How to Explain Jealousy to a Child
The green-eyed monster of jealousy has a way of creeping up on the best of us. In fact, jealousy can arise in children starting as young as the age of 3 months, according to Maria Legerstee, a psychology professor at York University. While it is an emotion easily felt and often expressed — say through a toddler acting out when mom cuddles with another baby or a preschooler throwing a temper tantrum when a sibling receives a special reward — the concept of jealousy is sometimes tricky when trying to explain to a young child. One approach to explaining jealousy uses snack time as a means to start up a conversation with your kiddo about how she's feeling.
Invite your child to enjoy a piece of cake with you (or any other snack that can be portioned). Cut a generous portion for yourself, complete with pretty decorations, but serve your child a very small, plainer piece. If your child mentions the difference or seems upset by the time you are both finished with the cake, ask how it made her feel. She might use more familiar emotion words, such as “mad” to describe her feelings to you.
Acknowledge her feelings and explain to her that what she is feeling is called jealousy, which typically occurs when someone has something that she doesn’t have.
Make sure your child knows that she is not alone: Everyone feels jealous sometimes, even mommy and daddy feel it, like when someone's got a fabulous new car or fantastic new haircut. Offer other examples of jealousy -- maybe a friend has a new toy that your toddler particularly covets -- and reassure her that these feelings are perfectly normal.
Explain to your child that while jealousy is normal, it shouldn't be a long-lasting emotion. Don't dismiss her and tell her to get over it. Instead, tell your child that she can come to you for help and guidance when she is feeling jealous, since it's something everyone experiences now and again.
Make a booklet of emotions together by drawing a picture on each page and writing the matching words on the pages -- it doesn't have to be perfect, but it helps your toddler gain the emotional vocabulary she needs to manage tough emotions. Include words such as happy, sad, mad, scared, jealous or silly. Review the booklet together and ask her to share the appropriate emotion pages with you throughout the day, even if you're trying to finish a phone call, and especially when she is upset.
Give her ways to overcome jealousy. Have her create a list of everything for which she is thankful, for example, such as her bunny, her cool new toy or her fabulous parents.
According to Dr. Sybil Hart, Ph.D., C.R. Hutcheson Professor of Human Development and Family Studies at Texas Tech University, “Jealousy is a characteristic that has long been undesirable and detrimental, actually it is part of normal development and may be indicative of healthy parent-child relationships.”
- Texas Tech University: The Little Green-eyed Monster
- Parenting Counts: The Five Steps of Emotion Coaching
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