Q: My older child, 7, has recently fallen head over heels for a sport, and her world has started revolving around it. My preschool-aged younger child (who wants nothing more than to be like her big sister) has started picking up on that enthusiasm and trying to copy her . She is too young to join this sport, so there is no immediate potential rivalry. However, my older child is always trying to physically interfere with her younger sister whenever she sees her trying to "practice" things that my older daughter had just been doing, telling my younger daughter that she is not allowed to ever like the sport, and that she would never be good at it anyway, and generally expressing extreme jealousy at the thought of her sister going down the same path. She has started telling us that she is worried that her sister will be better than her, because she gets to start learning training exercises earlier, and my older daughter doesn't want to be eclipsed in a sport that she loves so much. Any suggestions on how to help her focus on her own pursuits and not worry so much about her sister?
A: Ah, jealousy between siblings, it's a tale as old as time (especially between same-gender siblings). I would like to write that I can help you eradicate jealousy or envy between sibs, but that's simply not going to happen. As long as children live together, there is a strong likelihood that there will be jealousy and jostling for power throughout their lives. It's human nature.
So, do we throw our hands in the air and hope that these girls just work this out? No, absolutely not. You don't have to look far to find an adult who carries the pain of a ruined relationship with a sibling from jealousy run amok. These adults will often tell you how their parents either sat by and did nothing or worse, fed the jealousy with preferential treatment. So yes, I want you to do something about this.
Why do siblings get jealous of each other? There are two systems at work that we should pay attention to. Number one, the deepest desire of a child is to belong to her parent. If the child gets positive attention by being good at soccer, for instance, that child laps up this positive connection and attention. The other sibling wants to belong, too, and so will repeat whatever is working for that older sibling, whether or not it makes rational sense. A 3-year-old cannot rationally think through all these implications; she is acting on impulse. Does she want to be like her big sister? Yes, but she also wants to bask in the sunshine of the attention you are giving to the big sister. In many ways, younger sibs are often playing a case of catch-up, even when we are doing our darndest to spread the love around equally.
The next issue we have is one of power. In any given family, the parent or caregiver is the one meant to be in charge. The parent is the one who leads, who instructs and who provides the moral compass. If a child even perceives that the adult is dropping the leadership ball, that child will assume a leadership role in the family. This is all well and good, but a child is in no position to lead a family, especially a 7-year-old. Do I see a bit of this in your letter? Yes. Your eldest is prescribing what your preschooler can and cannot do, even as far as not allowing her to like this special sport. This possessiveness is normal, but you also need to bring it into line.
The good news here? Your eldest is talking to you about what worries her and she is stating it quite clearly. Ah, what a blessing! Listen to that clarity! Is she actually worried about her sister being good at, say, soccer? No. She doesn't want her sister to be better. Your eldest daughter wants to keep her status as special, as having something that is hers and hers alone. Who hasn't felt like that?
So, you have a wonderful opening here for conversation and action to dissipate some of this jealousy. Here are some ideas:
1. Create some firm boundaries, right away. Everyone under your roof is allowed to play whichever and whatever sport they want, whenever they want. Your mantra is: All are free to try activities in this house. Your 7-year-old will bristle at this, but that is okay. She can be upset.
2. Because your daughter is talking about her feelings with you, you are going to listen and reflect, listen and reflect. It may sound like, "It sounds like you are worried you won't be the best at soccer…" and "Yes, I have felt this way before, too. It's hard to know other people may love what you love, too." Your eldest daughter is experiencing the tough reality of sharing attention, space and talent, and it is okay if she doesn't love that. You can absolutely agree that this is not fun. Yes, it is annoying when little sisters want everything you want. Yes, it is tiring to be patient with her. Agree with all of these feelings.
3. Now, this is critical: Create special time with her where all you do is practice this sport, just you two. No little sister around, no distractions. As you practice, make a little conversation about how she is special. No one in the history of the world has been made to feel special by someone saying, "You're special." No, you are going to want to find the Love Language (see Gary Chapman for more about this) that resonates with your daughter; what makes her feel special? Is it touch? Is it telling stories? Is it hot chocolate? What we are creating is the message that says, "Soccer or no soccer, you are my daughter and I love you unconditionally. I love you, no matter what." It is not shocking to realize this, but when a child has this wide safety net (unconditional parental love), sibling jealousy tends to lessen.
Keep your heart soft and your boundaries strong. Good luck.