Jealousy, that "green eyed monster", has been written about for centuries. It has been called "cruel as the grave" and a "jaundice of the soul." Perhaps, then, it is no wonder that many parents feel so alarmed when their children exhibit this much-despised feeling. Especially when children seem to feel jealous so easily, and over such "trivial" things: a toy belonging to another child; a parent's attention, a high test score earned by a friend. Confronted with a child's jealousy most parents work to eliminate it, to explain why the child shouldn't feel jealous and how the feeling is really unjustified under the circumstances. However, this tact often causes children to take the feeling "underground" which does nothing to diminish or get rid of it and, in fact, often causes a feeling of resentment in the child.
So what's the solution? First, it's important to recognize that jealousy as a feeling is neither bad nor good. It simply is. All people since the beginning of history have felt jealous. Likewise, a child's jealousy is no less justified than the jealousies felt by adults. It simply seems less justifiable because, as adults, our perspective is different from that of a child. But putting yourself in your child's shoes, and perhaps even comparing the things that are important in her world with something similar in yours may result in a greater understanding about the feeling of jealousy.
For example, have you ever felt as though your spouse or partner seems distracted and emotionally unavailable? Perhaps it's not so different for your child when you're tired because you've been up all night with his baby brother. Or did you ever go to a friend's country home and wish longingly that you could afford one too? How dissimilar is it, then, when your child wishes for a toy belonging to another child? Or what about when someone whom you believe to be less deserving gets promoted ahead of you at work? Perhaps your child feels the same about the test she worked hard to study for, only to have her friend get a better grade.
Sometimes, translating the things that are important to children into the similar circumstances we might experience as adults helps us to be more empathetic and less judgmental of our child's feelings. And it is empathy and lack of criticism that are the keys to helping children gain perspective of their own and diminish jealous feelings.
Telling parents to empathize with their child's feeling of jealousy, however, is tricky. Many parents worry that just acknowledging the feeling of jealousy - naming it - verbalizing it - not to mention empathizing with it will in some way condone it. As if to say "It sounds like you're jealous" means "It's good (or right) to feel that way." Still other parents carry this one step further and become concerned that acknowledging this intense feeling will give their child permission to behave inappropriately because he feels jealous.
Feelings and behavior are two very different things, however. Feelings are an internal state, while behavior is external.