All your preteen wants to do is hang out with his or her besties. Yet as those friendships are amping up, it seems your son or daughter is getting jealous of things those close friends have or do – from tech toys to school smarts.
Dr. Karen Brenner, a Saint Joseph Mercy Health System pediatrician based in Ann Arbor, says both are totally normal in tweens.
“You name it, they’re going to compare themselves to it. Kids are finding their identity” at this age, says Brenner, who focuses on adolescent health. Simultaneously, “It is a time of life, more than most, I would argue, where friendship bonds are the most influential in shaping one’s self-esteem.”
Sizing up envy
Those “green” eyes first start flashing at different points based on gender.
“I would say for girls it is closer to ages 11-12,” says Brenner. “Traditionally boys are a little bit later, closer to 12-14.” The American Psychiatric Association notes girls also are more likely to become jealous. “Girls compare themselves more and have a lower self-esteem,” Brenner explains.
But that doesn’t mean that boys don’t become jealous. “In truth boys feel it too but are more taught to be tough and show less emotion,” says Brenner. “I think as a society, girls feel more pressure to fit in, and there is a lot more self-criticism.”
She adds, “Jealousy like this ends closer to 14 for girls and 16 for boys.”
Triggers and signs
Popularity, sports, academics and feeling left out of social situations are all factors that can stoke jealousy.
“They might hear on social media about a party they were not invited to, for example,” Brenner says, “and have the fear of missing out, or FOMO, that can lead to some anxiety and depression.” Possessions are a common cause, too.
“Kids can be jealous of what other kids have, such as certain brand names of clothes, electronic games, cellphones, size of houses and what activities they have at the homes,” she says. Ditto privileges, such as being allowed to go to the mall unsupervised or having more phone/media time.
Brenner says girls express their jealousy more openly than boys. However, “Parents can watch for their kids retreating; if they aren’t hanging with friends or going to school activities like they used to.” It could be a sign of depression, anxiety or even an eating disorder – something she’s seen with girls, in particular, who want to be as thin as their friends.
How to help
“Listen to your kids,” Brenner says. “I hear often from kids that they do want to be close to their parents, even if it seems that they are pushing them away.” It’s not about pacifying, she adds, but validating feelings. “They interestingly don’t always want advice as much as a good ear.”
If kids do ask for help, share ways you dealt with jealously at their age – and even now as an adult. Check in again in a day or so to see how they’re doing.
When it comes to “shortcoming” jealousy, compliment kids on their strengths. “Use concrete examples of how they are good at math or soccer, for example.” Remind them that “life is long, and there is time to master a lot of things.”
And as for those classic “but he/she can/does!” comparisons?
“It is OK to reassure them of the safety of those choices you are making as a parent,” Brenner says, “and also to check in with yourself about how strict (or not) you are being. Some of the jealousy and anger comes from a parent not wanting to loosen the rules when it is the right time for the child to venture out of the nest.”
Art by Brent Mosser