As a mom of two, it has been a baptism by fire to see my children start to compare themselves to their classmates. My daughter came home from school the other day and said, “Mom? Gracie says she can skip eight monkey bars and I can’t skip any.”
Of course Gracie can’t really skip eight monkey bars – she’s a child, not Stretch Armstrong – but the conversation gave me pause because it was the first time I noticed my seven-year-old comparing herself to her friends.
It doesn’t matter if you give your children everything in the world – at some point, they’re going to experience jealousy. This is because jealousy isn’t really about how many things a person does or doesn’t have. You may not be able to entirely eliminate it, but you can teach your kids to handle the negative emotions, and help them foster a positive opinion of themselves and the world around them.
The Dangers of Jealousy
Many adults deal with jealousy on a regular basis. Whether you find yourself feeling envious of your friend’s seemingly perfect marriage or your wealthy sister’s bank account, life can often seem like a competition. Luckily, many adults have learned to deal with their jealousy in a healthy way, eliminating some of it, or at least preventing it from poisoning relationships and negatively impacting life.
Unfortunately, kids dealing with jealousy are new to the emotion and may not know what to do. If left unchecked, jealousy can lead to dire consequences, such as:
- Lowered self-esteem
- Aggression toward other kids
- A feeling of helplessness
Common Causes of Jealousy
To help your child deal with envy, talk with him or her about the most common sources of jealousy.
1. Material Jealousy
“But Mom, I’m the only one in my class without an Xbox.” Does this plea sound familiar? That’s probably because material jealousy is one of the first types to develop. After all, toddlers don’t think twice about stealing a toy they want from a playmate. Luckily, once kids are enrolled in school and start understanding societal norms, they usually stop stealing what they want from their peers – but that doesn’t stop them from pining away for the goods other kids have.
When material jealousy arises, help your children understand that different families have different standards of living and different monetary priorities. Furthermore, most families – globally speaking – aren’t nearly as wealthy as families in the United States. Try to foster a broader perspective so children can feel grateful for what they do have.
Also, try to shift the focus away from material goods and onto the non-monetary riches your family provides. Perhaps you’re able to spend more time with your kids because of your flexible work schedule. Or, maybe you live in a rural area without a trendy mall, but with fresh air and land to roam. Whatever it is that your children have, teach them to value it instead of comparing themselves to others. An awareness of and gratitude for the riches they already have in their lives can serve them for years to come.
Use instances of material jealousy as an opportunity to teach kids about saving money for big purchases. If your child complains that he or she doesn’t have the most popular brand of running shoes, give him or her the chance to perform chores to earn an allowance to buy the shoes. When my kids start saving for a special item, my husband and I offer to match our kids’ contributions so that saving seems less intimidating. This provides extra incentive to work hard for their purchases, instilling responsibility and a strong work ethic.
You may also want to use your child’s jealousy as a catalyst for volunteerism. By serving at a soup kitchen or organizing a toy drive, you can teach your children to respect those who are less fortunate, and in turn see how fortunate they are.
2. Academic or Skills Jealousy
When your child is jealous of a peer’s academic or athletic skills, it can affect your child’s own performance. After all, what’s the point in trying hard on a test if Molly is always going to score higher? Why try out for the basketball team when Brad is clearly the star player? Feeling jealous of another child’s skills can make your own child feel inept and discount his or her own unique traits.
In these situations, it’s your job to encourage ownership and responsibility for personal effort and talent. Allow your child to vent about jealous feelings, then gently point out personal, positive characteristics that he or she has. For instance, if your child struggles in team sports, but excels as an individual competitor, point out that “Yes, Molly is good at soccer, but you’ve been working really hard on your gymnastics. I’m proud of you.”
You can also focus your attention on your child’s effort, rather than comparing his or her performance to that of others. The fact is, while not every kid can be the star quarterback, everyone can practice and work hard to improve. What’s more, sports and school allow children to make friends, develop teamwork, and learn personal improvement. By focusing on these traits, you teach your child that being the best isn’t the point – it’s being the best you can be.
Another method for dealing with feelings of jealousy is to help your child improve in the areas in which he or she feels inadequate. If jealousy is arising because of a class math whiz, private math tutoring (or simply making sure homework is completed) might be exactly what your child needs to catch up and feel more confident.
3. Social Jealousy
As children grow up, social drama becomes more and more prevalent. Whether your daughter feels left out because her friends had a sleepover without her, or your son is envious of another kid’s popularity, social constraints that didn’t exist in the early years suddenly pop up everywhere.
The first rule of thumb for parents dealing with social jealousy is to never discount your child’s feelings. After all, while you might not think drama over cafeteria seating is an issue, it might mean the world to your kids. Give your child room to talk by asking questions that require more than a standard “yes” or “no” answer.
Once your child starts spilling the beans, be understanding. Try saying, “I can see how that would make you feel left out.” Then, offer real suggestions to help your child overcome those jealous feelings, such as hosting a more inclusive sleepover, or joining a club or team at school to build friendships. Or, let your child know that it’s okay to spend time alone. While your child may balk at these ideas at first, your support will help guide him or her to a more positive attitude.
4. Sibling Jealousy
Perhaps the trickiest form of jealousy is sibling jealousy. A jealous child can’t escape the constant presence of a sibling who seems more accomplished, cooler, or smarter, or who is more attention-seeking. Envy left unaddressed can fester and taint an otherwise healthy sibling relationship.
Sibling jealousy is completely normal, but parents can add fuel to the fire by using improper language or discipline. When you’re constantly admonishing your son to be “more like your sister,” you’re hardly fostering a spirit of sibling love. Instead, you’re telling your child that even you compare them, and that one of them is “winning.”
When dealing with siblings, highlight each child’s strengths and stop negative self-talk as soon as you hear it. Also, do your best to provide equal attention to your children. If one child takes up a lot of time for baseball games, schedule the same amount of time for another child’s interests – even if that means reading a book together or seeing an art exhibit as a family, rather than attending a game or match.
Remember, it’s your responsibility to celebrate your kids’ differences. Acknowledge each child’s unique attributes to avoid making it seem like you play favorites. Some parents struggle when one child has a personality much different from their own. If this sounds like you, challenge yourself to learn more about that child and to find something you can enjoy together – chances are he or she has a lot to teach you.
Fostering a sense of gratitude – an appreciation for material possessions, unique characteristics, and personal skills – can diminish many of the feelings of jealousy that children have. There are many ways to teach your child to be grateful:
- Using Positive Affirmations. Jealousy can pop up when a child doesn’t feel good about him- or herself. By finding opportunities to appropriately praise your children, you remind them that they’re indeed “good enough.”
- Nixing Negative Self-Talk. If you hear your child putting him- or herself down, stop the language in its tracks. For example, if your child calls him or herself “stupid” due to a challenging homework problem, look your child in the eye and say, “You may not understand your homework, but that doesn’t mean you’re stupid.” Point out strengths and remind your child that everyone is different. Then, work together to learn the material, enhancing his or her feelings of accomplishment.
- Focusing on Experiences. Jealousy may be a result of focusing too much on material goods. By opting for cool experiences – for instance, a trip to the museum or a short family vacation instead of a new video game – your child learns that there are more important things than “stuff.”
- Saying No. Giving in and buying your child everything he or she wants won’t stop jealousy. Instead, children can become consumed by the pursuit of accumulating things. By learning to say no, you can instill a sense of appreciation for the times when you say yes, which naturally teaches your child to value the things he or she receives.
- Practicing What You Preach. If you’re pining away for your neighbor’s new car, or constantly complaining about another person’s talents, money, or family, you’re teaching your child that it’s acceptable to nurse jealousy. Instead, model gratitude and a sense of self-worth by verbalizing your appreciation for the items and talents you do have. Nothing teaches your child better than the example you set.
Let’s face it: Jealousy is a natural human emotion, so there’s no way to shield your kids from it completely. Instead, teach children to stop comparing their weaknesses to another’s strengths. Understand and reassure your children as needed, but check your own habits to make sure you’re modeling a positive example. By showing gratitude for your own talents, family, and life, you teach your kids that it’s not about what you have, but what you do with it.
Do your kids ever get jealous? How do you deal?