Q.My 3-year-old sometimes draws pictures of herself with tears in her eyes. When I ask why she is crying, she tells me someone took her toys. She is always snatching toys from her 18-month-old brother, which makes him cry.

Do you think it's normal for her to draw pictures of herself crying, or could it be a sign of general unhappiness with herself? A danger signal?

A.It sounds like your little girl is precocious. It's unusual for a child so young to draw with such detail, and her sensitivity also seems advanced. Even though she's only 3, she knows her little brother has the right to play with toys. She may even feel bad about grabbing them--and yet, what's a sister to do? Her brother takes some of the time and attention that belongs to her. But when toys do not turn out to be the great equalizer, she cries, at least in her pictures.

Is this a danger signal? No, but it is a warning. Your little girl is telling you she hurts, in the best way she knows how.

Her unhappiness with her brother--so lightly guised--gives you a perfect chance to let her know that she has the right to her feelings, and that you love her just the same. Nothing she has done, is doing or ever will do can change that: a lesson that every child should hear in some way every day.

A child knows these bad feelings are all right, and inevitable, when you talk about them openly; when you say she must be mad about sharing you and the toys; when you tell her that she can love her little brother and still be mad at him; when you remind her that you also get cross with the people you love--that everyone does--and that it's okay if she does, so long as she tries not to hurt them, their feelings or their things.

You may have a big cuddle-up conversation about it the next time she draws a teary picture and after that it's an occasional lights-out visit, for no reason at all, except to give her an extra kiss and say how much you love her and how special she is. This can be hard for a child to believe when there's a toddler around who gets more attention.

This means your first-born needs extra talks and extra loving now--she probably always will--and extra playtime, too. You can read amusing stories to her about sibling rivalry, like Noisy Nora by Rosemary Wells (Dutton, $2.25), the simple saga of a mouse who feels neglected in the family. Or you and your daughter can make soup or play dough together while you send the baby on a walk with a sitter (the perfect job for a pre-teen).

You also can have a tea party every day with your 3-year-old while the baby is napping. You'll provide the cookies and she'll use her doll-sized tea set to pour tiny cups of tea or juice for you and herself and her doll and her teddy, but not, of course, for her brother. While you'll both agree that you love him, you'll admit it's nice to have a visit without him.

The tea parties will be even better if you ask your bookseller to order the nifty Crumpets and Scones by Iris Ihde Frey (St. Martin's Press, $10.95), a charming, round-the-world collection of "indecently delicious teatime fare." This little book also teaches you how to read tea leaves. When you're predicting your child's future, you can predict that she'll be happy with her brother almost all of tomorrow.

You'll also want to temper your own expectations with reality, and the reality is this: Siblings are born to rival. Parents only can help them compete in a civilized way.

It shouldn't be too hard for you. Your child may be sensitive enough to picture herself in tears, but she's lucky. She has a mother who's sensitive enough to do something about it.

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