Parenting Q&A: My 5-year-old is ‘insanely jealous’ of her little sister

Q: My 5-year-old is insanely jealous of her 22-month-old sister. Everything her little sister has, she wants. Everything that little sister wants, she also wants. Big sister said she wanted a certain ice cream flavor but when little sister said she wanted a different ice cream, big sister said she changed her mind and wanted little sister’s flavor (even though big sister had been talking about her own flavor all day). I tell big sister that her choices are what she wants and she needs to be confident in her choices. I say she is her own person and does not need to be like her little sister. What else can I do?

A: Thank you for writing in; almost every parent of two or more children will deal with some jealousy between siblings, so know that you are not alone. And while sibling jealousy can be fairly typical, it can also cause serious damage in families. Ask a few people about sibling jealousy, and you will hear terrible stories of anger and heartbreak. Worst of all, these immature jealousies can easily bloom into rivalries that ruin sibling relationships. I am not trying to scare you, but I am letting you know that if the jealous child doesn’t seem to be outgrowing their envy, how you handle it can matter in the long run.

It’s also important that you know that you can “equally” parent your two children, and jealousy still occurs. You can literally measure out amounts of snacks and count turns, for instance, and jealousy blooms. Why? Because parents are the sun that children orbit and once there is more than one planet, competition can ensue. It’s a simple numbers game. Remember: We humans have spent thousands of years living with our people and villages - there was always another adult or older child to parent a child. That has changed. Now, there are fewer people to focus attention on the children, and children are more focused on getting the attention of a parent. A natural, “she’s mine, no she’s mine” dynamic can develop.

I’m going to give you advice that seems contradictory, but if you don’t think too much, it makes sense. The first move is always to strengthen your relationship with your child, so sit with your 5-year-old and create a fun “to play” list (a twist on to-do). Let your imaginations fly and when the list is finished, you can both start circling the things you can actually do. Choose a day or days, and commit to this time and activity with just your 5-year-old. As you show up and play with this child, you will watch her bloom with your attention, joy and fun. Without any competing attachments, she will rest in her relationship with you. These special dates are also a time to listen to her whine and complain. Yes, you heard that right. It’s wonderful to make room by saying, “I bet it is sometimes hard to be a big sister . . .” and see what she says. By simply listening, you are communicating that you care, and you are listening to her point of view. Chances are good that your daughter has information that you didn’t know, and it may help you problem solve!

The second part of my advice that may feel contradictory is that you don’t need to fix the unfairness, even when the children are quite upset. By staying quiet and allowing the storms to pass, you are helping your children build resilience. Every time you lecture or explain (even positively), you are subverting your child’s ability to adapt. And if you change what you’re doing to accommodate and make things “fair,” this is when “spoiling the child” comes in. It’s acutely painful, because there will be whining and yelling, but if you simply wait and proceed, the big emotions will pass. You just need to keep your mouth shut and repeat the mantra: “It’s not my job to make life fair.”

If you keep your relationship strong with both children, not only will they adapt to the inherent unfairness of life, but they will grow and thrive because of it. By focusing on relationship, communication and problem-solving instead of pleasing, explaining or fixing, you play a longer and more satisfying parenting journey. Good luck.

Meghan Leahy

Meghan writes about parenting for the Washington Post. She's the mother of three daughters and the author of "Parenting Outside the Lines." She holds a bachelor’s degree in English and secondary education and a master’s degree in school counseling and is a certified parent coach. Send a question about parenting to