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How Can I Help My Jealous Preschooler?

By Dr. Stacie Bunning, clinical psychologist

Question:

When I volunteered to make cookies in my daughter's classroom she was jealous that I was also helping her friends. She tried to take over the activity and lead it herself. She wants me to volunteer in her classroom, but I need advice on how to make it a pleasurable experience for both of us.

Answer:

This is almost identical to an experience I had when my daughter was little. I had volunteered to lead my daughter's preschool group in structured activities each week during church services. It seemed like a perfect way to spend time with my child while giving back to the church. Though my child was excited to have me as her "teacher," she was miffed when I didn't focus all my attention on her during class time. She tried to control the activities, whined, and became needy and clingy during each class. It completely backfired and was no fun at all!

This problem has to do with cognitive development, or thinking ability. Preschoolers are capable of only very simple types of thought. They cannot see others' points of view, and they can't grasp the idea that one person can function in several different roles (mother, teacher, coach, professional). Even if they can say the words, such as "my mommy is a lawyer," they are just that - words. Your child lacks the mental maturity to see you as anything other than her mom right now. That's just how young brains are programmed.

As your child's mother, you provide love, comfort, attention, food and fun for her. The idea that during the cookie-making activity you were functioning as a "teacher" whose job it was to provide instruction to her friends simply did not "compute" in your daughter's mind. She could not make the shift from responding to you as Mom to responding to you as teacher. While it was frustrating for you and confusing for her, it was, in fact, perfectly normal.

The good news is that your daughter's perception and behavior are will change as she continues to develop. As she matures, she'll be able to understand more complex relationships, tolerate seeing you in different roles, and she'll be able to share you with other children more consistently.

In the meantime, speak with her teacher before you plan another volunteer activity. Ask if you can involve your daughter as a "special helper" during the activity, keeping her connected to you and also involved in the goings-on. Also try to plan and rehearse the activity ahead of time with your daughter, in a step-by-step manner, so that she knows what to expect once you get to the classroom.


Dr. Stacie Bunning is a licensed clinical psychologist in the St. Louis area. She has worked with children, adolescents, and their families in a variety of clinical settings for 20 years. Bunning also teaches courses in child psychology, adolescent psychology, and human development at Maryville University in St. Louis.

Advice from our experts is not a substitute for professional diagnosis or treatment from a health-care provider or learning expert familiar with your unique situation. We recommend consulting a qualified professional if you have concerns about your child's condition.

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