The Richmond Register

December 17, 2013

The gift of jealousy for the holidays

By Dan Florell, Ph.D and Praveena Salins, M.D.
Register Columnist

RICHMOND — The excitement becomes palatable as the children head up to their bedrooms waiting for Christmas morning to arrive. Presents can already be seen under the Christmas tree with the promise of more arriving with Santa Claus during the night.

As the morning breaks, children clamor out of their beds and wake their parents to get started unwrapping all of their presents.

For parents, Christmas morning can be a true reward for all of the hard work that goes into the holiday season. There is nothing quite like the look on a young child’s face when she gets the present she has been asking for every night for the past month. On the other hand, the situation can bring out the worst in children, particularly between siblings.

Jealousy often rears its ugly head and spoils a family’s Christmas morning.

Everyone who has grown up with siblings can remember a time when a brother or sister got a present that was somehow better than what you received. Sometimes it is getting fewer presents and other times it is receiving presents that are less desirable than a brother’s or sister’s. This can lead children to pout, be irritable or mopey. They may even try to take matters into their own hands and get their sibling’s present for themselves.

While not a desirable part of the holidays, jealousy is a natural part of growing up and plays a major role in sibling rivalry. The receiving of gifts taps into an area of jealous that revolves around fairness and equality.

Children strongly identify with these issues and they can get very upset when they sense there is a violation. The issue of fairness and equality between siblings can start as early as age 2 and continue through adolescence.

While parents know that the world is not a fair place, it can be difficult for children to understand. Rather than punishing children for reacting jealously to a sibling’s present, use the opportunity as a teaching moment. Acknowledge how the child is feeling and how it is OK to feel that way. However, stress that dwelling on the jealousy will only make the child feel badly while the rest of the family is enjoying being with one another and appreciating the gifts that they have given and received.

There are steps parents can take to prevent gift jealousy from occurring. One way is to have each child make a specific wish list and to prioritize what gifts are most wanted. When the child has to prioritize, it helps her to really think about whether something is really desired or merely wanted because a sibling wants a similar item.

Once the wish list has been made and prioritized, it can be shared with the rest of the family. Parents can then have each child go shopping and help select a present for a sibling. This allows the child to feel invested in the act of giving and takes some of the emphasis from receiving gifts. 

Christmas is a joyful occasion but don’t be surprised if jealousy crashes the holiday. Use the moment to teach a child how to cope with disappointment and how to overcome it and enjoy the rest of holiday.

Dan Florell, Ph.D., is an assistant professor at Eastern Kentucky University and has a private practice, MindPsi (www.mindpsi.net). Praveena Salins, M.D., is a pediatrician at Madison Pediatric Associates (www.madisonpeds.com).