Dos and don’ts of handling your child’s first emotional milestones

The way you handle your child’s social and emotional milestones can have a far-reaching effect on how she handles stress and change in the future. By Nikki Temkin


It’s completely normal for all first experiences to contain a combination of excitement and anxiety. Clinical psychologist Ruth Ancer adds that at these times, “parents must be aware of their own feelings to avoid projecting them onto the child”. It’s also important to equip children with as much age-appropriate information as possible. These rites of passage can be dealt with in a positive way.
“What’s key in helping a toddler cope with any milestone is preparing her for what’s going to happen and acknowledging her feelings – regardless of how awkward they may make you feel, or silly they may seem,” explains psychologist and play therapist Margie Wilson.

ALSO SEE: How to handle toddler firsts

First sibling


  • Share the news with your child from the beginning. Prepare and involve her as much as possible before and after the birth.
  • Read appropriate books and visit families with babies.
  • Understand that every child reacts differently. Jealousy and insecurity are common reactions during this transition.
  • Look at pictures of your child as a baby and talk about what she was like and what you all did together.
  • Strengthen Dad’s relationship with your child prior to the birth so your involvement with the baby isn’t felt as keenly.
  • Have your child meet the new sibling in hospital when you aren’t holding or feeding the baby, so you can give your first-born your full attention.
  • Give your child a gift from the new baby.
  • Accept that as a new mom, you’re not going to be able to meet the needs of both children all the time. Ask for help and delegate.
  • Have regular special, focused time with your first-born doing something she enjoys.


  • Build up any expectations in your child that she will have an instant playmate. Explain that sometimes the baby is going to cry.
  • Place emphasis on being “mommy’s little helper”. Your child needs attention for being just who she is.
  • Leave the baby with your child unsupervised. If she does accidentally hurt, or tries to harm, the baby, be firm yet gentle about what is appropriate behaviour.
  • Suppress mixed or negative feelings like jealousy – acknowledge them.

ALSO SEE: Introducing your firstborn to baby number two

The first sleepover


  • Accustom your child to being cared for by someone else, like a grandparent or friend. You can start with small amounts of time away from each other where she is with someone familiar and comfortable.
  • Be more cautious if there are older siblings in the host’s house.
  • When your child is about two, you can start having conversations with your little one about her body and what is appropriate touching and behaviour. This means by the time she is old enough to have a sleepover, she will be well aware of what is appropriate.
  • Ensure your child will be able to assert herself in any situation that makes her uncomfortable − without making her feel the world is a scary and dangerous place.
  • Explain the details of her routine to the hosts, how she is best comforted and make sure she has her blanket or sleep toy packed in her overnight bag.
  • Settle your child before leaving by reading a book or playing a game.
  • Reassure her that it’s OK to change her mind about sleeping over at any time.
  • Start with a “sleep-under”. This means the children get ready for bed and eat supper together.
    Expect some separation anxiety.
  • Check in with the host during the night to allay your anxieties.
  • Find the balance between being cautious while allowing your child to develop independence.


  • Rush your child into sleepovers or let her do it just because everyone else is.
  • Express your own guilt or anxiety about leaving her when she’s within earshot.
  • Sneak away and not say goodbye.
  • Prolong your departure.
  • Make the first sleepover with a group.
  • Keep quiet if you’re uncomfortable with the set-up.

First day at crèche or nursery school


  • Prepare her for what’s going to happen, read appropriate books and make it exciting. Play “pretend school”.
  • Visit the school and meet the teacher. Spend several short periods observing the routine and activities.
  • Expect age-appropriate separation anxiety − your child may become clingy, regress or cry.
  • Be gentle and understanding while validating your toddler’s feelings. You could say: “I know you’re sad, but you’re going to have a wonderful day. I’m looking forward to seeing you later.”
  • Give your child a specific time when you will collect her, for example after lunch or nap time.
  • Give your little one something familiar from home to take to school like a special toy, or something of yours. Most preschools will allow an item like a blanket or dummy.
  • Develop a good relationship with the teachers and be guided by them on the best way to separate from your child.
  • Hand your toddler to a familiar adult when you leave. Distress is only damaging if no comfort is offered.
  • Establish a consistent goodbye ritual.


  • Sneak away or just disappear.
  • Hang around waiting for your child to calm down or she’ll become dependent on you for that.
  • Be too late to fetch her (you don’t have to be the first parent there either).
  • Be hard on yourself. Your child may feel abandoned in the beginning, but a well-adjusted child will experience no long-term damage.

ALSO SEE: 3 steps to make the day care drop-off less traumatic

First lost tooth


  • Make it exciting, magical and imaginative.
  • Create a consistent family ritual of celebration.
  • Talk about it as a normal part of development. You could say: “Losing teeth makes room for new adult teeth to grow.”
  • Reassure her that although there may be some blood, it will be minimal.
  • Encourage her to keep brushing well around the loose tooth.


  • Make it only about the money or the gift.
  • Stop her from wiggling her tooth.
  • Pull the tooth out before it’s ready.

First experience with death


  • Introduce the concept of death around the age of three.
  • Prepare your toddler about what may happen if someone’s currently sick and might not recover, or if a pet is to be euthanised.
  • Break the news one-on-one in a safe and familiar place.
  • Explain the death in an age-appropriate way and in terms of your beliefs and faith.
  • Be guided by your child when it comes to how much information you share, but don’t be afraid of using thewords “death” and “dying”. Try to explain the permanence of death.
  • Be supportive of your toddler’s feelings and give her space to express them.
  • Plan a farewell ritual like making a scrapbook or having a funeral service.
  • Keep memories alive with pictures and by talking about the dead person or pet.


  • Say a pet (or person) has run away, gone to sleep or gone to live somewhere else. You may spark some very literal fears about surgery, death, anaesthesia or sleeping.
  • Ignore your own feelings of loss or sadness, rather share them.
  • Rush to replace the pet. Give the children time to grieve.
  • Hide behind religion.
  • Lie when asked questions like “Can I die?” and “When will you die?” Kids may worry about having nobody to look after them or make lunch. Give reassurance.
  • Pretend to have all the answers. For example: “We don’t actually know what happens when people die. Some people think your body dies, but that a part of you lives forever. What do you think?”

ALSO SEE: Dealing with death

The first trip to the hospital


  • If possible, prepare her for what’s going to happen a few days before.
  • Let your child guide you on how much information to share about the procedure. You could say, “The nurse is taking your blood to see what the problem is so you can get the right medicine to make you better.”
  • If she’s having surgery, ask if you can stay in theatre until your child is asleep.
  • Read appropriate books and play “Doctor, doctor” or “Hospital, hospital”.
  • Listen to any fears and concerns.
  • Take toys and games or an iPad to distract your child while waiting or recovering.
  • If she needs to sleep over at the hospital, ask to stay over with her.


  • Say it won’t hurt, but reassure her that medicines can make her feel better and you’re there for her. You can say: “I know it’s sore, but I’m here with you.”
  • Panic.

For advice on how to speak to your child about these milestones, or offer constructive answers to difficult questions, read: The Complete Book of First Experiences by Ann Civardi, available from for R335 and Always and Forever by Alan Durant, available from for R269.

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