When Your Child is Feeling Envious or Jealous

When Your Child is Feeling Envious or Jealous

27 December 2022 • Words by Elle Walsh 5 mins

Jealousy, like all emotions, is a normal human response. It can be an expression of anger or possessiveness or provoke attention-seeking behavior. At its core, jealousy is about insecurity, a sense of competition, and the fear of possibly losing someone or something you already have. It is this deep feeling of not being enough and usually presents itself when a person’s value is threatened. Envy, on the other hand, refers to wanting things we don’t have but would like to have. In short, feeling envious is coveting, and feeling jealous is about protecting what is yours, or what you think is yours. So, in light of child development, children are likely to feel jealousy and envy. A new sibling, for example, can significantly provoke both of these emotions in our children. We will explore more about this later.

Jealousy and envy as feelings alone are not a problem. These emotional responses are healthy in childhood and have an important function in terms of protecting the self and our relationships. Although not pleasant, these emotions are not to be ignored or avoided. They are important for us to feel, as they build our social intelligence and inform our future decision-making processes. However, problems arise when jealousy and envy are given the space to hang around and grow, encouraging profoundly negative responses that can be detrimental to a child’s development and social-emotional learning.

The Science Behind Jealousy and Envy

Scientists suspect that the brain’s left frontal cortex, which deals with emotions like shame, is involved when jealousy or envy strikes, along with the dopamine system that regulates the chemical associated with happiness or reward. Jealousy might kick-start the body’s stress response and physiological responses can be an overflow of stress hormones, spiked blood pressure, and increased heart rate. It is important to recognize the common signs of jealousy and envy in our children. Sometimes they can be very subtle.

For example, complaining about or copying another child that they may feel envious toward, or oversensitivity around certain activities or environments. Other times the signs can present themselves in more obvious behavior, like bullying or possessiveness. Other emotions can also be associated with jealousy and envy, such as anger and anxiety, and as the feelings of envy and jealousy can be new for young children, they may often confuse them with sadness and frustration. 

Jealousy and Envy as Children Develop

In child development, the first sense of jealousy can occur when a new baby arrives on the scene or when a child begins to interact and socialize with other children their age in an environment that encourages shared attention and toys. These experiences provoke jealousy within sibling and social relationships as a parent’s love and affection get divided with the arrival of a sibling and children may have more frequent disagreements with friends. Navigating these transitions and experiences is some of the most challenging aspects of parenting, but with careful thought and a gentle approach, children are able to move through these experiences and learn some lessons along the way.

How Can We Respond as Parents to Build Confidence in Our Kids?

It’s important when we explore tough emotions such as jealousy and envy to talk so our kids will listen. Let’s look at some of the main reasons our children may feel jealous or envious and how the words we choose can help kids acknowledge and manage their feelings.

Sibling Jealousy

This will be a natural response to a new child in the space that was once theirs alone. It is important to try not to compare our children socially, physically, emotionally, or academically. Each of our children is unique and has their own strengths. Instead, try to celebrate their differences and notice each child’s gifts and interests.

Jealousy among Peers

Children can sometimes compare themselves with their friends. They might compare what they don’t have with what their friends do have, or perhaps talk about feeling left out when peers are getting more attention. This can be upsetting for children and they may come up with somewhat illogical reasons to justify their jealousy. Even when those reasons don’t make much sense to us, it is crucial to avoid brushing off their reasons for comparing themselves with their friends, and instead, acknowledge those feelings. You don’t have to agree with your child; recognizing their hurt and confusion and helping them make sense of it all will leave them feeling valued and heard.

Jealousy around Possessions

It is common for children to see what other children have—perhaps the newest toy or latest style of cool shoes—and wonder why it is not the same for them. Rather than dismissing expressions of jealousy or envy when your child notices what a peer has, be mindful of these as great teaching moments for you and life-learning moments for your children. Acknowledging your child’s feelings creates a space for dialogue around how all families do things differently and is a lovely opportunity for you to capture your own family in the light it deserves. Explore what makes your family special.

Jealousy around Achievement

Another aspect of jealousy can stem from achievement. It is important to remember that each child reaches different milestones at different times. Try not to point out flaws in your child; instead, reinforce their strengths and achievements as being unique to their own development. Also, be mindful of how you yourself talk about others in your child’s presence. Try to notice the moments when you feel a rush of jealousy, as these can be wonderful opportunities to model how to respond more effectively to that “green-eyed monster.”

Six Parenting Hacks to Help Your Child Deal with Feeling Jealous or Envious

When jealousy and envy are never acknowledged or discussed, and children are not helped to understand these feelings, they can actually be endowed with more power and grow toxic as children develop into adulthood. These intense feelings can negatively impact future relationships and a person’s self-esteem and can seriously affect a person’s mental health, leading to distrust and paranoia.

Connect them to their strengths

A strong sense of self is a huge asset when feeling jealous or envious, as this tends to be the first element that fades into the background. Children move quickly from “Something is missing” to “I am enough” when you direct them to their personal strengths. When you notice they did something well, highlight how they did it well: “Ah, you completed it! I noticed you were so patient when you couldn’t find that last jigsaw piece!”

Focus on feelings, not behavior

Jealousy is a tough emotion to combat. It causes discomfort and can be hard to control. Rather than criticizing your child for acting out in frustration about what another child has that they don’t have, acknowledge the hurt and confusion your child must be feeling.

Practice elevating yourself and others

Notice opportunities when you are able to appreciate another’s accomplishments. Model this for your child and send the message that it is important to be empathetic when it’s tough and you’re feeling a little jealous.

Give feeling jealous or envious a name for your child

Help your child recognize that surge of jealousy or envy in the moment by giving the words to name their feelings—“I’m jealous” or “I’m envious.” Knowing how to identify and name feelings helps children to be more in control of their emotions and reactions.

Share your own stories

Be mindful of your words and behavior around your child and share your own insecurities with them. Perhaps share a situation with them in which you experienced feelings of jealousy or envy, and give them an opportunity to help you with your tough feelings. You may be surprised by the suggestions they come up with.

Use Moshi

The Moshi app is a great tool to help parents explain tough emotions to their children in a way they’ll understand. Through whimsical characters and narration designed specifically with kids in mind, it’s the perfect tool to have in your pocket at all times. Specifically for envy and jealousy, check out Understanding Jealousy with Buster and Fifi. It’s a short but fun Moshi Moment where Buster Bumblechops helps Fifi (an Oochie Poochie) deal with feelings of jealousy by explaining the power of gratitude, empathy and much more.

Elle Walsh