Parents who play with a doll while ignoring their child evoke the same jealous behavior in the child as a newborn sibling will do, according to research by psychologist Nóra Szabó of the Utrecht University, the Netherlands.
The psychologist visited 87 two-parent Dutch families at home, and investigated how the relationships within a family changed by the arrival of a second child. Before the birth of a sibling, toddlers are already able to show jealous behavior when they are ignored by their parents. Now, the current study points out that jealousy is stronger when the attention of one or both parents is claimed by a doll, then when the parents are distracted by non-social objects, such as reading a book.
In total, the researcher visited each participating family three times in two years. All families had a toddler and were expecting a second child during the first visit. The researcher organized two-hour play sessions per visit, in which the mother and the father both separately and jointly played with the child or ignored the child.
The ‘strategies’ that the observed children used to regain the attention of the parents included distraction, consolation, anger and hitting. Noteworthy, the mothers aroused more jealousy in the child than the fathers. “Probably because mothers spend more time with their child,” says Szabó. “Therefore, children expect to be comforted by their mother rather than their father, and as a consequence respond more strongly when the attention stays out.” The researcher also found that the degree of jealousy aroused by the doll was predictive for the jealousy towards a newborn brother or sister of one month old.
It seems that jealousy towards a sibling is not a permanent thing. A year later, the first-born children were less jealous of their little brother or sister than the year before. The child may have learned to better regulate its emotions. This effect of decreasing jealousy was strengthened when parents reported to have a happy marriage and a good relationship with their child. According to Szabó it’s important to elucidate which factors contribute to the bond between brothers and sisters, as these early interactions are decisive for relationships later in life.
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