Most parents understand jealousy. Either their child is jealous, or else they have experienced jealousy themselves as children. And no, you don’t need to have a sibling to feel jealous. I know many only children who are jealous; they can’t handle their parents paying attention to any other child.
I believe a child feels jealous only if his parents don’t pay sufficient attention to him. Even if he is a single child, with no other ‘competitors’ for his parents’ attention, he will feel the emotion of jealousy – though he might not express it. But the moment his parents focus their attention on another child, sibling or not, this jealousy is expressed.
The jealousy does not arise because the parents are paying more attention to someone else; but because they have not paid enough attention to the child. Read this sentence over and over again. If you have, or know, (or were yourself) a jealous child, you will see the truth of this.
As an early teen, I was babysitting 5 kids who were all very fond of me; the oldest was 7, and the youngest 3. Their parents got together as a group every few months, and each time, I would babysit the kids. As I was organizing them into a game, one of the girls came up to tell me something her grandmother had told her. As she whispered into my ear (it was a secret meant only for me 🙂 ), the most aggressive of the lot, a 4 year old, pulled the scarf around my neck tight, almost strangling me. I took what preventive action I could and yanked the scarf out of her hands.
After catching my breath, I told her that she had pulled the scarf so tight that I had had difficulty breathing. Her response: “I’ll do it again if you share secrets with anyone but me. I will strangle you. You are NOT to be anyone else’s special friend – only mine.”
I ignored her, and turned to the child who had been whispering in my ear. The aggressive girl pulled my scarf tight once more, but I slipped it off my neck. She then started yanking at my clothes and hitting my legs, shouting that she wouldn’t let me listen to the other girl. I turned and asked her, “Do you want me to listen to you?”
She shouted, “Yes.”
“You have to stop hitting me and stop shouting and then I will listen to you.”
She kept hitting me and shouting, “You must listen to me – only me. You must be only my friend. I won’t let you play with anyone else.”
I left the room, shutting the door behind me and holding it shut. She kept banging and shouting from the inside. After a few moments, I opened the door, and came back in. She was in a full-blown tantrum, eyes streaming, nose running, throat screaming and arms flailing.
I held her to me in a tight hug, imprisoning her arms between our bodies. As I held her, I patted her back, and made soothing noises. When she had quieted down to the occasional sob, I pulled away, and asked if she was feeling better. She nodded.
“I like you very much, you know,” I told her. She put her arms around me and said she liked me very much too.
“You hurt me when you pulled my scarf, and when you were hitting me and shouting,” I told her.
“But you were listening to her!” she said.
I explained that I didn’t belong to any one person; I had to look after all of them, and they knew each other so well…!
She insisted that she wanted to be the closest to me: “You are my favorite, and I have to be your favorite too.”
I told her things didn’t work that way. “How can I be your favorite?” she asked.
“Hitting and strangling me is definitely not the way to go,” I told her.
We settled for peace, and the rest of the evening passed off uneventfully.
Her parents were very indulgent. Her every wish was granted. “She’s such a terror, we dare not thwart her” her parents said. But despite that, the child was jealous, because she didn’t get enough attention from the parents. It was almost as if she were a nuisance, who had to be controlled before she got out of hand. Never did I see her parents enjoy being with her for the joy of her company. Never did I hear them appreciate her for who she was; though she earned plenty of praise for her many academic and co-curricular achievements.
But your child wants more than that from you. He wants to be valued first and foremost for the person he is, and only then for things he has ‘done’.
As I grew up and observed this child grow up, I found that she retained the jealous streak even after she’d graduated from school! (Her parents are family friends, so we stayed in touch, though the babysitting had stopped a long time back.) In conversation, she came across as a mature, well-read, impressive adult, but the veneer cracked the moment her parents (or anyone she was attached to) paid the least attention to anyone but herself.
So your child might be feeling jealous because he is not getting enough attention from you (enough according to him, because this is about his feelings). You might be disbelieving: “What! ME not paying enough attention to my child? Nonsense!”
Sorry, but what you think doesn’t matter. How your child feels is the ‘truth’ for him, and that is what determines his behavior.
To make matters worse, you hold your child’s sibling(s) up as a shining example of what he/she is not.
To your little one, you say:
“Look at X: he is so responsible. He puts things back, packs his school bag, does his chores, studies, helps you with things… And you! You don’t even put the cap back on the tube of toothpaste! You should learn from….”
To the elder sibling who has been upheld as the example of a model child (the one you’re raving about in the previous paragraph), you say:
“Look at Y: she is so little, yet she has such charming manners. She says please and thank you and doesn’t interrupt people… And you! You don’t speak, you growl. You’re frowning all the time. You barely mumble. You interrupt people. And now you’ve started walking away while people are still speaking to you. Hey! Where are you going? Come back, I haven’t finished…” 🙂
And then you wring your hands and complain to anyone who will listen and lose sleep at night that your children are jealous of each other!
Here are 3 steps to restore your peace of mind:
1. Pay each child enough attention – they may want different types of attention. At different times in their lives, they will want your attention in different ways. Do your best to understand what kind of attention they want, and give it to them. Spend time one-on-one with each child. This is YOUR special “Dad-and-Kid” or “Mom-and-Kid” time, and each kid gets equal amounts of time each week.
2. Praise each child to his and her face – Let him know what you like about him. Tell her what you like about her. Approving of something is a great way of reinforcing it, so let them know every day what they did ‘right’. Corollary: Don’t compare them. It’s alright if he’s a neatnik at 3 and she’s a slob at 8. Each child has many praise-worthy qualities – focus on those.
3. Never tell ANYONE which child you love more, even though one child is probably dearer to you than the other(s) – I’ve committed sacrilege by bringing into the open this deeply buried, barely acknowledged, never admitted secret of parents; but you know it’s true. The notion that each parent loves all his/her children equally is just that – a notion. (Your guilt about this fact drives you to say and do all kinds of things to make life more difficult for yourself and your children.)
Write and tell me how it goes. 🙂