The question: I've heard of older siblings being jealous when you bring a baby home, but my eight-year-old son seems to always be in competition with his cousin. Whatever his cousin has, he wants. If his cousin is getting attention, he acts out, often disrupting family occasions. What should I do?
The answer: It is very likely that parents with more than one child have experienced some form of sibling rivalry at one point or another. This can range from feelings of jealousy after the birth of a baby brother or sister, to the competitiveness that is commonly seen in school-age children. As you have experienced, this rivalry is not necessarily limited to just siblings but can also occur with other children. There can be many factors that may be influencing your son's behaviour and trying to understand what's going on inside his head may help you diffuse the situation.
If you are lucky, your eight year old might offer up some clues about what he is feeling inside. Gently ask open ended questions like, "What do you like best about your cousin Daniel?" and "What does Daniel do that really bugs you?" might provide some insight into what your child is thinking and experiencing. Asking your child why he is acting this way is unlikely to be helpful.School-age children are particularly sensitive to situations that they deem as being unequal or unfair: "It's no fair that Sam gets to stay up at night until 9 p.m. but I have to be in bed at 8" or "Laura's parents are taking her to Disney World, why can't we ever go anywhere fun?" Children at this age have matured enough developmentally to recognize that these differences exist. Initially these inequalities may be difficult for them to accept, and this can lead to rivalry. Eventually it will be important for your child to realize that situations don't have to be equal in order to be fair. Different families have different rules and priorities, and this is perfectly normal and acceptable.
Unless your son and his cousin are physically fighting or getting verbally abusive, it is generally best to try and stay out of disputes and let the kids figure things out themselves. A cooling-off period with limited contact with the cousin may be in order. Where possible, avoid putting the kids in situations where there are winners and losers. Although not always easy, it is critical to avoid making comparisons between children ("Why can't you be more like cousin Emma, she learned how to tie her own shoe laces when she was 4 years old").
Prior to future family gatherings, you may want to try to mentally prepare your child for spending time with his cousin. Make sure he understands what you consider to be appropriate behaviour. Encouraging family activities that are non-competitive and involve some adult participation and supervision may also be helpful in preventing situations that will lead to rivalry.
Send pediatrician Michael Dickinson your questions at firstname.lastname@example.org. He will answer select questions, which could appear in The Globe and Mail and/or on The Globe and Mail website. Your name will not be published if your question is chosen.
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