Although many times older children think the youngest child, the “baby” of the family, has it easy, that’s not always the case. The youngest child spends years trying to catch up to her siblings and model their behavior, and may also be the child with less attention from the start compared to the firstborn.
If you are caring for a child who is the youngest in birth order, it’s important to recognize the unique needs of this child, who may be struggling with feeling small as the baby of the family.
Unique Feelings the Youngest Child Faces
According to Eileen Johnson, director for Little Missionary’s Day Nursery in New York City, the baby of the family can feel small and not as capable as the older siblings. “Being younger than everyone can make a child feel unwilling to compete,” she says. “Often a youngest child will defer to others or complain to the caregiver or parent ‘I can’t draw a face’ because their sibling does it better.”
In addition, the youngest child can feel that he or she can’t really impact the family dynamic, as there is already a strong family unit with its rules already in place when he or she arrives, says Johnson. “It is important for the ‘baby’ to be allowed to have a say in how things are done,” she says.
As the baby of the family, your little one may also crave attention. “This can manifest itself in positive ways, such as performing, but may turn into negative behavior such as whining or being defiant as a way to get attention,” says Johnson. “Parents and caregivers need to be aware that the youngest child has specific needs and be aware of the child’s wish to be accepted into the group – having a unique voice in the family will help,” she says. “If caregivers can be sensitive to the youngest child’s need to belong to the group and be a contributor to the group, then acting out can be minimized.”
Meeting the Unique Needs of the Youngest Child
As a mother of four, Melissa Moraja, founder of Melissa Productions, a company focused on providing educational and entertaining products for children, found that her youngest exhibited more stubbornness than her older children.
“My youngest, who is 2 years old, expects to do everything that her older siblings can do, such as going to bed when they go to bed and even sitting in their seat in the car without a car seat,” says Moraja. “She wants things done her way and on her time frame and she thinks nothing of putting on her shoes and heading out the door to go play with her siblings, never realizing she’s only 2 years old and can get hit by a car.”
Moraja describes her youngest child as the “mini boss” in the house, as she mimics the behavior and yearns to be as old as her siblings.
How can a parent or nanny meet the needs of the youngest without minimizing her quest for independence?
“As a parent, I’ve found that my youngest needs more responsibility and independence,” says Moraja. “She craves it and she is growing up a lot faster than my other three did at her age.” Moraja attributes the fast growth to the fact that her 2-year old daughter’s best friend is her 9-year old sister.
When frustrated by the stubborn behavior, Moraja has found that she must focus on the strengths of her youngest child. “She is a great problem solver, figuring out ways to get what she wants, even if she has to yell and scream,” she says. “She responds well when I get down on one knee, look her in the eye and talk to her.”
Providing choices will also encourage a youngest child’s independence and attention-craving ways. “Giving her choices allows her to feel like she is making the decision, but in the end, there have been times when I just have to say no and be firm,” says Moraja. “As a parent, I have to stay strong and not give in to a 2-year old’s demands – and a nanny shouldn’t either.”
In the end, one of the best ways to meet the unique needs of a youngest child is to show her just how special she is with one-on-one attention, says Dr. Fran Walfish, California-based psychotherapist and author of The Self-Aware Parent.
“Parents and nannies can understand that the youngest’s demands for attention and love are not just the clinginess of a spoiled baby, but rather a child who wants a well-deserved, equal full teaspoonful of mommy,” says Walfish.