Smart love


Jealous toddler is simply acting her age

The Piepers

I have three girls, ages 6, 4 and 2. The problem is my 2-year-old. At family birthdays, she melts down. She wants to open every present and play with them before the recipient has a chance. We have tried explaining to her it's not her birthday and that she will have presents when it is her birthday, but that doesn't seem to help. We end up sending her to her room, but meanwhile she has disrupted the fun of the birthday child. Our 4-year-old is turning 5 in a few weeks and we wonder if you have any suggestions for how to handle the 2-year-old. T.G., Batavia

A: Actually, your 2-year-old is behaving quite normally for her age. The challenge is to manage her behavior to keep her and everyone else happy. Two-year-olds lack the capacity either to vicariously enjoy a sibling's pleasure at getting presents or to sooth their desire to have presents now with the notion that they will have a birthday in the future. There is no point in trying to teach your daughter not to make a fuss when someone else is getting presents because she is simply too immature to feel comforted by the idea that it will be her turn someday. The best approach is to make sure she has a few small presents to unwrap and open. For example, give her a set of blocks or plastic animals and wrap each individually so she has plenty of gifts and gift wrapping to keep her busy. That way she will be peacefully occupied when the birthday girl opens her presents and everyone will enjoy the occasion. How can I help my toddler feel OK about his surgery? Q: My 1½-year-old son has to have surgery to correct a hernia. He can only have liquids for the day before the surgery and will have restricted activity after the surgery. He is a very active little boy and I know this will be hard on him. Also I am worried that he will be traumatized by the procedure. What can my husband and I do to make the whole experience as benign as possible for him? K.T., Barrington

A: The key is to make yourself available to your son during and immediately after the procedure. There are numerous ways to prepare your son for the surgery. Buy some of the excellent books for young children who have to go to the hospital and read them to him at bedtime for a week or two before his surgery. Explain to him that, just as in the books, the doctors will be fixing something inside his skin. Tell him it won't be fun, but once it's over everything will be all right. Have the doctor explain exactly what will happen and then choose a doll or one of his favorite stuffed animals and recreate as much of the procedure as possible, including X-rays, intravenous tubes and anesthesia. Then, let him play doctor and “fix” the toy himself. Answer his questions as simply but accurately as possible. Finally and most important, make sure that you or his father are with him during the time he is in the hospital. Most doctors will now allow parents to be with young children until they are anesthetized. This will make the procedure much less frightening for your son. Stay with him for as long as he has to remain in the hospital and accept tears or complaining as legitimate responses to the unpleasantness he has had to undergo. When he comes home, make a welcome home party with balloons and a few presents to recognize that he went through something difficult and to celebrate that the operation is behind him. How do I get my kids to stop their squabbling? Q: I have two girls, ages 8 and 10. All they seem to do is pick on each other. They argue about everything, including which TV programs to watch, who hogs the bathroom more and who has better friends. They also call each other names and take each other's things. Their quarrels end in tears and they run to me, each one trying to convince me she is right. I have little patience for this and I usually send both of them to their rooms. But the moment they are released, the fighting starts again. What do you suggest? S.R., Chicago

A: Your children have become comfortable with conflict and negativity and they turn to those negative experiences out of habit or when they are bored. Because this pattern of interacting has been going on for a long time, it will be hard to change, but with persistence, you can succeed. Your goal is to help your girls realize they will feel much happier if they can relate to each other positively rather than negatively. Unfortunately, simply telling them this will not have much effect. You need to make it possible for them to experience the superior pleasure of closeness and friendship. There are a number of strategies you can try and only trial and error will tell you which are most effective. First, make sure each of your girls is getting some time alone with you doing something she likes. Often children snipe at each other because they see each other as rivals for their parents' attention. Then, see if you can think of activities in which a goal can be reached best by cooperating. For example, take them kite flying, where one person runs with the kite and the other holds the string. Or ask them to help you prepare a meal where each person makes a different dish. Another strategy is to recognize boredom as it is setting in and head off conflict by having a store of things the girls like to do-anything from art projects to bike riding-when possible. Finally, for things that must be shared, such as the TV, bathroom or telephone, buy a big kitchen timer. When the timer sounds, time is up and it's the other girl's turn. Remember that while progress may be slow, like all people, if given the chance your girls will ultimately prefer closeness to conflict.


Questions? Here's your chance to get some answers to your pressing parenting questions. If you're trying to figure out how to handle some aspect of your child's behavior, send your question to Chicago Parent Q&A, 141 S. Oak Park Ave., Oak Park, IL 60302; or e-mail it to Answers to past questions from readers are available at Click on “Archives,” then “Smart Love.”

Martha Heineman Pieper, Ph.D., and William J. Pieper, M.D., are the authors of Addicted to Unhappiness: Free Yourself from Moods and Behaviors that Undermine Relationships, Work and the Life You Want (McGraw-Hill, 2002). They also wrote Smart Love (Harvard Common Press, 2001). The Piepers have spent more than three decades practicing psychotherapy with infants, children, adolescents and adults; counseling parents; and supervising other mental health professionals. They have five children and live in Chicago.

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