Help! My Child Envies Other Kids and Refuses to Share

Our 7-year-old boy has a very difficult time sharing with others and displays alarming levels of envy/jealousy whenever he witnesses another child getting something he doesn't have. He doesn't respond well when we try to explain why it's important to share, and he speaks in contemptuous and hateful tones about those who have what he wants (especially when he ultimately doesn't get whatever the coveted thing is). I thought this was pretty normal child behavior, and maybe it is, but I read about the college student in Isla Vista, California, who recently went on a killing spree after writing a detailed manifesto about how he hated sharing as a child, how he envied other boys, and how he never felt happy for others who got things he couldn't have. I know that was an exceptional case and there is much more to that story, but I still am worried about how these behavioral issues might manifest as our child gets older. Should we be considering therapy for our child? What kinds of red flags should we be looking for before we do seek professional help? Thank you. —Paranoid Parent
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Dear Paranoid Parent,

Thanks for your question. First of all, it is a very long way from a self-focused 7-year-old to the tragedy that occurred in California. The commonality you mention does not mean your son will follow that path. That said, I’m very glad that you are asking this question now. The behaviors you are describing are not pathological, but it sounds as if the way they show up for your son may be outside the norm.

Many children (and adults) do at times struggle with sharing, want what others have, and can get bitter and resentful about not getting what they want. These feelings can vary in intensity and duration based on circumstances and temperament. What you describe, however—”alarming levels” and “contemptuous/hateful tones”—sounds like a developing set of unhealthy beliefs about the world and how it is supposed to work. It sounds like a possibly egocentric worldview and perhaps the beginnings of a sense of entitlement, when what you really would like to see is a developing sense of empathy. Very young children are incredibly egocentric; little exists beyond what they feel and experience. Other people generally exist only as an extension of themselves. By age 7, however, we generally expect that stage to have passed and look to see a developing awareness of other people’s feelings as being relevant and meaningful. Children who have not made that transition can find peer relationships challenging, experience negative reactions from others, and become increasingly isolated, frustrated, and angry. These patterns can continue into adulthood, creating angry, bitter, dissatisfied adults.

This is a great time to address his behaviors and beliefs, before they become too deeply rooted and significantly impact his social relationships—and yes, seeking some professional help would be a great idea. There are many places to start, and the good news is there are established, evidence-based approaches (from empathy-building school curricula to therapeutic interventions) that can be helpful. There are some terrific books, articles, and websites devoted to developing empathy and pro-social skills in young children. You can also get professional parenting support to look at ways to incorporate empathy-building skills into family routines. Sometimes, subtle shifts in the words we use with children make a significant difference in how those words are received and understood. It sounds like you are trying to give him some great messages, but he doesn’t seem, at least to you, as if he is hearing them. Finding someone who can help coach you and give you additional tools to use at home might make what you are already trying to do more effective.

As for getting support for your son, one place to start is with his school. Talk with his teachers about what they observe. They see him in different contexts and may have great information and insight to share. They can also offer some perspective on how his behaviors and reactions stack up against those of his peers. Enlist caring adults who interact with your son to be part of his team to support the changes you are trying to encourage. Find some strategies that work and implement them both at home and at school.

Depending on the outcome of those conversations, you may also want to explore connecting him with a good child therapist and potentially getting him evaluated. I know that can sound scary, but a good evaluation can help you identify what, if anything, your son needs. It may also relieve your concerns if the results indicate an appropriately developing child.

Above all, try to avoid the blame game. As parents, it is so easy (and tempting) to second-guess our parenting choices. We often think we must have done something wrong, or not done something right, when we see our kids struggling in unexpected ways. Every child is different. There is no handbook of hard and fast rules to raising a healthy, well-adjusted child. There are some guiding principles that seem to work in most situations, but figuring out how to apply them to your own family requires trial and error. By having the courage to ask the question, you are doing what’s right for your son. By gathering good information and getting the right support, you are doing the best you can for your son and your family.

I wouldn’t wait for more red flags—he seems to be struggling, and you are concerned. Now is the time to intervene, before small events become bigger and before negative behaviors become entrenched.

Best of luck,
Erika

Erika Myers
Erika Myers, MS, MEd, LPC, NCC is a licensed psychotherapist and former educator specializing in working with families in transition (often due to separation or divorce) as well as individuals seeking support with relationship issues, parenting, depression, anxiety, grief/loss/bereavement, and managing major life changes. Although her theoretical orientation is eclectic, she most frequently uses a person-centered, strengths-based approach and cognitive behavioral therapy in her practice.
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  • carolee

    carolee

    July 18th, 2014 at 12:07 PM

    Can someone tell me what’s so bad about not wanting to share? Life isn’t like that, you don’t always get a turn at things wehn we are adults, so why do we make our kids do something that most of us as adults refuse to do?

  • Cat

    Cat

    July 20th, 2014 at 1:15 PM

    The problem isn’t so much his refusal to share, but the possible sense of entitlement behind that behavior. Like you said, “we don’t always get a turn at things,” and being entitled clashes directly with accepting that reality.

    It’s not so much in the one-up position as the one-down where an entitled attitude becomes a disadvantage. A guy who thinks he’s entitled to women and actually is a hit with them is just a jerk player, but a guy who thinks he’s entitled to women and then strikes out completely is much more likely to become embittered and frustrated – like the Isla Vista shooter.

  • Amy H

    Amy H

    July 20th, 2014 at 5:37 AM

    This could just be a phase that your child is going through so I think that I would try to somewhat wait it out and see if this shall pass. Sometimes what the nbehavior is one day will flip flop and you will see a totally different child the next. I wouldn’t stress too much about it though- kids are going to be kids

  • johnna

    johnna

    July 21st, 2014 at 10:39 AM

    As a parent it is hard to sit back and watch your child misbehaving, but there are times when you do have to step back a little and let the kids figure things out for themselves. Maybe it won’t take long for him to see that if he does not choose to share then other kids will not choose to be his friend and that he may get better results if he loosened up and shared his things a little more freely. May work, may not, but I think that much of this is going to be up to him. he may not care if they all desert him now but I am sure that as he gets older he will see the benefits of being a little nicer when playing with others.

  • Daniel

    Daniel

    July 23rd, 2014 at 11:38 AM

    I agree- I think that the help of a child therapist could be a great start for you and your son. Sometimes even though we see what the problems are it can take someone from the outside who can really connect with the child and help them verbalize what he is feeling and teach him some better ways to cope with what he is feeling.

  • Margaret

    Margaret

    July 25th, 2014 at 4:30 AM

    I encourage you to please be proactive and get some help for this child now.
    Who knows what his future holds for him but I would much rather play it safe then to regret doing nothing.

  • samuel a.

    samuel a.

    July 29th, 2014 at 3:36 PM

    Don’t we remember all being this age and being stingy and mean with our things? And always wanting so badly what someone else had instead of the things that were ours? I rememeber this vividly so to me this isn’t a problem, just all a part of bein g a normal kid.

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