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Daughter believes her little brother is better loved

| Friday, June 8, 2018, 12:24 p.m.

Adapted from a recent online discussion.

Dear Carolyn:

Our 9-year-old daughter feels we favor her 6-year-old brother. She feels he gets more attention and love from us when this is assuredly not the case. She's had this concern since he was born and it's ebbed and flowed over the years.

Any objective observer would say that, except for the first year or so when he was a baby, she consistently gets more attention because she's older, involved in more activities, has more social connections and needs more academic and emotional support.

We've been very careful not to feed into her “bean counting” by pointing out all the times when she gets more attention than her brother, but last week, after a tearful hour of her expressing how she feels, we felt it was important for her to look at this objectively and illustrated all the “special attention” she got over the course of the last couple of days. It seemed to settle her for the moment, but we're really averse to this as a support strategy, as it causes her self-esteem to be driven by external factors rather than internal ones and we just do not want to encourage “bean counting.”

Last night it came up again and all I could say was that it's just not true. I'm sorry she feels that way but there's nothing there and she needs to train herself to shoo away these negative thoughts when there's no truth to them.

That's assuredly not the right answer, either. She does believe we love her but just feels she's not loved as much as her brother and it makes her sad/mad/frustrated. I feel like we're failing her because we don't know how to help her see that we don't love her brother more.

-- Not “Bean Counting”

I don't doubt you on the balance of love and attention. However, in (reasonably) responding to your daughter the way you have, you've unwittingly made the problem worse:

She believes you love her brother more, that's Bummer 1 for her. Now you've added Bummer 2 by consistently and repeatedly calling her wrong and correcting her every time she tries to be heard.

This might seem like an immovable obstacle, since what are you going to do, assure her she's right when she's wrong? But you can validate her, genuinely, if you break her concerns down to smaller parts.

There is something she's seeing that is true to her. The conclusions she's drawing might be incorrect, but at some level her senses are going to be right -- and, again, she craves that simple validation. You did X, brother did Y, someone else did Z, and she saw it, and her angsty responses to them can't be denied away.

So, honestly and appropriately validate her X, Y and Z without also buying into the conclusion she's drawn from them. You can find out what X, Y and Z are by asking: “Hm, why do you say that?” “Is something specific bothering you?” “Tell me more.” In other words, listen before you dismiss.

Taking her seriously will boost her confidence within your family.

Please read “How to Talk So Kids Will Listen, and Listen So Kids Will Talk” (Faber/Mazlish). It's an excellent field guide to feelings, especially those you're tempted to “shoo away.”

Email Carolyn at tellme@washpost.com, follow her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/carolyn.hax or chat with her online at noon Eastern time each Friday at www.washingtonpost.com.

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