How to Help a Jealous Child

Let’s be clear from the get-go what we are talking about here. If you are searching for how to help a jealous child, it is important to be clear what the goal is. Do you want to keep the child from feeling jealousy? Or are you trying to help a child who is feeling jealous handle that feeling? The strategies for one or the other are quite different.

Jealousy is a valid emotion

Before we go forward, let’s take a look at the emotion. Jealousy. In our society, jealousy is not an emotion to be proud of. In fact, as a parent, we might feel like we are failing if we see our children experiencing jealousy. Perhaps we attach the feeling to envy, or greed. With this negative connection, it is no wonder that we want to find a way to get it out of our kids.

However, before you can really move forward to assist your child with jealousy, you need to confront your own feelings about it. Do you think that your child’s feelings are valid? That he shouldn’t be experiencing jealousy? Perhaps you think that he is feeling entitled, and that jealousy is a product of a greater problem? Perhaps you worry about what this jealousy will mean for him as he gets older.

Regardless, you need to stop whatever you are thinking, and return to one vital principle.

Your child’s feelings are valid.

Yes, you need to commit to the idea, concept, the statement, that your child’s feelings are valid. The fact is, your child is having this feeling. It doesn’t mean that the feeling is right, socially acceptable, or based in logic. Feelings are feelings, and we have them. if you can’t accept that your child’s feelings are valid, you will struggle to help him overcome them.

Once you have let go of your judgments about anxieties about the jealousy, it becomes much easier for you to handle it.

Where is the jealousy coming from?

The next step in handling the jealousy is looking for the cause. I’m not talking about the specifics of this toy or that toy. Oftentimes our children express emotions about situations that are actually associated with something else. A child who has a new baby in the house may be completely disordered because of the baby, but may take out those feelings on the playground far away from home and the new sibling.

But then again, sometimes jealousy is as simple as that boy has a cool toy, and he wants one too.

As a parent, can try to address the root cause of the jealousy by changing up the environment, so that the cause of the jealousy doesn’t occur. Maybe, you make changes to your schedule or your routine with a new baby to help involve the older sibling. Or perhaps you give both siblings the same toy instead of giving it to one of your children.

However, I don’t recommend JUST preventing jealousy. I take that position that if you are not helping the child process the emotion, and focus instead on prevention, your child won’t develop the skills he needs to handle it. But knowing where the jealousy comes from will help you greatly in helping your child understand it and process it.

Once you understand the cause, you can prepare a cure

“Handling” jealousy doesn’t necessarily mean stopping your child from feeling it. I would argue that experiencing jealousy (along with all of the other emotions adults also experience, such as pain, fear, anger, frustration, sadness) is a vital experience for a young person. Ultimately, adults experience jealousy. If we don’t give them a chance to experience jealousy as a child, there’s literally NO chance that they will handle it in an appropriate manner as an adult

If you’ve looked carefully at the situations where jealousy has reared its ugly head and determined that the root cause is a simple desire to have what another child has, the solution is not to stop the jealousy. Instead, the focus should be on helping your child process and experience the emotion. Your child may not even know that what he is feeling has a name.

When you see your child having what appears to be a jealous moment, one of the first things you should do (once he is calm again) is to sit down with him to talk about it. If he is still deep in the emotion (like crying because he doesn’t have what he wants), I wouldn’t advise trying to “teach” him anything at that moment. If a child is deep in emotional chaos, the learning parts of his brain are turned off, and your words will slide right off of him.

But later, you should talk to him. In this chat (perhaps while doing something else that he enjoys), try to:

  • Review what you observed (and not your conclusions). I saw that Peter had the green hornet toy. I saw that you went over to the toy and tried to take it from Peter. I saw that Peter ran away. I saw you cry.
  • See if you can get him to talk about it at all. But don’t be surprised if he doesn’t discuss it with you. If he is little, he might not have the words. If he is bigger, he just might feel uncomfortable about the whole situation.
  • Talk with him about the emotions he might have felt. Help describe what the emotions might have felt like, and give names to them. Don’t judge him for having them. Anger. Frustration. Jealousy. Naming them and giving him the names for what he is feeling is actually a huge step in learning how to handle them. One of the biggest issues for a child who is new to experiencing these emotions is that he doesn’t know what is happening to him when the emotions come. He doesn’t understand why it is happening. However, I want you to try and avoid telling him what he felt. If he was crying, don’t call the emotion “sadness” unless he tells you he was sad. People cry for all kinds of reasons, including when they are angry or frustrated. Or jealous. Describe what the various emotions feel like, and give some examples of how people might come to feel them. Let him make up his own mind about what was happening to him.
  • Tell him that his emotions (even the negative ones), are okay. I have seen parents bungle this a lot out on the playground. They manage to get the child to tell them how they are feeling, but instead of acknowledging the feeling, they say something like, “Well, I’m sorry you feel that way.” This tells the child that she shouldn’t be feeling what she feels, like as a child, she has any control over it. Instead, you can say, “I’m sorry, it must be hard to feel that way.” This acknowledges that the child is having a tough time, and is having tough emotions, without communicating any sort of judgment you have about the validity of the feeling.

In just about every case, the best way to help a child through jealous feelings is not to try and change something inside of your child that leads to jealousy. Jealousy is a natural emotion. We ALL feel it at some point in our lives. There’s nothing wrong with your child for feeling jealous.

Instead, what we can give them is the toolkit for addressing the emotion. Help them understand the feeling, and give name to it. Once the child understand what he is feeling, you can move forward with coping strategies. These are often the same for any big feelings. When a child feels overwhelming jealousy, it is okay for the child to:

  • experience the feeling
  • cry
  • employ coping/calm down strategies such as deep breaths or counting
  • tell you about it
  • tell the other child about it
  • talk about it later
  • try and brainstorm solutions to the problem

If you have truly accepted the principle that your child’s feelings are valid, you will find that jealousy is much easier to handle. You won’t waste your energy on trying to stop the feeling from occurring.

If you employ this strategy, I can’t promise you that you will solve the jealousy problem right away. In fact, I can tell you that your child will still experience jealousy. As parents, we are playing the long game. What you are doing by approaching jealousy in this way is helping him develop the skills he’ll need to handle jealousy later in life. And not just jealousy, but all the other overwhelming and unfamiliar big feelings. You might not see the fruits of your labor until your child is a teenager (or much older). But you will, eventually., and you’ll pat yourself on the back for being awesome.

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