Helping a Toddler Deal with Jealousy and Insecurity

An NPN reader asks our natural parenting mentors:

My three-year-old niece has been raised by my in-laws. Her parents are separated and she lives between their house and her mother’s.

We visit there frequently and my niece has exhibited extreme jealousy of my ten-month-old, along with possessiveness of her grandparents. She often gets upset when they hold my daughter or pay too much attention to her.

I love my niece, but have begun to resent her, in some ways, for the way she is acting. At times my in-laws have ignored my daughter to appease her.

When I return to work, my in-laws will be caring for both children. I want to respond to my niece in a way that shows I love her, while making it possible for both of them to be loved and cared for fairly by the grandparents, but need help in finding ways to do that.

Here is what our natural parenting mentors had to say:

Amanda: I understand how difficult this situation must be for you, and you have my empathy. When any problem involves another parent’s child, it seems we must always walk on eggshells just to keep the peace. Although I am sure it will be hard for you, since you have developed these feelings of resentment towards her, try to see her for what she is: a child who needs love and reassurance that she matters. Here are my suggestions for you:

1. Actively engage your niece whenever you are visiting. As soon as your in-laws pick up your daughter, take your niece off to the side and do an activity with her. You can color, play with play dough, stickers, stuffed animals, or blocks, or do whatever she likes.  The main thing is to make sure she is getting your attention. During this time, depending on her ability to communicate, you might ask her to tell you how she feels about your daughter via one of her favorite dolls or stuffed animals. Ask the doll, “How do you feel about [insert your child’s name]?” or something similar. She may open up to you. You might find that your daughter is not the problem, but that she is merely the object of your niece’s frustrations.

2. Give her some responsibilities. This is something that your in-laws might find easy to carry out when they are watching both her and your daughter in the future. Ask her for help when you change your daughter’s diaper by having her hand you a wipe or new diaper, or having her show your daughter a toy to keep her occupied. You could even have your niece feed your daughter a bottle if you are comfortable with it. You could also ask your niece to “teach” your daughter some basic things like what a cow says, what the difference is between a cat and a dog, or what the different colors are.

3. Get her a book about how, even though there is another child in her life, it does not mean she is less important. A book about siblings would be good in relaying this message, or you could make a book with her about this subject. You could ask her what pictures she would like to put in it, and you could have her set the order of the pages. Then you can read it to her whenever both of you are together.

Luschka: The overwhelming message I get from your question is that your niece is a very insecure little girl who is terrified of being abandoned by anyone else. She is still very young, but in a few years’ time, I would not be surprised if she wanted to know why her parents basically “left her” since she is spending so much time with her grandparents.

It also makes sense that she is jealous of your daughter, who, at least every time your niece sees her, has her mommy with her. It is also completely understandable that you, as a good mother putting your child’s needs first, would want your child to have that doted-on relationship with her grandparents.

As the grandparents are not likely to change, and it is impossible to expect a toddler to change, it seems that the changes and a lot of the effort will have to come from you. The first thing I would suggest is that you take an interest in your niece. Your in-laws are obviously very capable of looking after a child, so when you arrive at their house make a huge effort to be really interested in your niece. What book is she reading at the moment? Does she love that book? Can she show it to you? Does she have a new toy? Show interest and be sure to mean it, or she will see through it and distrust you completely. Become her ally rather than being her competition for the only solid foundation she has. This way you are freeing up your in-laws to spend time with your daughter. Also, make your child her friend. Encourage her to play with the baby. Involve her and your daughter, or that rivalry will continue for years and make all of your lives miserable.

It also seems to me that you need to view your niece as someone needing a lot of love and security, which are things she is not getting from her parents. Do you go to playgroups or to the park with your daughter? Why not take your niece with you from time to time. I suspect that, as she grows to see you as a friend and not competition, the relationship will improve all round.

While finding out more about gentle discipline is a great idea, I think this is a situation that needs to be resolved with an outpouring of love and acceptance before discipline will really make any difference. You can also read more about responding with sensitivity at NPN.

Melissa: This situation sounds really difficult. It sounds as though you have a lot of empathy for your niece’s feelings and the root causes of her jealous behavior. That is an excellent place to start. Sometimes when our own child suffers, as a result of the behavior of an older child, it is natural for us to feel resentful towards that child. It is the natural “Mama Bear” instinct coming out! However, it sounds as though you have a grasp of both sides of this complicated situation, which is half the battle.

Clearly your niece is jealous because she feels insecure about her place in the family and because of the disruptive nature of the adult relationships in her life. This is not something that you can change for her. You also cannot change the fact that your in-laws are not receptive to input regarding childrearing. This is understandable, albeit frustrating, given that they have raised children and feel experienced at it. This puts you in a tight position! I have several suggestions, which you may put to a trial and error test to see if anything improves the situation.

First of all, since your niece’s insecurity appears to surround her relationship with her grandparents, it might be effective to speak with your niece about that relationship in positive terms. When you are visiting, emphasize how special she is to her grandparents and how much they love her. Talk about her good qualities, even if she is not exhibiting very many. Choose qualities that are true strengths of hers, and point out how her grandparents feel proud of her for these strengths. For example, if when you visit she comes to the door to greet you, you can say something to the effect of, “Wow, it sure is nice to see you. You are very good at welcoming people, aren’t you? Grandma and Grandpa must be happy to have such a good welcomer living in their house!” If she is trying to monopolize Grandma’s lap, talk about how nice it must be for Grandma to have an affectionate granddaughter. It may take some creativity and mental gymnastics, but it is surprising how many behaviors can be positively spun with two year olds. The desired effect here is to affirm her relationship with her grandparents. As a side effect you will encourage positive behavior, but that is not the goal (indeed, some parenting philosophies shy away from using adult praise as a motivating factor for positive behavior, but your goal and your role in her life make this tool an appropriate one in your situation). You want to emphasize that she has a place in her grandparents’ heart and home that is special and hers alone. Affirming it will help her to feel more secure in it and more willing to share it.

A second suggestion I have would be to strengthen your relationship with your niece. It sounds as though you are in tune with her and have a good relationship, but it may improve the interrelational dynamics if you make her feel even more connected to you and appreciated by you. Your baby is fairly young, but it may be possible to arrange short outings with just yourself and your niece that can strengthen your bond with her. Even a fifteen-minute walk to the corner store for an ice cream can go a long way with a two year old in making them feel special. When your baby is a few months older you may even be able to arrange a movie date with your niece or an outing to a nearby park to play. If alone time is difficult to arrange, you could bring the baby and talk about your niece’s strengths in positive ways. You can also point out the things that she can do that the baby cannot. Talking about nurturing behavior that she exhibits towards your baby is also very important, as it builds her empathy for your child.

It is absolutely likely that your niece will outgrow her tendency to monopolize her grandparents’ focus, although it is not guaranteed. Her jealousy will remain and be expressed in other ways if she does not grow to feel more secure in her place in the family. Anything you can do to make her feel more secure and deeply loved will positively affect your extended family dynamics and ensure a loving, reciprocal relationship between your daughter and her grandparents. However, this may need to be a long-term goal, developed over several years rather than the immediate future, depending upon how your niece responds to your efforts to affirm her place in the family. Give her time and always remember that she is not a bad kid. She is just living a hard reality. It sounds like you already have that in mind when you consider the situation though. Best of luck!

Photo Credit: Simona Balint

2 Responses to Helping a Toddler Deal with Jealousy and Insecurity

  1. Regina

    I was having trouble with my little girl and after reading your site I found alot of good information. Thanks so much…

  2. Jennifer T.

    While the situation is a little different, I have a newborn and a three yr old, I found the advice helpful for the sibling jealousy my eldest is experiencing. Thanks!

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