Baby blues: How to deal with jealous siblings and pets

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Promoting mutual understanding and curbing jealousy

Baby blues: How to deal with jealous siblings and pets
Get your child to help "teach" the baby how to play to help quell feelings of jealousy. (Chris Amaral/Digital Vision/Getty Images)

“Give lots of love and attention to your older child every day, to help make her more secure, while at the same time having absolutely zero tolerance for any aggression. Tell her ‘You are not allowed to pinch or hurt smaller kids or anyone, ever.’ If it happens, give a time-out, and make sure she understands why.”

— Frances Walfish, child and family psychotherapist and author of "The Self Aware Parent."

The arrival of a baby will inevitably stir rivalries in siblings and pets. You run yourself ragged trying to shower them all with the love and affection they need, but it isn’t always possible. In most cases, jealousy results in nothing more than complaints from the child and some moping from your family pet, but it can sometimes lead to violent behaviour and acting out. Understanding the cause of jealousy and how to deal with it is integral to maintaining a harmonious home.

Why they’re jealous

Baby blues: How to deal with jealous siblings and pets
(Janie Airey/Lifesize/Getty Images)

As the focal-point in their world, you are the unintentional source of the disagreement. “The rivalry you see – whether children are fighting for a toy or the first turn on a swing – is really rooted in a struggle for your love and attention,” says child and family psychologist Frances Walfish. You protect them, lavish them with praise when they do well and make sure their appetites are thoroughly satiated. No wonder they don’t want to share you with anyone else!

The first step is to understand how your pets and children are feeling. Their world is set up perfectly, and then the baby comes along and takes up most of your time. Your child might be vying for your attention by taking his own plate in after dinner, but you’re too worried about getting the baby to eat her food. When friends visit - who would ordinarily gush over your pup and shower him with affection - now coo over baby and all but ignore your pet.

Babies also mean new things. Cots, toys and baby-chairs sprout up like weeds, and start to encroach on your children’s and pet’s space. A cat might wonder what that cradle is doing in her favourite napping spot, and your child might not understand why he has to share his toys. They’ll quickly draw the association with the baby, and the building blocks of jealousy are laid. Combine this with a verbal scolding anytime they try to play with the infant, and you could have a real problem on your hands.

What you can do about jealous siblings

Baby blues: How to deal with jealous siblings and pets
(Pixland/Pixland/Getty Images)

Now that you understand the problem, it’s time to take some action to keep it from becoming serious. The simple solution is to split your attention equally, but this isn’t feasible. As parenting expert Michele Borba points out, “Treating kids equally is plain unrealistic: they come packaged with different temperaments, interests and needs.” There isn’t enough time to give more mature children the same amount of attention an infant requires, so you have to take other action.

Talk to siblings individually about the changes that will occur because of the new baby. They can perceive your doting on the infant as an indication that you don’t care about them anymore, so you need to explain that babies need extra attention. Explain the stresses that come with raising a new child, because they will experience them first-hand over the coming years. Point out that you did the same thing for them when they were born, too. Ask about their feelings, and show them that you understand what they’re going through. Encouraging them to help with things like bathing the baby and getting her dressed helps them settle into the role of older siblings and understand the level of care babies need. Make them the responsible older brother or sister, and reward them for it.

Spending time with siblings individually helps them understand that you have enough love for everybody. Whether it’s a trip to the cinema or eating lunch out, do something special with them whenever you get the chance. Even if it’s just spending time reading while the baby sleeps, it makes a difference.

Ensure that your other children have their own toys and personal space. If the baby picks up a toy that isn’t hers, distract her with one of her own and give praise when she takes it instead. Siblings can share most toys, but some personal possessions can show that they are special as individuals too.

What you can do about jealous pets

Baby blues: How to deal with jealous siblings and pets
(Brand X Pictures/Brand X Pictures/Getty Images)

Pets are similar to jealous siblings, and they can also feel like you don’t have time for them. Whilst toddlers will complain and cry for attention, animals don’t communicate as clearly. Animal behaviourist Robert DeFranco says, “animals communicate through the chemicals they produce in their bodies, namely urine or faeces.” With a baby, you’ll already have more than enough of that, so helping pets feel better can save you from more unsightly messes.

Individual space and affection help your pets understand that they aren’t competing for your attention. Play with your pets, and make sure you reward them when they behave well around the baby. With dogs, you can spray their possessions with almond oil to make them more appealing. DeFranco says “He’ll associate the good smell with his things and won’t go after the baby’s.” Cats don’t usually cause as much of a problem, but you should respect their territory and possessions in the same way. Don’t move beds or litter trays unless it’s absolutely necessary.

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