Whenever I complained about the enormous inequities that existed in my admittedly comfortable suburban upbringing, I would hear my mother’s familiar refrain, “Life isn’t fair.” And while that is certainly true, it is a hard lesson to learn. From an early age, kids begin to resent other kids who have what they don’t have. This sense of envy can lead to feelings of inferiority and depression. Today’s kids are inundated with ads telling them what is in, and their peers are quick to broadcast what they have and what they’ve done via social media accounts. “Instagram induces a longing to be on a scene, the scene, the next one, a better one,” writes Sarah Nicole Prickett in a New York Times article on Instagram envy. It can all leave a kid feeling a bit envious and discontented.
As a parent, you can help your kids address this negative emotion and get past it. Try these steps to help your kids overcome envy:
1. Have an Honest Discussion
First, reassure your child that he is not bad for feeling this way. Wanting what others have is normal and involuntary, so your child should not feel guilty about feeling envious. If kids try to suppress their feelings or lie about them, they may feel worse about themselves. So begin by having him discuss how he feels about the person and thing that he envies. What does the person have that he wants and why does he want it. Ask questions that will get your child thinking about what he really wants and needs. What are the negatives associated with what is being envied. For example, that star athlete probably has to spend many hours a week at practice. It may be, upon further reflection, that your child wouldn’t really want what the other person has, if given the opportunity. The grass may only seem greener.
2. Make a Separation
Once you and your child have identified what it is that he really wants, whether it is material things or specific achievements, try to separate that from the person he is envying. It may be that your child can attain what he wants by establishing a goal to get there. He might save up to purchase that envied item, or start studying in a new way to get the good grades he covets. Even if what he wants is not attainable, turn his focus to his own life and away from the other person. Remind your child that other people’s success does not diminish or change his own achievements. It is OK to have obstacles and even to fail, it may actually lead to greater success. So, turn his feelings of envy into positive motivation for self-improvement.
3. Take Time to be Grateful
It may not be what children want to hear, but gratitude will help combat envy. Take a moment to go over all that your children have and encourage them to be thankful. Remind them of the many children who have far less than they do. There are a number of ways to teach gratitude. Try giving them a little perspective on what they have in comparison with the rest of the world. A simple way to do that is to look at the world stats condensed to just 100 people. If the world were comprised of 100 people, only 22 would have a computer, 15 would be undernourished and just 87 would have safe drinking water. On a worldwide scale, your child has far more than most. This perspective will also help them differentiate needs versus wants.
4. Don’t Make Comparisons
There will always be someone who is more attractive, better at school or sports, and has more stuff. So if your child attempts to evaluate his self-worth based on comparisons with others, his self-esteem will likely suffer. The fact is, comparing one aspect of another person is not a fair comparison, as there are many factors that contribute to a person’s successes and failures. Parents can easily fall into this trap of social comparison, both with themselves and their kids. Experts warn these comparisons are self-defeating and advise parents to simply ignore the competition. “Caring less about who’s making more money, who’s raising better-behaved children, and whose relationship is healthier means less daily stress and more calm,” says Psychotherapist Linda Esposito. Be careful not to compare your child to other children, but rather celebrate their individuality.
5. Befriend the Enemy
If your child can get to know the person whom he envies, he can begin to put his feelings into a more realistic perspective. He will likely discover that the person who he thought had such a perfect life actually has struggles and insecurities, too. Encourage your child to compliment the envied friend. If your child can praise the other person, he may see that person in a better light and no longer as an enemy he must compete with.
Try these steps with your child the next time you hear envious complaints like, “It’s not fair,” and you may better equip them for dealing with a life that, for better or worse, will never be fair.