When an older sibling starts school

While some kids breeze through the transition, it can be very unsettling for others.
While some kids breeze through the transition, it can be very unsettling for others. Photo: Getty Images

From the moment your kids are born into the same household, they're often each other's best friends. When they're young they usually spend most of the day together at home, or if they're in daycare they'll tend to gravitate towards each other. 

Sure, they may fight over sharing, and torment each oth er relentlessly as part of their sibling relationship, but when they're little they're constant companions and instant playmates.

So when one goes to 'big school' and leaves the other behind, it can cause deep upset in the household. Siblings take up a large portion of each other's worlds, so losing that companion can difficult.

As with any big change there is an adjustment period, and sometimes that time can go on for quite a while.

When three-year-old Christopher's big sister, Sian, went to school full time it broke his heart, according to their mum, Jenny Lang*.

"I think once Chris realised Sian would be at school five days a week for most of the year he began crying most mornings once she went off to class," she tells.

Although the crying didn't last for more than five minutes, it went on for the entire year, finally starting to taper off after a few months

"If Christopher and I went out in the car during the day, he would assume we were going to get Sian and would ask to go and get her," says Jenny, adding that it made her feel "hopeless".

"There was nothing I could really do to fix the situation. Sian needed to be at school and Chris was not able to stay there."


Sibling discord from the split can stem from more than separation. Jealousy can present itself on either side of the fence as siblings tend to want to do what the other is doing at all times. And it's not just the younger child who can worry: in some cases the school-aged child may feel they're missing out on fun at home.

"My eldest daughter Lily started school two years ago," says Martin Burgess. "At that stage my youngest daughter, Imogen, was three and going to preschool. Imogen wasn't too fussed about being apart from her sister, but was jealous that Lily got to wear a uniform."

Not to be outdone, Imogen began to copy her big sister.

"Immi started wearing dresses to preschool rather than shorts or skirts and tee shirts, to copy Lily's school uniform. She also began calling it 'school', rather than childcare or preschool."

But then the elder sister became jealous that Imogen didn't have to do school work and got to play all day. Martin found that spending extra time playing with her helped, and says that keeping communication open was a big help.

"I spoke to Lily about the things she enjoyed at school and spent a lot of time at playgrounds outside of school," he says.

Of course, some kids just breeze through the transition; in fact, some do well from spending time apart.

Kate Atkins noticed that when her daughter Lily went to school, her son Noah, then three, really enjoyed the one-on-one time with her.

"I found they actually got along better as they're not in each other's face all day," Kate says. "Before Lily went to school they were at a stage where she was annoyed by most things he did and he knew exactly how to wind her up – and she would bite every time."

When this time comes around, parents don't just need to sit back and hope for the best, says Dr Sasha Lynn, a clinical psychologist at Left Field Psychology who specialises in children and families.

"There are a couple of things you could try in the lead-up to help smooth the transition – but it's important to note that every child and every sibset is different," she says. "No matter how much preparation you do, some emotionally sensitive petals will struggle, and others will breeze through."

To help prepare your kids for the change, you can try the following:

  • talk about the upcoming changes in the months and weeks ahead
  • try to set up individual play dates so the siblings get used to having time with other kids their age
  • start doing one-on-one activities with each child (if feasible)
  • try to help the children understand what they're feeling –understanding what's going on inside can sometimes ease the upset
  • once the school year starts, make it a game with your younger child to try and flip an icky feeling back to a nice one. This serves to do two things; it distracts them from being upset at their sibling not being around, and gets them re-focused on more pleasant things
  • re-framing is key: instead of them thinking "I will miss my big brother/sister all day", support your child to turn their thinking around to "it won't be long until they're home again"
  • have your younger children draw pictures during the day and share them with the older sibling when they get home from school; the school-aged child can show them what they did during the day too. You can also take up a project like the Spohr family's 'While you were at school', in which a mum and her toddler took a photo every day to share their daily activities with the school-aged child. 
  • talk with your children's teachers to let them know what's happening; they can help support from their end
  • make drop-off times a fun activity: sing songs together, or tell funny stories or jokes
  • read books about the experience together: try Martha and the Bunny Brothers: I Love School, by Clara Vulliamy. In the colourful book, big sister Martha is excited about starting school, but sad about leaving her little brothers behind. They start a special club to help them get through the changes.