How to Think About Sibling Jealousy: For Teens and Adults

“Are you really going to buy her a brand-new car?”

That was Kate’s (name changed for privacy) response when she learned that her younger sister would be driving a new car while she drove an old “beat up boat,” as her peers lovingly referred to it. 

Her parents had a long list of reasons why they were buying her sister a car but it didn’t help Kate to feel any less jealous.

Jealousy is a normal part of human experience but it’s important to get a handle on it. (Twenty20 @christinahelenb)

Jealousy is a normal human experience, but it’s important to get a handle on it. A recent study in the Journal of Family Psychology found that strained family relationships rooted in jealousy can cause health issues and chronic illnesses to worsen.

“One way of thinking about jealousy or envy between siblings is that we think we are competing for limited resources or status. If my sibling gets more attention from dad, then I get less. Or if my brother is making more money than me then I may feel that I am inferior,” says Dr. Robert L. Leahy, a psychologist, and author of the book, The Jealousy Cure; Learn to Trust, Overcome Possessiveness, and Save Your Relationship.

Dr. Leahy explains that our emotions are based on the past when resources were scarce, and life was competitive. “In the past people in society with higher dominance or status often experienced higher self-esteem, better access to valued food and shelter, and better access to sexual partners,” he said.

Often people use the words jealousy and envy interchangeably, but the words have different meanings. “Jealousy involves competition for the affection of a valued person. Envy refers to someone doing better than I am doing at something that I value. Jealousy involves three people and envy is about your position in a status hierarchy,” says Dr. Leahy.

Dr. Jennifer Bevan, who researches jealousy and is a professor at Chapman University explains that,

From the beginning, sibling relationships are often shaped by jealousy, which involves competing with one another for the recognition or gain of their parent’s attention. This jealousy begins in infancy and can last into adulthood.

Five things to do when you feel jealous or envious of your siblings

  • Notice that you are feeling jealous

The first step to change your jealous feeling is to identify it. “We say that we ‘feel’ jealous, but our jealousy often involves a wide range of thoughts,” says Dr. Leahy. When people have jealous thoughts, it is their reaction or behaviors that create problems with their siblings.

  • Accept that this feeling is normal and part of being human

Jealousy is based on the evolutionary need to survive so it is a normal, and possibly at times a helpful feeling. Dr. Leahy recommends allowing jealousy to nag or scare you without it taking over everything. He says, “Think of jealousy as an alarm sounding off, many of them false alarms.”

Dr. Bevan explains that not all jealousy is bad or needs to be stopped. She says, “In the case of siblings, it might be a sign that a parent is indeed showing favoritism or expending more time or resources on a particular child and that there is a problem within a family.” Within a stepfamily jealousy can be an indication that something is out of balance and that a child might need to be heard or that the arrangements may need to be recalibrated. “Jealousy is often a symptom that something is wrong within the family and that something needs to change,” says Dr. Bevan.

  • Recognize that you can feel jealous without acting on it

Dr. Leahy recommends using mindfulness to recognize your jealous thoughts. He says, “When we are jealous we pay too much attention to our jealous thoughts. Mindfulness allows us to find a safe space in the present moment where we let go.”

  • Examine problematic behaviors

When a person feels jealous, they may attack, avoid or complain and ruminate about the object of their jealousy. It is important to figure out how your behaviors are influencing your life. Dr. Leahy says that once you assess your problematic behaviors ask yourself, “How would my relationship improve if I didn’t do these behaviors?”

  • Communicate with family members

One common issue among family members is the need to be “right” all the time. “The need to be right leads you to attack your sibling and bring up past misunderstandings,” says Dr. Leahy. Instead it is important to focus on understanding, compassion, and empathy.

“It is especially important to communicate feelings of jealousy with adult sibling relationships since adult siblings tend to prefer avoiding expressing their jealousy to one another,” says Dr. Bevan. Dr. Bevan explains that communication in sibling relationships differs from other close relationships, such as romantic partners and friends, where they prefer to be open, direct, and constructive when talking about their jealousy.

Before having a discussion with your sibling, you should try to approach it with the goal of improving your relationship, not winning an argument. “It’s about listening and sharing, not about dominating and controlling,” says Dr. Leahy.  

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About Cheryl Maguire

heryl Maguire holds a Master of Counseling Psychology degree. She is married and is the mother of twins and a daughter. Her writing has been published in The New York Times, Parents Magazine, AARP, Healthline, Grown and Flown, Your Teen Magazine, and many other publications. She is a professional member of ASJA. You can find her at Twitter @CherylMaguire05

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