Dear Dr. Yael:
My daughter is very jealous of our new baby boy. As a result, I am scared to leave her alone in the room with him. She hugs him in a potentially dangerous way, and she is acting out a lot. She is only two-and-a-half years old, but one can see an obvious change in her behavior.
I worry for him and am concerned about her intense jealousy toward him. Please help me deal with this difficult situation.
A Worried Mother
Dear Worried Mother:
According to Dr. Orit, a child psychologist, it is very normal for your daughter to be jealous. After all, from her perception she has been dethroned. Since your daughter is young, it is difficult for her to understand what this new person is doing in her life and why he is taking over much of your time. It is important for you to show your daughter how much you love her. One way of doing this is to try to spend as much time as possible with her. As you are often probably asking your daughter to wait while you are taking care of the baby, one tip that new parents have found helpful is to tell the baby that he has to wait his turn while you do something for your daughter. Thus, as much as possible, try to fulfill your daughter’s needs when she asks for something, and tell the baby in a loud voice that you are sorry but it is your daughter’s turn for attention and he will have to wait. Once your daughter gets used to hearing you say these things, she may not be as upset when she must wait.
Another possible idea is to try to pay attention to your daughter even when you must tend to the baby’s needs. For example, you can read a book to your daughter while feeding the baby. You can also have your daughter be involved in the process, e.g. bringing you a diaper. Then make a big deal about how much she helps you. This way, you’ll build your daughter’s confidence and make her feel special. You can call your parents and/or in-laws in your daughter’s presence, and tell them how much she helps you and what a big mitzvah girl she is. Talk as much as possible in front of your daughter about her goodness, and write mitzvah notes for her if she is in a playgroup. Make an effort to minimize your criticism of her, and even if she hurts the baby try to stay calm and distract her.
It is important for you to softly explain to your daughter that she must be gentle with the baby. You can demonstrate gentleness to her. But in the moment, distraction usually works best. Little children usually act out because they want attention, even negative attention. Thus, it will not be effective to yell when your daughter hurts the baby because that is giving her the negative attention she might be craving. So even though it will take a Herculean effort, try to remain calm and tell her in a tender voice that we cannot hurt the baby. Then distract her by asking if she wants to color or read a book with you. Try not to combine the distraction directly to her acting out, but use it to give her positive attention. For instance, if your daughter tries to hurt the baby, tell her, “Sweetheart, we have to be gentle with the baby. We cannot poke the baby in the eye. Maybe we can read a book. Choose a book that you like and we can read together.” In this way, you are reacting to what she did and telling her what she can do and, specifically, what she cannot do. As a result, you are changing the subject and using the distraction technique.
It is also important for your daughter to be able to express her feelings. Talk to her about how hard it must be for her to have a new baby in her life, and tell her how much you love her and how proud you are of her. Be specific in your praise and do not be afraid to talk to her about being jealous. You are not putting ideas in her head; rather, you are giving her the words to express her feelings.
Young children do not know how to express what they are experiencing; therefore, they often act out because their emotions are overwhelming. Giving your child the words to express her overwhelming emotions will help her immensely. You can also read books about new babies and jealousy. There are many good children’s books on this topic. One that is particularly effective at teaching children about feelings is Stories Straight from Avi’s Heart, by Rabbi Chaim Walder and Ahuva Raanan. The book features stories for each emotion, and is great for children of all ages.