What To Do When Your Child Feels Left Out

Dear Susan,
Our five-year old son loves his baby sister, but yesterday he told me that he thinks we love her more than him. We told him that wasn't true -- that we love them both the same -- but he didn't believe us and had a big tantrum. What could I have done differently?

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Dear Not Playing Favorites,

When a child is upset, he's flooded with feelings that temporarily make it difficult -- if not impossible -- to process whatever well-meaning explanations you offer to make him feel better. It's as though he is caught in a swirling mass of emotion, unable to benefit from your well-intended words of comfort.

This creates a problem: The child is experiencing a storm of feelings that he can't accurately put into words, and in an effort to find relief, he uses words to communicate that may -- or may not – be directly related to the actual reason for his distress. "You love my sister more than me" may actually have little to do with sibling rivalry; it could be that the teacher didn't call on him when he knew the answer to 2+2!

We often pay too much attention to the language part of a child's message, missing the truth of what he or she is really trying to express. When a young person is terribly angry or hurt, he can't digest your explanations in a way that helps him feel better -- which is why telling your son that you love both your children equally didn't make things better for him.

Here is what I would recommend doing instead. I call it “Act I parenting.” Your goal is to help your child feel heard and understood by asking questions or making comments that he or she would most likely say “Yes” or nod his or her head to at least three times.

The immediate purpose of Act I is not to explain anything to your child; it's to discover the real reason for his or her upset.

Child: “You love my sister more than me.”

Parent: "Oh buddy. It sounds like you've been feeling left out lately."

Child: "You never do anything with me. All you ever do is play with her."

Parent: “Have you been wanting more Mommy time?”

Child: "You never do anything with me. ‘Cause you don't even love me. Nobody does. The kids at school think I'm a big dummy. That's what they say at recess."

Parent: “Oh honey, that sounds awful. I didn't know that the kids at school were being mean.”

Child: “They tell me I'm a baby 'cause I cry sometimes.”

Parent: “Oh Sam, I'm so glad you're telling me this. Tell me more... I want to help you have a better time at school...”

The conversation might not go exactly like this; it may be that he actually has been feeling left out at home lately -– and you'll want to make an extra effort to give your son some special time with you.

But you may discover that your little boy's complaint -- not being loved as much as his sister -- is not actually what he is upset about. Young children have a fairly limited repertoire when it comes to expressing their emotions.

Instead of trying to convince your son of your love, explore whether he's hurting because of something else. Whether it's difficulties with friends, problems in the classroom, or even a tummy ache, our children need us to translate the messages behind the words they use.

If it turns out your son is feeling shortchanged on Mommy-time, work to revitalize his connection with you by setting aside devoted one-on-one time. I know it's not easy to find the time with two little ones, but having a fun dance contest together or playing a few rounds of UNO -- just you two -- will help your son remember how much he means to you.

Parent Coach, Susan Stiffelman, is a licensed marriage and family therapist and credentialed teacher. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in developmental psychology and a Master of Arts in clinical psychology. Her book, Parenting Without Power Struggles, is available on Amazon. Sign up to get Susan's free parenting newsletter.