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The Competent Parent: Birthday Jealousy

Headshot2011Welcome to our weekly online series on parenting advice with local expert Dr. Deborah Wood.

Birthday Jealousy


Dear Dr. Debbie,

This weekend we’ll be celebrating our two-year-old’s birthday. My eight-year-old daughter is excited and has been helping with the planning, but the three-year-old is already showing signs of jealousy—asking about her presents, her cake, her party. She had a birthday in September. How can I help her understand this will be her brother’s special day, and keep her from ruining the celebration for the rest of us?

Divided Mom

Dear Divided Mom,

With children 17 months apart, I’m sure it’s been a challenge to give them ample individual attention. You, as well as professional childcare providers, parents of twins and more, must master certain skills to handle the simultaneous demands young children have of their big people. No doubt you’ve come up with simple snacks and meals that let you quickly serve two hungry children at the same time. There’s room for two on your lap at story time. It’s almost as easy to give two tots a bath as one. You can pat two backs and sing to two children if they sleep close enough to each other. You can pick up more tips on time and space management from other adults who adeptly address the needs of multiple children.

Another key is to use other adults, even older children, as a caring, attentive, entertaining network of support. One reads a book to one child while another gives a second child her bath. Divide and conquer.

Beyond boosting the amount of positive attention each child receives, you can address your daughter’s confusion with a calendar and help make her past birthday memories bigger. At three, her understanding of time is, as you describe, minimal. She understands “now” and not much more. Use the abstraction of a calendar to show her the months, weeks, and days between today and her next birthday. Highlight special events of each month to look forward to, some of which she may have two-year-old memories of. Start by showing her the date of an event or outing planned for March, and count the days between now and then. Slowly flip the pages to show all the days until her next birthday, pausing to describe things she can relate to. In April the daffodils will bloom. In June we’ll see the fireflies again. In July, we’ll watch fireworks. At the end of August Sissy goes back to school. And in September, we’ll have a birthday party because you’ll turn four! The more you refer to the calendar while she’s three and four, the sooner she’ll grasp the abstract concept of what it represents. But this isn’t easy for her.

Until the age of seven, her brain works with concrete reasoning—ideas are best understood with physical realities. So provide her with tangible souvenirs of her last birthday. Jog her memories of that day as you dress her in clothes or play with things she received as presents. Do you have photos or videos of her birthday? Look at them together. These physical representations remind her that there are people who love her and who honored her on her special day (including you).

Maybe there’s a special role she can play at her brother’s birthday party? For example, she could help you greet guests and show them where to put their coats. She could be the one to turn out the lights when it’s time to sing “Happy Birthday,” and turn them back on again when he blows the candles out. And maybe, just maybe, if everyone refers to it as “our party for Keshaun” rather than “Keshaun’s party” she’ll feel more like a participant than a rival.

Best wishes for a happy birthday for all,

Dr. Debbie

Dr. Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She holds a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at drdebbiewood.com

What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at editor@chesapeakefamily.com

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