Why so jealous?

The birth and development of your child's green-eyed monster

Scientists recently noticed something that parents have long known: Babies literally kick up a fuss when someone competes for mom’s attention — flailing their legs and babbling until her gaze returns their way.

“Look at me!” that cooing, kicking or screeching seems to say. And that’s literally what baby’s demanding, says study leader Maria Legerstee, director of York University’s Infancy Centre for Research in Toronto. “Jealousy is a normal reaction to anyone who threatens a social bond,” she explains. And few bonds can match the importance of that between parent and child.

Yet we know that our child must bring his green-eyed monster under control as he matures — even as his expanding social life brings new situations that beckon the ogre forth. Here then is age-by-age advice from child development experts and parents who’ve been there.

Babies

In a baby, jealousy equals survival instinct. “It’s like the song goes, ‘You’re My Everything,’” quips Dundas, Ont., social worker Gary Direnfeld, who specializes in child development and behaviour. “As babies, we need to keep our parents focused on us because we depend on them for everything we need to survive.” Your responsiveness, in turn, conveys security — crucial for healthy emotional development.

So definitely heed your baby’s coos and cries. And it’s OK if all you can do at the moment is rock or bob a babe in arms while your attention is largely elsewhere. “That bobbing sends the key message ‘I know you’re there, dear, and I’m right here,’” Direnfeld says.

Of course, for older siblings, a parent showering attention on the baby can foster that special brand of jealousy — sibling rivalry. Audrey Huberman, an early childhood education professor at Ryerson University in Toronto, offers her favourite tip: Talk to the newborn about the older sibling. “The infant needs your voice, touch and gaze,” she notes, “while the content of what you’re saying is critical to the older sibling.” Keep the commentary going — neither fawning nor criticizing, Huberman says. Simply describe what the sibling is doing, as in “Your sister is drawing a picture” or “Your brother is eating his breakfast.”
Toddlers

As in babies, jealousy in toddlers reflects separation anxiety. As your toddler begins exercising independence, she will frequently need to charge back and find you still there for her. So your responsiveness remains important, but with a twist: With age comes the ability to understand words and practise patience, as in “I hear you, but you need to wait while I help your sister” — not wait for 10 minutes perhaps, but definitely 10 seconds.

“It’s OK, even good, for your two- or three-year-old to feel a little frustration,” Direnfeld says. That’s how she begins learning to handle unpleasant emotions. The one thing you don’t want to do is simply ignore the child, Direnfeld hastens to add, because non-responsiveness generates insecurity and fuels jealousy. Even calling “I’ll be there in a minute” bridges the gap.

Preschoolers

Even at ages three and four, children feel jealousy because of their need for security. The good news is they’re becoming more rational, as well as more capable of appreciating the needs of others. This means we can help them start to recognize the emotion of jealousy and handle it.

That’s what Vancouver dad Dave Olsen strives to do when four-year-old Anicca interrupts a conversation by putting her face right in front of his. “I’ll tell her, ‘I understand you want my attention, but you really have to give me a few more minutes to talk with my friend.’”

That’s spot on, says Christina Rinaldi, an associate professor of child psychology at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, because it provides reassurance without reinforcing the disruptive behavior. That’s particularly important with a jealousy meltdown. “Make sure you’re not sending the message ‘I’m spending time with you because you’re tantruming,’” Rinaldi says. Instead, explain that yelling is not the best way for mom and dad to hear what you have to say. But occupying yourself for a few minutes (say, by drawing pictures or reading a book) will.

Simply helping a child identify the feeling of jealousy often decreases its emotional charge, Huberman adds, as in “Well, it sounds like you’re feeling jealous.” Just keep the tone of your statement neutral. “Remember, jealousy itself isn’t shameful,” Huberman says. Rather, the aim is to help a child cope with the emotion.

School-aged children

When kids hit grade school, many parents feel that they should have “outgrown” petty jealousies — forgetting perhaps that adults are no strangers to such emotions. Rinaldi encourages parents to prompt their child to think about why he’s feeling jealous (“Do you think Rikki having a new friend means he doesn’t still like you?”) and explore ways to feel better about himself (“What might you enjoy doing instead of playing with Rikki this afternoon?”).

Parents can likewise help their children see that they’re not diminished when someone else gets attention. “One of the most helpful phrases for mediating jealousy,” Huberman says, “is ‘just because I said something positive about your sister [or whomever] doesn’t mean I don’t also think it of you.’ We want our children to recognize that we can all share the winner’s circle.”

Tweens and teens

As children enter adolescence, the same parenting lessons apply. Plus, older kids are struggling with new social roles. “They’re practising the skills for intimacy in adult life,” Direnfeld says, “but in adolescence, relationships tend to be unstable. Affections come and go, and we get hurt and feel jealous.”

What to do? Above all, what tweens and teens need from parents is not to be teased, Direnfeld says. Adolescent jealousies stem from fears just as real as that of the toddler or preschooler coping with separation anxiety, he explains. Here too the advice is validate feelings, don’t rush to fix, and help your child find appropriate ways to cope. Sharing your feelings with a friend can be constructive; fist fights and malicious gossip are not.

“In the end, jealousy goes back to our sense of self,” concludes Rinaldi. “We all want to feel safe, loved and appreciated.” As parents, we can go far in providing that assurance.

Jealousy’s sour sibling — envy

While we often use jealousy and envy interchangeably, the former refers to the fear of losing someone or something, while the latter describes a burning desire to have something that someone else has — be it possession, power or praise.

Admittedly, a little envy can be a great motivator, as when children aspire to master the skills of an older sibling or the good grades of a classmate. “What we as parents are concerned about is too much envy, the kind that leads to low self-esteem,” says early childhood development expert Audrey Huberman.