How you can help your children deal with jealousy towards younger siblings

6 September, 2007

Introduction

It is not easy being an elder brother or sister; you show the way, but don’t know where you are going. And when you take a wrong turn, you get the blame and the younger ones the cuddles.

At that age, jealousy is not a behavioral problem in need of a fix. Let me be clear here: jealousy is not nice, but towards younger siblings, the problem lies squarely with the parents, not with the child. In that respect, parents lack flexibility and sense of perspective.

Flexibility

What loftier goal than treating all of your children consistently? Give them the same set of rules and the same opportunities. They will know what to expect straight from the get-go and have no opportunity for arbitraging.

Except, of course, it doesn’t work that way. For one, the eldest has the simple advantage of age in that he has had the pleasure of living with the parents the longest time.

Moreover, regardless of rules and opportunities, parents are bound to communicate differently to each child because of their levels of comprehension; a three-years old toddler understands more than a one-year old baby. This biological fact alone undermines any well-intentioned equality of rules and opportunities. And it is not the only one; what about different sensitivities, moods, times of day (reasoning with a sleep-deprived toddler, anyone?), even just patience of the parent?

To paraphrase a presidential candidate-turned-president, “It’s the parent, stupid!” Allow for differences in treatment between siblings, taking into account age, sensitivities and character. That is no easy feat; despite all these differences, you need to maintain a perception of balance and fairness. Normally, this means erring on the side of love towards the elder; its the sensitivities of this sibling that are being tested in particular.

Sense of perspective

When you learn to drive a car, an oft-encountered tendency is to focus on the front end of the car rather than on infinity. The resulting driving style is one where every slight deviation from a straight line is compensated by an equal yank on the steering wheel to the other side. Not pleasant.

Children are learning to live. Life is new to them and they look at their parents for guidance and structure (besides love and care). Every perceived act of injustice to them is something that needs to be corrected. They have no way of attenuating their perceptions. In fact, that is the role of the parent.

Learn to drive, learn to live – let us investigate the analogy a little more in depth. Deviations from a straight line, or perceived acts of injustice, need to be corrected: loss of exclusivity (parents’ attention, access to toys, use of room), asymmetry of privileges (peeing in pants, screaming, politeness), or lack of rewards (excitement about baby’s first steps, indifference to elder sibling’s achievements). What these need are a sense of perspective: something the parent, above all, shall provide.

Just like the instructor points out to the aspiring driver that by raising your focus, you get a calmer driving style and experience, the parent needs to take the elder sibling apart and instill perspective using concepts appropriate to the sibling. Tirelessly, with love and patience. If nothing else (and often, there is no apparent way to explain these perceived unjust situations), this mere act will convey the importance of your relationship, as well as your love, respect and appreciation.

Conclusion

Jealousy is to be expected. Its excesses can be avoided by intervening pro-actively and providing learning experiences to the elder sibling at each opportunity. It would be ill-advised to stress how wrong these feelings of jealousy are. Instead, be flexible in your understanding and provide a sense of perspective that young children simply cannot create on their own.

As always with children, love them, show them you love them and give them the opportunity to make mistakes. There is no way for them later to explore life to the fullest. Jealousy is part of this exploration.

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