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Understanding Jealousy and Envy in Children

Updated: Jan 31

A cute little boy expressing the emotion of jealousy and envy, in the style of a flat digital illustration, pastel dark blue and purple as main colour

The Emotional Landscape

Jealousy is a normal human emotion that can reveal anger, possessiveness, or attention-seeking behavior. It stems from feelings of insecurity, competition, and the fear of losing what is already possessed. On the other hand, envy pertains to our desire for things we don't have. While envy involves coveting, jealousy is about safeguarding what we perceive as ours. Thus, children may experience jealousy and envy, especially when a new sibling enters the picture. It is crucial to address these emotions in a child's development to ensure their social and emotional well-being.

Functional Aspects of Jealousy and Envy

Jealousy and envy, when managed appropriately, serve a purpose in protecting ourselves and our relationships. Although uncomfortable, these emotions should not be ignored or avoided. Instead, they contribute to our social intelligence and help shape our decision-making skills. However, problems arise when jealousy and envy are allowed to persist and lead to negative behaviors that hinder a child's growth and social-emotional development.

Neurological Underpinnings

From a scientific perspective, scholars suggest that jealousy and envy involve the brain's left frontal cortex, responsible for emotions like shame, as well as the dopamine system, which regulates happiness and reward. Jealousy can trigger the body's stress response, resulting in physiological reactions such as increased stress hormone levels, elevated blood pressure, and accelerated heart rate.

Identifying and Addressing Jealousy and Envy in Children

It is important to recognize signs of jealousy and envy in children, which can sometimes be subtle, such as imitating or complaining about another child they envy, or displaying oversensitivity in certain situations. In more severe cases, jealousy and envy can manifest as bullying or possessiveness. Additionally, anger and anxiety may accompany these feelings, and young children may mistakenly interpret them as sadness or frustration.

It is essential to address these emotional challenges in children and provide appropriate guidance to help them navigate jealousy and envy constructively, fostering their emotional intelligence and well-being.

Transitional Challenges: Sibling Rivalry and Peer Interactions

Jealousy and envy can manifest during the development of children. The introduction of a new sibling or interaction with peers in an environment that encourages sharing can trigger jealousy. Siblings may experience jealousy as a result of divided parental attention and frequent disagreements with friends. Navigating these challenging transitions and experiences can be difficult for parents, but with thoughtful consideration and a gentle approach, children can navigate these experiences and learn valuable lessons.

Fostering a Supportive Environment

As parents, it is crucial to respond in a way that fosters confidence in our children. By discussing emotions such as jealousy and envy, we can help our children acknowledge and manage their feelings effectively.

Celebrating Individuality

Sibling jealousy is a natural response when a new child enters the family space that was once exclusive to them. It is important to avoid comparing our children socially, physically, emotionally, or academically. Each child is unique and has their own strengths. Instead, we should celebrate their differences, recognize their gifts and interests, and emphasize individuality.

Peer Jealousy: A Call for Validation and Understanding

Children may also experience jealousy among their peers. They might compare what they lack with what their friends have, or feel left out when others receive more attention. Although their reasons for feeling jealous may not always make sense to us, it is essential to validate their feelings and avoid dismissing their concerns. By acknowledging their hurt and confusion and helping them make sense of it, we make them feel valued and heard.

Material Envy and Achievement-Oriented Jealousy

Addressing Material Envy

Jealousy related to possessions is common among children. They may observe what their peers have, such as the newest toys or trendy shoes, and wonder why they don't possess the same things. Instead of disregarding expressions of jealousy or envy, it is important to recognize these as teachable moments for both parent and child.

Milestones and Achievements

Jealousy can arise from accomplishments, but it's important to remember that each child reaches milestones at their own pace. Instead of pointing out flaws, focus on reinforcing your child's strengths and unique achievements. Be aware of how you discuss others in your child's presence, as moments of jealousy provide opportunities to model effective responses to this feeling.

Building Resilience: Strategies to Navigate Jealousy and Envy

Promoting Self-Awareness and Empathy

When jealousy and envy go unacknowledged or unaddressed, they can become powerful and toxic emotions that affect relationships, self-esteem, and mental health in the long run.

Building a strong sense of self is crucial when dealing with jealousy or envy. Help your child recognize their personal strengths and highlight their achievements by providing specific feedback. By shifting the focus to feelings rather than behavior, you can acknowledge and validate the hurt and confusion your child may be experiencing.

Practicing Appreciation

Practicing appreciation for others' accomplishments is an important skill to model for your child. Demonstrating empathy when you feel jealous yourself sends a powerful message.

Naming Emotions and Open Conversations

Giving a name to feelings of jealousy or envy can help your child identify and control their emotions in the moment. Encourage them to express themselves by saying, "I feel jealous" or "I feel envious."

Additionally, sharing your own insecurities and stories with your child can create a safe space for open conversations about jealousy and self-worth. Consider sharing a personal experience where you encountered emotions of jealousy or envy. Provide an opportunity for others to assist you in navigating these challenging feelings. Be open to the unexpected suggestions they may offer.


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