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. Moreover, when we name a child's internal state we free him from the necessity of trying to make his feelings known to us through his behavior. In other words, naming feelings and acknowledging them as normal (if sometimes unpleasant) helps the child let go of them and move on. Saying "It sounds like you're jealous...", or one of the variations on the feeling "Seems like you feel cheated / envious / resentful..." can help the child talk through his feelings and come to a more accepting state of mind.
There is a line, however, which when crossed may require that you call upon a sense of judgement and establish boundaries for your child. That line gets crossed when she starts behaving unacceptably because she's jealous. If, for example, your child pinches her baby brother because she's jealous, or steals a friend's toy out of envy, or refuses to take his friend's phone calls because his friend scored higher on a test, then we must set limits on the behavior so that no one comes to physical or emotional harm.
When setting limits on behavior that arises from the feeling of jealousy, it's important to separate the two states for the child. In other words, give a consequence for the pinching, not because your child "should love her baby brother and not feel jealous." In fact, it's wise to incorporate an empathetic stance with the limit to help your child understand why you're upset. You might say something like "It seems like you're feeling jealous of your brother. It can be hard to have someone else in the house that takes up some of my energy. And people are not for pinching. Either tell me you're feeling jealous instead of pinching, or I'll have to take your brother into the other room with me away from you to keep him safe."
Clearly, the more serious the behavior, the more serious the consequences that should accompany it. So if your child steals out of jealousy, an appropriate consequence might be that he has to pay for the toy from his own money or return the toy accompanied by a public apology.
If the behavior is more passive, then it's possible to simply explore different solutions with your child. For example, if your son isn't speaking to a friend because the friend got a higher test score, you might want to help him explore whether his behavior is helping him feel better or worse about his friendship and himself, and ask him if he can think of a different way to handle it that will preserve the friendship.
When children hear that jealousy is normal, they feel less of a need to communicate that feeling with negative behaviors. And while it's important to set limits on inappropriate behaviors, doing so while giving our children insight into their feeling of jealousy will ultimately make them better able to handle this "green-eyed monster" in the future.