Home » Features » A Toddler’s Encounter With A ‘New’ Emotion

The inner demon
you can’t name [recognise],
is the one you are tormented by.

~ Stonepeace

A toddler nephew is undergoing a strange yet understandable phase of growing up. Barely a month ago, his baby sister was born. Suddenly, his behaviour became a little incomprehensibly moody and anger-prone… even to himself! He seemed to be experiencing a form of existential anguish that he couldn’t articulate with his limited vocabulary. When asked ‘Are you alright?’, he would reply ‘Okay…’ in an unsure and listless manner. When asked, ‘What’s wrong?’, he says ‘I don’t know!’ – probably to his surprise as much as ours. In the further angst of being unable to express his angst, he bit himself on his arm. I was wondering if this is the time to teach him a ‘new’ word to help him name the elusive inner demon that could be haunting him… jealousy… due to the subtle beginnings of sibling rivalry and some fear of how the future will change for him?

He obviously relished in the arrival of his sister. In this sense, there is no real animosity. Yet, simultaneously, he probably felt displaced in terms of the shift of attention away from him. Come to think of it, jealousy is quite a complex emotion. One that is perhaps too paradoxical for young kids to grasp. In jealousy is the element of attachment, of wanting something, mixed with the element of aversion, of not wanting something else. He could be wanting more attention for himself, while not wanting the sister to have more. It’s not just plain greed or hate, but an almost even balance of them. And of course, the duo arises from delusion. How do you explain this to a kid? ‘Welcome to Samsara (again)… welcome to a full experience of the three poisons! It’s okay… I think… Please take it easy! Don’t be too hard on yourself!’

‘Abhidharmically’ speaking, greed (tanha) always arises with hatred (lobha), while the couple always arises from delusion (moha). Without moha, there will be neither tanha nor lobha. (Moha is the root of the three poisons.) In the case of jealousy, the play of tanha and lobha is more obviously intertwined, seemingly fluctuating rapidly between themselves. I think it is this quality that makes kids confused as to what they are really experiencing. The truth is, most feelings, be they pleasant, unpleasant or neutral, are as the Buddha described, like effervescent bubbles – impermanent and insubstantial, easily formed, but also easily popped and replaced with new ones. Cling to fleeting feelings and you will suffer. Just watch to know and see their transient nature and one regains composure. I still don’t know how to tell that to the kid. Looks like the usual reasoning, reassuring and coaxing with hugs and kisses will have to do for now.

Because of our unresolved feelings for Samsara,
we have returned to it.
Do we return out of compassion or delusion?

~ Stonepeace

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One Response to “A Toddler’s Encounter With A ‘New’ Emotion”

  1. Maybe can try to “turn” his jealousy into responsibility. Tell him that he is the elder brother and he has the responsibility to love and look after the younger sister, e.g we can tell him that the baby sister is still young and cannot talk or look after herself. His mother will have a lot of work looking after the baby which is the same thing that his mother has done when he was a baby. So if he hears the baby sister cries, he should immediately inform his mother so that the mother can attend to his baby sister’s needs. He should also help his mother where possible to lessen the workload for his mother, e.g. help to get the diaper for his mother when his mother needs to change it for his baby sister. Don’t forget to praise him for being a good brother. In this way, he will feel that he has a role to play in looking after the sister and can develop his sense of altruism and responsibility. He will slowly develop the feeling of love for his sister too as he assumes the responsibility of looking after her. I think the medicine to cure jealousy is compassion. We may not be able to help develop his compassion yet but we can definitely start by developing his sense of responsibility. Later he will enjoy the sense of altruism and the good feeling when helping people.

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