Gina Annecchiarico, a mom of two in Montreal, was at a loss when her then six-year-old daughter, Sophia approached her a little sad and confused. “One of her friends had pointed out that Sophia was the only one of their group of friends who did not have a pair of wedge-heeled flip-flops,” says Annecchiarico. “She had never wanted a pair and has more clothes and shoes than she can possibly wear — including seven pairs of shoes — but she now really wanted what everyone else had.”
That simple premise is at the heart of envy and jealousy — emotions that seem to go hand in hand with the holiday season and that are not limited to children. “Envy is wanting something that someone else has,” says Dr. Oren Amitay, a clinical psychologist, professor at Toronto’s Ryerson University and dad of three. “Children at this stage want to belong. They want to be like everybody else. And that means having what their friends have. It’s important for parents to talk to their kids about what they are feeling and to set realistic expectations. The fact is you can’t always get what you think you want. It can be a bitter pill, but it’s one of those lessons that serve you well later on.”
Thankfully, children between the ages of six and eight are at a developmental stage where they begin to appreciate that people have different perspectives and life experiences. “As parents, it’s important that we begin to explain the difference between wants and needs,” says Brenda Henley, senior family life educator with Families Matter in Calgary. “For example, you need food, shelter, clothing and water to live. Wants, on the other hand, are not needs for living. They are the extra, fun things. That is the starting point. Of course, as kids, it’s their job to challenge. And they will.” Here are some strategies to help you deal with the requests, which are likely to come fast and furious over the holiday season.
Find out why he wants what he wants: “Be specific,” says Dr. Amitay. “Why do you want that game system? What do you like so much about it? By drawing kids out, they may come to realize that they only really want it because someone else has it. Then you can redirect them perhaps to where their real interests are.” Also, “make sure to acknowledge your child’s feelings so he doesn’t feel he is getting dismissed outright,” suggests Dr. Amitay.
Express an Attitude of Gratitude: Henley suggests explaining to your children that while some families may have more than yours, there are always going to be some that have less. One way your child can remind himself of what he has is to start a gratitude journal. “This is a good way to help kids appreciate what they have,” says Henley. Or simply share something you are grateful for at bedtime and ask him to do the same.
Get them to contribute: Lori Theriault, a mom of two in Oakville, Ont., encourages her daughter Hannah, 12, and son Brandon, 8, to earn and save up for what they want. “This way they understand the value of money, and it helps them prioritize what they really want. By having to be patient and earn it rather than getting it instantly, they’ll appreciate it that much more.”
Finally, parents should remember that feelings of envy and jealousy are natural, says Henley. “It all stems from a perception of loss. You get jealous because you feel you are not getting what you think you deserve. With kids, it brings into question their sense of fair play. If she has it, then I should too.” In that case, Henley suggests trying what she does with her own children when they complain about not having the latest gadget. “I say to them: “Maybe everyone needs one, but I don’t know. Can you tell me the friends that have that item and I can phone their parents and find out?’ They usually don’t come back asking for it after that.”
Also, if your child steps back just a little and puts it all into context, says Henley, such as making a wants and needs list and actually figuring out how many chores he would need to do to save the money to buy what he wants, “the feelings might go away just as quickly as they came.”
Mary Teresa Bitti is a freelance writer and mother of two who sometimes has trouble keeping her own feelings of envy in check.
For tips on helping your child cope with disappointment, go to canadianfamily.ca/disappointment