Eight-year-old Grace is at her older sister’s sweet 16 party. She is feeling down because her sister is getting a lot of attention, and she is sitting on the side all alone. She walks over to tell her grandmother that she is sad. “Grandma,” she says, “I feel jealous.” Grandma is shocked. “That’s awful. You are a terrible sister!” she responds. Grace walks away feeling very badly about herself and even more alone.
It is normal for kids to feel jealous of a sibling. Though they love their sister or brother very much, they are still sharing their parent’s attention. And each child has a desperate need to feel loved (and even a secret wish to be loved the most). It is hard for a child when another sibling is the center of attention. It can happen if Mom spends time shopping with her younger sister, or her older brother is the star in a play. She is feeling left out. Children need constant reassurance that they are equally loved.
Grandma misinterpreted what she was hearing. She wants her grandchildren to love each other. But she is not accepting of normal emotions. Nor is she supporting her granddaughter. The major problem here is that Grandma inadvertently is shutting down Grace’s safety in sharing her emotions. Grandma’s negative reaction may cause Grace to associate her jealousy with being bad, and as she grows, she may be afraid to share her feelings again. Instead, she may hold them in, and suffer inside. She may even respond in a self-punitive way because she believes her thoughts are not acceptable.
It is crucial to handle children’s emotions with care when they are expressed. Feelings are natural and normal, and expressing them and getting support, helps children to grow up feeling better. Here are some helpful steps to take when your child talks about her feelings:
- Acknowledge and accept her emotions. Tell her, “It’s OK for a child to feel jealous, angry, or sad. They are all normal emotions.”
- Congratulate her for letting you know. You want her to receive the message, that she should always let you know how she is feeling, so you can help her. Hugs and smiles will undoubtedly help her calm down, as well.
- Analyze the amount of attention each child in the family is getting. Paying attention to your child’s feelings can alert you to times when you are overly tied up with another child, or other endeavors, and need to give her more of your time. When this happens plan a special date with her and put it on a calendar, so she can look forward to your time together.
- Explain to your children that each child will have a period when he or she gets more attention. Remind her of times when she was the center of attention, for instance, when the whole family came to hear her playing her violin in the spring concert.
- Reassure her that she is equally loved. Grandma could have calmed Grace down by reassuring her that she is equally loved. She could have explained that the family has enough love for all their children.
- Give her a role. In this case, Grandma could have involved her granddaughter in the party so she didn’t feel so left out. She could have said, “I think it’s almost time to give your sister her cake. Why don’t you help me decide which candles to put on and we’ll carry it in together.” Having a part to play would certainly have made her feel included.