Green With Envy

How to help your child with jealousy.

Posted Sep 29, 2018

A few years ago, I was at a water park with my twins, Jack and Jane. Jack ran to the sky-high water slide and flew down it. I looked around for Jane and found her in the corner crying. She saw me coming, looked at me tearfully, and exclaimed, “I want to go back to the room right now!” 

Confused and frustrated because we had just arrived, I reflected on the situation for a moment. It seemed Jane was jealous of Jack’s fearless approach to the giant water slide. 

Jealousy is an ugly emotion and when a parent sees their child display it, their first impulse is usually to scold the child. However, as a child psychotherapist and a mom, one of the beliefs I live by is that feelings are rarely wrong; it is how a human acts on their emotions that can be the problem. 

Feelings are the essence of who a human being is. Shaming a child for feeling the way he or she does actually strips the child of some of their sense-of-self. In addition, if a parent continually tells the child not feel the way they do, for example: don't be mad, don't be disappointed, don't worry, or don't be jealous, the child may stop talking to the parent when they are struggling with a tough emotion because the parent makes them feel worse. Research shows that kids who have a close relationship with a parent are less depressed and anxious. Being a parent your child wants to talk to is key. 

Obviously, jealousy is a feeling, so that day I knew I had to find a way to empathize with Jane’s feeling without condoning it or giving into a fit. 

So, I bent down to get close to her and I gently and empathically said, “It hurts when you see someone doing something you want to do, but feel like you can't yet. It's hard. I get it.”

She softened and came in for a hug. “But this never happens to you,” she muffled against my shoulder. 

As a very athletic and daring child, I feared I could not relate. Quickly, I snapped out of that narcissistic stance and I forced myself to think of a time when I felt like Jane did. 

After a few seconds, I remembered, and I told her a story. 

“When I was your age, your auntie Kelly and I were on a swim team together. Auntie Kelly was a great competitor and she won beautiful ribbons and awards after she raced. Yet, I was terrified of the starting gun and the noise it made, so I’d stand on the starting block at the start of a race and burst into tears. I'd have to climb down in front of everybody. I was too scared to race. It was awful."

Jane asked softly, “You were really scared?” 

"Yes, honey, I was really scared, and it hurt to not be able to do something I saw all of the other kids doing so easily. And I wanted a ribbon so badly. But after a year of trying, guess what? I finally did it.” 

Jane gave me a big hug, took my hand, and led me to the mammoth water slide. “I'm going to try,” she said. After two exciting hours, I had to drag her away from the water slide, proud and exhausted. 

If a child does not have insight to what they are feeling, they often act on their feelings inappropriately. For example, a child who isn't aware they feel jealous, may attempt to sabotage, bully, or exclude the person they are jealous of. 

Yet, when a parent has empathy and helps a child understand and make sense of what they are feeling, the child gains the ability to trust how they feel and use it to understand themselves and the world in a healthy way. Also, the parent and child remain close. 

It is important to remember that sympathy or feeling sorry for a child tempts parents to enable, give in, or avoid following through. This tends to create a victim mentality and sense of entitlement in the child. The healthier approach is to empathize and empower.

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