Childhood Jealousy and Our Human Brains

February 19, 2020
There are many situations that may lead children to feel jealousy. In this article, we'll discuss how children's brains register this feeling and how it affects their behavior.

In this article, we’ll talk about the changes produced in a child’s brain when they feel jealous. But before delving into how the brain is affected by childhood jealousy, first we’re going to define the term “jealous.”

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, being jealous is defined as being “hostile toward a rival or one believed to enjoy an advantage,” or being “intolerant of rivalry or unfaithfulness.” In the case of children, feelings of intense jealousy can arise when they perceive that a situation is threatening to the bond or relationship they share with their parents or someone else who is close to them.

If we stop to think about it, there are frequently situations or behaviors that indicate the existence of jealousy in the family. There is often some level of jealousy between siblings, and more if they have rivalries and quarrels frequently. Childhood jealousy can impact the harmony and flow of day-to-day family interactions.

If there is a lot of tension and rivalry between siblings it can affect the mood and sense of wellbeing in the entire family. Parents in this situation will look for help that can orient them about the best way to address these behaviors. Luckily, there are ways to work at reestablishing peace and calm in the household and to make a jealous child feel more secure.

“The rage of jealousy is so strong that it forces you to do any nonsense.”

– Miguel de Cervantes –

Childhood Jealousy and Our Human Brains

How does jealousy usually manifest in children?

Changes in the use of language: An older child may suddenly use baby talk that imitates a younger sibling. They may repeat words and phrases, or begin stuttering.

Disturbed sleep:  Children may ask repeatedly to spend time in their parents’ bed. They may also ask to be accompanied by their parents when doing things. They frequently call on adults.

Frustration: They reject different suggested activities and generally have an uncooperative attitude with other family members.

Loss of appetite: They lose appetite even for preferred foods.

Behavioral problems: They act out to get constant attention.

Aggressiveness: They act aggressively towards different members of the family.

Mood swings: They experience frequent changes in their behavior and mental state.

“Jealousy is the sister of love, as the devil is the brother of angels.” 

– Stanislas de Boufflers –

The causes of jealous behavior in children

The arrival of a new sibling can cause jealousy in children, because they feel they’ll no longer get the same attention from their parents.

Favoritism on the part of the parents foments jealousy among siblings and can have repercussions on their general development.

Parents may compare siblings and praise one child more than the other. Unfavored children grow up with negative views of themselves. This kind of unconscious conditioning from parents can damage their children’s emotional development.

With the birth of a baby, it’s common for the parents’ attention to suddenly focus entirely on the newborn. When this happens, it can cause conflict and jealous reactions among members of the family.

Siblings are treated unequally. For example, because the youngest is smaller, he or she doesn’t have to perform chores or take responsibility for their actions like older children.

Parents often make the mistake of thinking that they’re all the same. But the reality is that each individual child is and feels differently.

Childhood Jealousy and Our Human Brains

In light of recent research, the sexual differences that evolutionary psychology attributes to this ancestral feeling reveal the members of both sexes seem to suffer jealousy equally.” 

– Christine R. Harris –

Childhood jealousy: How does it affect the brain?

Jealousy is a complex social emotion that combines several primary emotions, like anger, fear, and sadness. It’s for this reason that the emotional toll of feeling jealous is very high. In this way, when the limbic system is activated, it sends opportune signals along a nerve tract in the brain called the cingulum.

This allows for communication between components of the limbic system. The limbic system detects this signal and triggers this as a threatening impulse and sends it to other important structures in the brain that process emotional reactions.

 The limbic system is the part of the brain located immediately below the cerebral cortex and contains important centers like the thalamus, hypothalamus, the hippocampus, and the amygdala. In the human being, these are the center of emotions.

It’s here where some of our most basic emotions in an evolutionary sense are processed. These parts of the brain are triggered when you experience fear, agony, jealousy, and intense joy.

The role of the amygdala is to function as a processing center of basic emotions. In this way, when the child perceives a situation as threatening, it sets off a sort of alarm that activates the amygdala to distance themselves from what they perceive to be dangerous.

Therefore, one way to help siblings work through their childhood jealousy and envious feelings is to schedule one-on-one time with them so they feel more secure. It’s easy for an older child to feel ignored. They can build up a lot of resentment quickly if they feel unloved when compared to their brother or sister.

You can curl up on the sofa together to read a book, watch a movie or enjoy lunch with the child. Make sure that each child knows they are important to you.

  • Villón Guevara, J. M. (2015). Los celos infantiles en el desarrollo socio-afectivo en los niños y niñas de 4 años de edad (Bachelor’s thesis, Universidad de Guayaquil Facultad de Filosofía, Letras y Ciencias de la Educación).
  • Zheng, X., Luo, L., Li, J., Xu, L., Zhou, F., Gao, Z., … & Kendrick, K. M. (2019). A dimensional approach to jealousy reveals enhanced fronto-striatal, insula and limbic responses to angry faces. Brain Structure and Function224(9), 3201-3212.