“He was a wild man when we met,” Darah added. “It took us quite a while to both feel ready to have another baby.”
When their daughter, Dominique, was 13, they welcomed a second daughter, Mona, and, just over a year later, a son, Corey Jr. “When we told our friends that we were having Mona, everyone thought we were a little crazy because our oldest was so close to being independent and a lot of people saw it as starting over,” Corey said.
Although adding a baby is a big transition, adding a baby when there are much older siblings brings particular challenges. “Families are systems,” said Anthony G. James Jr., editor in chief of Marriage and Family Review and director of the Family Science Program at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. “Each person typically has their role, and when those roles shift or there is a disruption — even a good one like a new baby — there’s likely going to be an adjustment period.”
No two families are the same, and the reasons behind why a baby is joining the family when the sibling or siblings are adolescents can be varied. No matter the reason for the age gap, there are things parents can do to ease the transition.
Expect and welcome a wide range of feelings
A new baby induces a range of emotions for everyone in the family. “Often, parents feel both excited and worried about how things might change,” said Michelle Harris, founder and chief executive of Parenting Pathfinders. “Listening to those feelings and trying to be open and nonjudgmental toward themselves can help parents feel less stressed about the situation.” The same advice applies when helping a teenager process the news of a new sibling. “Parents can work to validate their teenager’s feelings and let them know that it’s okay to feel whatever they’re feeling,” said Harris, who also suggests parents ask open-ended questions to help their teen think through the “why” behind their feelings. “Adolescents have the language to tell us a lot about how they’re feeling, but we have to make sure we create a safe space if we want them to do so.”
Seek out support
Support can take many forms in the earliest days of a new baby’s life: a grandparent spending special time with the teenager, a postpartum doula coming over to give nighttime relief, or meals left on the porch by friends and neighbors. As time goes on and the baby loses its novelty, though, it’s important to establish continuous support. “Seeking out support and community with individuals who have a similar family makeup can help give parents the support they need to thrive in their unique situation,” James said. Parents can also check in with their teenagers about whether they might like outside support via a therapist, pastor or other trusted community member.
Maintain family rituals, even if they have to be adjusted
Every family has rituals that make life feel special. Whether holiday meals or weekly game nights, maintaining these rituals after the baby arrives is important. “It can be helpful to think ahead about how you can shift what you do now so you’re not caught off guard and can prepare your teenager for potential changes,” Harris said. Adjusting rituals to include the new baby might mean moving Sunday brunchtime to accommodate a nap, taking more frequent breaks on family hikes or ordering delivery instead of going out for Friday pizza in the earliest weeks of a baby’s life.
Prioritize one-on-one time
Often, when parents bring home a new baby, there’s a lot of joy but also a little mourning for the close relationship they’ve shared with their older child or children for so long. “No matter how joyous the family is about the new baby, both the parent and child may be nervous about their relationship shifting,” James said. One way to buffer feelings of insecurity is to ensure each child still gets dedicated one-on-one time with their parents. Consider picking a regular day (say, every other Saturday afternoon) and choosing an activity that feels more grown-up, such as going to the nail salon rather than the playground. One-on-one time with a spouse or significant other is important to prioritize as well, Harris said, because having a baby can be a major stressor on a relationship. “Be sure to take time at the end of the day to connect and talk about the big things and the little things.”
Avoid giving too much responsibility to older siblings
There’s a big difference between asking teenagers to play a helping role in the family and asking them to take on responsibilities outside the traditional scope of an older sibling. “Parents and teenagers can talk about what their family situation calls for and how they can all support one another,” James said, but parents should avoid requiring excessive babysitting if they have other options. “When you require teenagers to step into an almost parental role, they lose the opportunity to build a sibling bond with the baby and can end up feeling resentful of the situation.”
Create opportunities for sibling bonding
It can be normal for teenagers to be interested in spending time with the new baby one day and not interested the next, James said. “Developmentally, adolescents are seeking more autonomy from their family, but that does not mean they don’t care about their new sibling or established routines in their family systems.” He suggests being intentional about creating opportunities for bonding but being careful not to force it. “Some adults are naturally drawn to babies, and others are not; that’s true for teenagers, too.” Consider asking older siblings how they might like to be involved before the baby arrives and allowing them to choose some items such as clothing or toys they’d like to give the baby. “Once the baby arrives,” Harris said, “parents can invite the teen into caregiving activities like feeding, rocking, or playing with the baby to promote bonding.”
Corey Forney couldn’t be happier with the way his family turned out. “I have the long view now, and it makes it so much easier to be patient and enjoy each of my kids.” His advice for anyone who is having a baby with a teenager at home: “Don’t stress too much about how you’re doing. There’s nothing like seeing your kids smiling and laughing together and, chances are, you’re probably doing a great job.”
As for Dominique, she’s more than happy to be a big sister to two much younger siblings. “Being a big sister of two toddlers definitely isn’t easy, but it is fun,” she said. “Since I’m so much older than them I get to witness and remember things I wouldn’t remember if I was in their age range.” And while she does have some worries about missing out on parts of her siblings’ lives when she goes to college, she’s happy with how her family has grown: "Overall, I wouldn’t trade this in for anything.”
Julia Pelly is a freelance writer in Charlotte.