I once had three students who tried out for travel soccer in sixth grade. After only one made the team, the other two spread a lie, saying that the girl had made the team only because her uncle was the coach. It wasn’t the first time in my job as a school counselor that I’ve seen kids engage in damaging behavior because of jealousy.
At its core, jealousy is about insecurity, fear or a sense of competition, explains Lea Waters, a psychology professor at the University of Melbourne and author of “The Strength Switch.” “It’s a feeling of ‘I’m not enough; something is lacking.’ ”
This could be physical appearance, number of Instagram followers or a feeling that “my friend doesn’t have this annoying thing I have to deal with,” says Adam Pletter, a psychologist and founder of iParent 101. That might be an unstable home life or a learning challenge.
The emotion has been around forever, notes Richard Weissbourd, director of the Making Caring Common project at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “The Greeks wrote about it. Shakespeare wrote about it. It’s in the Bible.”
That said, kids may struggle more today than their parents did. “They’re receiving so many messages on a daily basis from society and peers that point out their flaws and failures,” says Sameer Hinduja, a professor of criminology and criminal justice at Florida Atlantic University and co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center. “For youth who are trying to figure out how to be okay with themselves, this takes an emotional toll.” It also can lead to poor choices. As Hinduja points out, research implicates jealousy as one of the top motivators behind cyberbullying.
But there’s no point trying to vanquish the emotion. “In some ways, when we scrub away dark feelings it actually endows them with more power,” says Lisa Damour, a psychologist and author of “Untangled.” Instead, here are nine ways parents can help their children recognize and respond constructively to jealous feelings.
“I tell my daughter my own stories,” says Claire Shipman, author of “The Confidence Code for Girls.” “I’ll say, ‘There was this woman who made me feel a little jealous because she had so much energy, but this is how I got through it, and her life doesn’t have any bearing on mine.’ ”
Parents may need to pay attention to their own behavior. “If you’re finding that you’re critical of people, especially when something good happens to them, that might be a sign you need to deal with your jealousy,” Weissbourd says. It’s easier to lob insults than to acknowledge deficiencies, but that can mask the message behind the emotion.
Prompt your child to ask: “What is the feeling telling me? How can I deal with it in a healthy way?” Otherwise, jealousy can begin to justify resentment and aggression. “A child might think, ‘I’m annoyed by that person, and I’m going to find out if others don’t like that person, too, because if they don’t, then I have a right to feel this ugly feeling,’ ” Hinduja says.
When you tell a child that jealousy isn’t always rational, “the relief on their face is tremendous,” Damour says. The emotion causes discomfort, but it’s hard to control. She advises parents to say, “Okay, your first reaction may be petty, but what matters is that you conduct yourself with dignity. Don’t point out that person’s flaws to other people or try to make things harder for them.” You can’t legislate feelings, but draw a hard line around behavior, starting with siblings. Say, “I’m sure your sister makes you crazy, and you may think and feel that — but you can’t hurt her.”
“Children go from ‘Something is missing’ to ‘I am enough’ when you connect them to their strengths,” says Waters, the psychology professor. “When they do well, say, ‘I saw you bringing in your planning,’ or ‘You were really creative.’ ”
If a child feels left out, Waters will ask them to tell her about a friendship that makes them feel good. She then calls attention to the kindness, humor or other positive traits they bring to that relationship. “If a friend doesn’t want them, help them use their strengths to connect with those who do.”
In hypercompetitive environments, it’s especially important to build a child’s self-worth, Weissbourd says. “In some communities, the only measures of success are, are you good at sports? Are you strong academically? Are you popular?” If a child isn’t doing well on one of those measures, they might feel jealous of those who are. That’s when parents can stress their character strengths. “We need to find ways to celebrate kids who are feisty, engaged, soulful or spirited but who may not be great athletes or scholars,” he says.
One teen was so afraid of missing out, she used Instagram Live to talk all night to friends having a sleepover, says Pletter of iParent 101. This backfired because she was trying too hard. “She was targeted in subtle ways,” he says. The girls would go off camera, then say her name to provoke her interest. When they had her attention, they would talk about all the fun they were planning — without her.
To fight FOMO, Pletter urges parents to have ongoing conversations with their children about both their online and offline social lives, and to help them stay busy doing activities they enjoy. As Hinduja says, “You want to be out there doing things, and not just watching and creeping on others as they live their lives.” You may need to help your child control their social media exposure if everyone else’s perfectly curated lives are making them miserable.
Come up with a funny name for the jealousy to help kids understand that it’s not who they are; it’s simply an uncomfortable but fleeting emotion. “Parents can coach a kid to say, ‘Oh look, Jane the Jealousy is back, but I’ve got my own strengths and can let her pass,’ ” Waters explains. “The persona acts as a circuit breaker in that micro-moment when a child is most likely to do something that could hurt their reputation or a friendship.”
“It’s a painful reality that some people have happy, loving families, and some don’t; some have money, and some don’t,” Waters says. “Address the real lack. Connect the young person to what they do have and offer role models of others who overcame a similar hardship.” This can be a celebrity or someone in their community.
“As a teen, you look at others and think, ‘Wow, they have everything,’ but no one has the perfect life,” she says. She recently heard a well-liked principal share a personal story that seemed to resonate with his students. “He told them that when he was in middle school, his parents got divorced, and he took it hard and didn’t behave well.”
“If you want the relationship to survive, it’s important to share your feelings with that person,” says Rachel Simmons, author of “Enough as She Is.” When you strip away the shame and secrecy, it takes a weight off the friendship. She advises kids to say: “I really care about you, and I feel embarrassed about being so jealous. I feel like if I don’t say something, it’s not going to be good for our friendship, so I want you to know.’ ”
Don’t make comments such as, “Why aren’t you more like Max?” Even a positive comparison can backfire. “If my daughter says, ‘Oh look, I beat Zoe in this, so that means I’m better,’ she’s building false confidence,” author Shipman says. “It’s like whipped cream — not very stable.”
Remind your child that everyone is unique, and they should be the best version of themselves. “That’s it,” Hinduja says. “We’re always looking to others to give us our value and worth, to tell us we’re beautiful or successful. But once we give them the power to validate us, we give them the power to invalidate us.”
When Weissbourd was a coach, he encouraged kids to acknowledge the strengths of players on opposing teams. “When you get in the habit of appreciating others’ accomplishments, it leads to better, deeper relationships,” he says. “We have to send the message that it’s not only important to be empathetic when it’s easy but also when it’s hard — and it’s hard when you’re jealous.”
Urge your child to befriend their perceived competition and log acts of kindness in a journal. As they get to know someone better, they’ll see that perception doesn’t always match reality. “That perfect girl might be utterly depressed,” Shipman says. “What’s resonated for my daughter is the idea that you don’t know what’s going on behind someone’s facade. The most powerful thing you can do is break through and discover someone’s humanity and vulnerabilities.”
*This article was first published in the Washington Post.
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Phyllis L. Fagell, LCPC is a therapist at Chrysalis Group in Bethesda and the counselor at Sheridan School, a National School of Character in Washington, D.C. She also writes about parenting, counseling and education for The Washington Post. Phyllis is the author of the book “Middle School Matters” (forthcoming, Da Capo Press, 2019). She tweets @pfagell and blogs at www.phyllisfagell.com.