Jealous Children

Written by Dr. Sidney Langston

Jealousy in children is a fear that the affection of a significant other has been or will be diverted to someone else. The emotional security derived from the unlimited affection of the significant other is shattered or threatened by an actual or supposed rival. The less independence the child has achieved, the more significant and painful is the loss of emotional security. In the case of a child, the loss of security touches the soul’s lifeline and jealousy may lead to emotional disaster.

Jealousy is usually charged with tension which is released in a variety of ways. Hostility and aggression are the most common reactions, but jealousy may also be expressed in the more subtle form of devaluation of the perceived rival.

Children usually focus aggression on their rivals, but it may be directed towards the object of their affection or others who have a perceived relationship with their significant others. Another tactic is to withdraw favors from the significant other. For example, children may revert to bed wetting, encopresis (soiling themselves), or picky eating in an effort to get attention. Regressing to “baby talk” is another common attention-getting device.

Jealousy can also lead to severe dependency, a sense of inferiority and self-destructive tendencies that take the form of cutting or otherwise hurting themselves to gain attention. In addition, children may become negative, stubborn or even malicious. They may kick the cat, abuse property or hurt another child. Their lack of patience only aggravates the situation.

Children sometimes get the idea that if they become perfect children or perfect friends, they will possess all lovable qualities and therefore be readily acceptable to everyone. Paradoxically, they may withdraw their affection from significant others because they have the idea that if they love less, they will hurt less.

Remember, jealous children don’t intend to sabotage the family peace. Rather, they are the unhappy victims of emotional turmoil. You can help them by taking the following steps.

  • Work with your child to decrease their dependency while demonstrating affection and support.
  • Provide a safe, secure environment because this will increase your child’s sense of security and relatedness.
  • Offer unconditional love and affirmation. Children want to be loved for their mere existence, and not for special merits or achievements.
  • Assist your child to realistically assess and accept their self and to capitalize on their strengths. This will shift the focus of attention from their love object to a healthy focus on themselves and help them to become creative and productive.
  • If you observe jealousy in your children, sit down and talk with them about what they are feeling. Let them know that almost all children feel jealous at times and they don’t have to suffer alone. This provides necessary emotional relief and release from fear and tension. Help them to understand that even though they may feel left out at times, that is not your intention.
  • If a new baby is expected, prepare your child for this event. Help him to understand that changes in the household routine will be necessary, but this doesn’t mean that you care less for him.
  • Guide jealous children to define their value as well as their limitations. This will help them to gradually replace emotional evaluations and demands with rational and realistic ones.
  • Help your child define the role of each family member.  More understanding of the family system will result in increased emotional stability. It will also help your child to accept himself and stop trying to imitate older siblings or parents.

Jealousy is usually viewed as a negative emotion. However, with appropriate intervention, it can become a constructive and growing experience in the life of a child. If appropriately handled, the negative force can be reversed to stimulate appropriate self-acceptance, and constructive, healthy and creative responses to the vicissitudes of life.

Clayton, Gordon; Smith, Lynn G. (1977). Jealousy.  Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc. 

Copyright 1994, El Rophe Center, Inc.