. Even something as simple as a “goodnight”, if it’s consistent, can reassure a child that they are not forgotten or invisible.
They may not respond to these questions – especially quieter personalities – but asking every day, leaving an open space for them to say something about their day or “good morning” back can help give a sense of stability to a shifting household.
2. Create a Space for Them
Everyone needs a place to go that is theirs, a place they can escape when the world becomes overwhelming. This is especially true of older children, who share so much of their lives with a lot of other people.
This space doesn’t have to extravagant. My parents provided me with a closet they filled with bookshelves and cushions from the Salvation Army – I was an avid reader – and called it a “reading nook.” It didn’t matter the closet was the size of a postage stamp; I had a domain, a place I could shut the door and say “not right now”.
Even as an adult, I continue the practice of carving out a place to think and my relationships are healthier for it.
3. Be Willing to Listen
Parents usually give good advice. But children who don’t feel acknowledged or heard won’t be in any condition to accept that advice.
Start building a habit of listening now, and when possible, extend that habit into difficult moments: when your child is ridiculous, angry, or upset with you. For older children in large families, seeing that this relationship is unaffected after the birth of a new child will be enormously reassuring.
And looking a few years into the future, it will make the child’s transition out of the house a lot easier if that habit already exists and does not have to be built from scratch to bridge the newfound distance.
4. Set Stratified Rule
Whenever possible, create your rules on a scale that gives more freedom to the older children who have earned your trust. It’s not fair to be expected to follow rules that were created because your little sister did something wrong.
There are moments where such sentences are inevitable. But limit them as much as possible.
5. Reaffirm Trust
Because older children tend to be given a lot of responsibility, it’s very important they know this responsibility comes with your trust.
When you see your child handling something well, comment on it. When your child can do something by themselves, let them.
When you assign a task, explain why you picked them to complete it. Positive affirmation of trust can be the difference between feeling valued and feeling used.
6. When Possible, Ask Instead of Tell
Allow your child the chance to say “no” and listen to the reasons behind the refusal. Sometimes those reasons will be ridiculous. But sometimes there’s a discussion to be had about why or how something should be done.
When possible, let your child have a voice in that discussion. Learning how to argue gracefully is a skill teenagers need to practice. And it’s best done with their parents!
7. Verbal and Physical Affirmation
Always make time for a hug.
Say “I love you” lots of different ways at lots of different times. Actions are helpful and special speeches precious, but hearing the words consistently is important too.
Tension Will Exist, But Love Overcomes Difficulty
Families are messy. Imperfect and human, flawed and complicated. There will be times when your older children feel those tensions, and that doesn’t automatically reflect badly on your parenting.
More important is the culture and habits that underlie any given moment of frustration. A newborn can cause a lot of stress for everyone in the family. But so long as your teen knows – in whatever way you chose to show them – that they are consistently loved, there will be a way to navigate the difficulty.