Cathi Cohen, LCSW
Meg and Erin have been best friends since the third grade. Now, in the ninth grade, the girls still like to engage in a lot of the same activities. Both of them play soccer in the spring and swim on the same team in the winter. They both like to go shopping, to hang out at the mall with their friends, and to have sleepovers together. Erin is Meg’s best and only close friend. She doesn’t hang out with any other girls, and when Erin is not available, Meg stays home and watches TV. Erin, on the other hand, has a lot of different friends. She has close relationships with girls on the swim team, in her church youth group, and with girls from her sleep-away camp. Erin has no difficulty balancing all of her relationships. By contrast, Meg can’t stand it when Erin hangs out with anyone else. When Meg learns that Erin has spent time with another friend and didn’t include her, she becomes enraged. Not knowing how to deal with her angry feelings, she’ll sometimes give Erin the cold shoulder. Other times, she’ll complain to Erin about how she feels left out when she’s not included.
When their hurt feelings are not dealt with, everyone else around the two girls feels uncomfortable. During Meg’s bouts of jealousy, the tension between them affects their fellow teammates, as well as their classmates at school. The other girls get pulled into the conflict and that further increases tensions in the group.
Jealousy encompasses the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that occur when a person believes a valued relationship is being threatened. Jealousy usually involves anger and possessiveness.
We all feel jealousy from time to time; it is a normal human emotion. It’s when jealous feelings are not kept in check that they become destructive. Regardless of whether a relationship is platonic or intimate, when one person in the relationship experiences jealousy, it is a signal that something in the relationship needs to be fixed.
Children engage in complex social systems in which their peers play diverse roles. Some friendships within the social network may be close and intimate while others are merely acquaintances. A teammate is a buddy on the field, but not off. A lunch mate is sought after in the cafeteria, but never phoned outside of school. A child will inevitably feel closer to one friend in the social group than they do to another. These complicated peer networks function well when all the kids are in agreement about one other’s roles. However, when they are not in agreement, problems arise.
In general, girls are more prone to jealousy in friendships, because they have higher expectations for loyalty, commitment, and empathy from their friends than boys do. It is also more socially acceptable for boys to express jealousy within their intimate relationships. Among boys, jealousy is often seen as a masculine expression of love rather than a sign of insecurity and low self-esteem.
Most children can handle the frustrations associated with sharing friends. But there are some children who have enormous difficulties navigating these waters. Children who are lonely or have low self-esteem often do not have the skills to handle the risks associated with sharing friends with others. They are the most prone to feeling threatened and vulnerable in their relationships with peers.
In Meg and Erin’s case, Meg’s jealousy not only affects her relationship with her friend Erin, it also impacts her relationships with the rest of their social group. While her desire to protect her friendship with Erin is understandable, Meg’s aggressive displays and passive-aggressive behavior toward Erin is destructive. Both Meg and Erin’s parents are at a loss as to how to help the two girls move past this.
How to Handle Jealousy in Your Child
The impact of inappropriate jealousy can be toxic. This is clearly the case with Meg and Erin. Whether you are a parent of a jealous child or the parent of the child that is the subject of jealousy, there are strategies you can use to restore the peace:
Step One: Give Your Child Alone Time to Talk
Kids need opportunities to share their feelings, especially under times of stress. They are no different than adults in this way. They don’t want to hear advice or long lectures or even your point of view. They just want you to acknowledge their feelings and give them a chance to talk, without being judged.
Try Saying This:
“No one likes to feel they may be losing a friend.”
“You may be worried that Erin prefers other friends to you.”
“Sometimes when we feel insecure in a relationship, it makes us want to hold on even tighter.”
Step Two: Show That You Understand the Feelings Behind the Words
Kind statements that acknowledge feelings give a child comfort and allow effective problem solving to take place. It may sound simple just to make a statement that shows you understand your child’s feelings. But it’s not. When your child is pouring her heart out to you, only through practice and concentration are you able to see behind the words to identify the feelings.
Try Saying This:
“When a friend chooses to go out with other friends, without inviting you, that hurts.”
“You’re really angry about this.”
“You feel all of your friends are against you.”
Step Three: Resist the Temptation to Solve the Problem
Resist the urge to fix the problem by intervening. Children can learn critical life skills through figuring out how to manage difficult situations like this.
In Meg and Erin’s situation, Meg’s Mom may have the impulse to chastise her daughter. Instead, if she empathizes with her and listens without judgment, she might allow Meg the chance to figure out her own strategy for coping with this painful situation.
Try Saying This
“I wonder what would help this situation get better.”
Step Four: Support Efforts to Talk Openly With Each Other
In general, girls are not socialized to be direct in getting what they need from their relationships. That’s why it’s important to support their efforts to talk openly with each other about their fears regarding friendships. Meg and Erin could start by talking with each other about what is bothering each of them in the friendship. Encourage them to sit down and figure out some solutions to their issues.
Step Five: Encourage the Subject of Unhealthy Jealousy to Set Clear Limits with the Other Person
In Erin and Meg’s situation, Erin’s Mom could support Erin in being direct with Meg. Erin could describe for Meg what behaviors are unacceptable to her. If Erin is supported in being direct with Meg, she can explain how Meg’s jealousy impedes their friendship.
Erin Could Try Saying This
“It is not OK to call my house over and over when I’m out. If you do that again, I will not call you back.”
“I don’t like when you yell at me in public. Next time you are upset, I’ll talk to you, but only if we can do it privately.”
“It is hurtful to me when you snub me. If you have something to say to me, please say it directly.”
Step Six: Meet With the Two Friends Together
If the jealousy continues after the above steps are taken, consider calling the other parent. Gently, let the parent know what’s going on from your child’s perspective. Ask if the other parent notices any issues on his or her end. To help create an objective account of what’s happening, make concrete observations of each child’s behavior. Suggest a meeting with both parents present to help the girls talk things through. Treat the meeting like a mediation session, using your conflict resolution skills to help the kids come up with an agreement that both parties can live with.
1. Make sure that both parties willingly agree to meet.
2. Ask each one to tell her side of the story, in full, without interruption.
3. Listen and reflect on all feelings equally. Stay neutral!
4. Show that you understand each child’s perspective by making statements such as, “Are you saying….”and, “It sounds like you are feeling….”
5. Brainstorm solutions. All possible solutions should be treated with respect.
6. Look for areas of agreement and present possible solutions that both parties are comfortable with.
7. Decide together which solutions to try first.
8. Clarify the first step that needs to be taken toward achieving successful resolution, i.e., who will do what and when
9. Write down a clear plan.
10. Ask each person to sign the agreement.
11. Meet again to discuss how the plan is working. Plan this date ahead of time — don’t wait for another problem to occur before meeting again!
Step Seven: If Jealous Behavior Escalates, Refer for Professional Help
Children with low self-esteem are more prone to jealousy. They tend to worry about their ability to keep their relationships, often to such a degree that they are unable to relax and enjoy their friendships.
Signs that Jealousy is Going Too Far
1. Possessive rages
2. Incessant cell phone calls or text messages checking up on whereabouts
4. Interrogating of family and friends
5. Eavesdrops on the other child’s conversations
6. Malicious social networking
7. Controlling behavior
8. Attempts to isolate
If you observe these behaviors in your own child, it’s best to refer her to a professional. Your child may need to work on understanding her underlying insecurities and learn to express her feelings and needs appropriately. Whether through group therapy or through one-on-one counseling, children can learn how to monitor negative thoughts and replace them with more positive ones. In therapy, your child is encouraged to talk about her feelings and develop constructive ways to cope with them. In this manner, she learns the benefit of processing thoughts, feelings, and needs before acting. Increased awareness leads to necessary changes in behavior.
If you observe these behaviors in another child and have already talked to the other girl’s parent(s) without success, you may need to involve school personnel or even the police if behaviors escalate to a dangerous level.
As a parent, you have daily opportunities to teach your child the importance of respect and communication in developing healthy relationships with friends and loved ones. When friendship is formed with mutuality and commitment between people who consider themselves equals, jealousy generally subsides into the background and the relationship flourishes.