THE BLOG
09/12/2014 04:32 pm ET Updated Nov 12, 2014

Mean Toddlers: Preventing Mean Girls From Developing in the Earliest Years

Susanne Dittrich/Fuse via Getty Images

Children all over the country are heading back for another school year. For girls heading into middle school, the plunge into the deep waters of adolescent culture is just beginning. Since Rosalind Wiseman's Queen Bees and Wannabes, first published in 2002, which skillfully described how girl on girl meanness plays out, there has been much thought about the issue and programs developed for middle and high school girls -- but there has been little attention paid to younger years, where personalities are being formed. It's now believed some of this relational aggression may originate in something as primal as jealousy -- an emotion that we all feel at one time or another. So what if girls were taught to deal appropriately with jealousy long before they ever get to middle school? As a scholar in child development (and thus, a lifelong student of human behavior), I believe they should be. It could have great payoffs later in life for girls and women.

In the preschool years, people learn what their feelings are and how to regulate them as they interact with others. We give children labels for happy, sad, scared and angry. Developmental theory tells us that children are born with these basic emotional structures in place (e.g., happy, sad, scared, angry), but do not develop self-conscious emotions (e.g., pride, embarrassment, shame, envy, guilt) until after they have an understanding of their own sense of self (around 18 months to 2 years of age) -- pretty complex emotions for a toddler.

With these self-conscious emotions come a whole slew of new feelings that children don't always know what to do with and lack the verbal skills to talk about. Envy, or jealousy, is easily confused with anger in young children. They don't know that they feel bad because they covet what someone else has -- they just know they feel bad and this is sometimes confused with anger in their minds (as is disappointment). These confused feelings may manifest themselves in acts of anger.

We need to do a better job preparing children for these other, more complex, feelings that they will face in their lives and the way these feelings mix together when our friend wins the award that we wanted for ourselves. The Pyramid Model for Supporting Social Emotional Competence in Infants and Young Children is one method advocated for use in early childhood programs and has been translated for use by parents and families, as well. This model emphasizes the importance of providing a foundation of nurturing and responsive interactions and relationships with children, high quality environments for young children (including their child care center), and specific emotional support to help them to label, understand and deal effectively with their emotions, including jealousy.

In our house, we talk about this in a way that is concrete. We talk about how jealousy turns to anger if not checked, more simply how green turns to red. I explained to my daughters that green is the color frequently associated with jealousy, and red is the color frequently associated with anger. We talk about things going on in their peer relationships in that way. Green turned to red. "I wish I had what she had and then I got mad about it." We talk about how it's OK to feel a little jealous about someone else having something that you would like for yourself, but that it is not OK to get mad at her for having it -- emotional coaching that they can use internally as they grow up. Anger will lead to behaviors that will hurt the relationship and/or the other person. When green turns to red, we focus our attention in the wrong direction -- outward instead of inward. Instead of focusing on what we could do to improve our perception of what we have or have earned, we blame someone else for having what we wish we had.

So let's start teaching our kids about jealousy and disappointment in the same way we teach about happiness and sadness. When a 3-year old expresses envy at someone else's possession, try saying, "It makes you feel jealous and a little sad that she got that doll that you have been wanting." Giving her a label for what she is feeling will help her identify it when she feels that way again. Let's arm them with the tools to deal effectively with these confusing feelings and empower them to be strong advocates for their own worth and abilities, rather than placing blame on others for possessing the same attributes, possessions or skills they wish for themselves. Let's help them to strive to reach their own personal best without belittling others. Maybe then our playgrounds, schools, and offices will be better places to be.

Katherine Rose is an associate professor in Early Child Development and Education at Texas Woman's University and a Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project at TWU.