When your eldest child turns jealous

"There was much screaming, tantrums that could go for hours, hitting, kicking and sobbing."
"There was much screaming, tantrums that could go for hours, hitting, kicking and sobbing." Photo: Getty

This time last year our family felt under siege, by one of our own children. It was an extremely difficult time and we handled it badly.

Everyday was tricky. Just going on a family excursion or holiday was near impossible and home time was unsettled. Our eldest child, now a 7-year-old, who we love deeply, was struggling. There was much screaming, tantrums that could go for hours, hitting, kicking and sobbing.

Every time we left the house we feared a repeat performance. There were times one of us would drive around with her screaming in the car, while the other would take her two sisters out on our planned excursion. If she decided she’d had enough of “family time” she’d have a meltdown. My husband and I would look to each other with embarrassment and one of us would swoop her away from prying eyes.

At home we struggled. We were reacting in the only way we knew. We’d take away toys, cancel planned activities, shut the door to her room and shout at her. Instead of listening, she was getting worse. Her behavior was escalating in a way that made each day filled with dread and nervousness. We started turning down invitations. We started doing things apart. We were at our wit’s end.

We didn’t know what to do, but we knew what we were doing wasn’t working. There were many tears, hers and mine. There was a lot of Googling and discussions with friends. The more we talked, the more we realised that we were not alone, that many children, particularly ones with younger siblings had displayed similar behaviour. 

After chatting with a child behaviour specialist we discovered that part of her problem was the shift in our attention as parents. Originally receiving 100% attention, there had been a huge drop with each new sibling. We’d lost sight that, although independent, she still craved our attention. She was feeling like her place in the family was eroded. She was also feeling like she was being treated like a little girl, rather than a big kid. What she needed was positive reinforcement, not punishment.

When we reacted to her anger with anger, she was feeling even more validated in her feelings. Instead, we began on a path driven by love, positivity and responsibility. In a matter of weeks, she was blooming. Life was calmer and more joyous. Most importantly, she was happier.

Nathalie from Easy Peasy Kids says an unsettled child is most likely reaching out for attention. “Children continuously seek attention,” she says. “In their young minds, they don’t distinguish between good and the not so good. All attention is an interaction with you.”

She suggests a first-born child, struggling with jealously or loss of attention needs reassurances from their parents that they have a special place within the family unit. “I suggest acknowledging them at least five times an hour, at first,” she says. “This can be a cuddle, general chit-chat, praise, a request for help in a task or simply telling them you love them. Let them know how valued their role as a big brother or sister is within the family unit.’

Nathalie also recommends creating a special space within the home for your child to gather their thoughts away from their siblings. And to make sure you validate your children’s emotions and help them to identify and express how they’re feeling. “Children experience all the feelings that we as adults do, they are just not as adept at dealing with them,” she says. “It’s up to us to help them to do that.”

Now, when we see our gorgeous girl slipping back into “bad” behaviour we instead examine our reaction first and then readjust how we are relating to her. When she is anxious, feels crowded, tired or nervous about something – she will start to play-up. This is when we step in and reinforce her importance in the family, increase her sense of individuality and smother her in love and positive reinforcement. It’s amazing how quickly she begins to shine again. Like anyone, children thrive on love, confidence and a solid sense of place. Try it at times when your children’s behaving badly, it’ll go against all your instincts, but you’ll be instantly rewarded. The child you know they are will shine through and peace will be restored to your home. Love and positivity always wins out in the end.