It’s normal and healthy for children to enjoy competitive play. Competition is fun and engaging. It challenges kids to develop skills and traits that matter to them. But sometimes, parents notice signs of behavioral and self-esteem issues in their overly competitive child.
When your child becomes so competitive that it affects their daily thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, it’s a reason for concern. You likely worry about your child’s intense need to “be the best” at everything they do.
Why do some kids become overly competitive? How can parents confront unhealthy levels of competition and begin encouraging managed behaviors?
At Bloom, we help parents and children with these unique struggles. Here are some insights.
Healthy Competition in Kids
Some kids have a naturally competitive nature. Others don’t care much about winning. Competitive kids can thrive when encouraged to pursue sports they enjoy. It can result in excellent athletic performance and sportsmanship.
Healthy competitive behavior is when a child:
- Learns from failure
- Recognizes accomplishments and continually works toward goals
- Has fun during the competition
- Plays well with others
- Learns to take constructive criticism
- Helps others win
Sports can be great hobbies for kids who have a passion for competition. They just need to learn to channel it properly.
Unhealthy Competition in Kids
Even if a child is talented, they may get down on themselves over the slightest imperfection. If the child loses a game or isn’t the best on the team, he may get upset and feel bad about himself. There’s often an underlying issue here that has more to do with playing sports.
Unhealthy competitive behavior is when a child:
- Is never satisfied with accomplishments
- Downplays or resents other people’s wins
- Plays too seriously or can’t have fun
- Has poor sportsmanship (cheating, fighting, throwing tantrums)
- Rejects constructive criticism or takes it too personally
This behavior doesn’t only apply to sports. It can appear in academic pursuits, sibling rivalry, and other hobbies.
Teaching Your Overly Competitive Child Self-Control
If your child is constantly anxious or aggressive, they may be hypercompetitive. Some parents consider therapy, which can be helpful. At some point, however, it’s your opportunity as a parent to work with your child on these issues.
Here are some ways to help super competitive children through their struggles.
Consider the Source of the Issue
A child’s underlying feelings of “I’m not good enough” or “I need to be the best” can stem from early life experiences. There may have been a time when your child felt helpless, alone, or inadequate. Some kids then adjust their behavior to prove themselves worthy.
When was the first time you noticed your child’s overly competitive behavior? Perhaps it was when a younger sibling was born and they felt a need to perform for attention. Or maybe they achieved something great but were punished or dismissed instead of praised.
Some kids learn competitive behavior from peers or parents who get what they want by dominating or putting others down. Regardless, an unhealthy need to win is often a pursuit of something else: attention, praise, worthiness, or a sense of control.
Help Your Child Explore Their Feelings
Help your child verbalize their negative thoughts and emotions. This lets them know you care about their feelings— not just how they perform. Focus on responding with realistic solutions and positive remarks.
For example, your child cries and retreats after their team loses the basketball game. In a kind tone, ask them why they’re sad. They may respond with, “We lost!” or “I didn’t win.”
Listen to them, acknowledge their sadness, and reply with a positive reminder. You can say, “I know that’s upsetting. It’s okay to be sad. Hey, I saw you pass the ball to Lisa, who scored a basket! You helped the team several times and it was a great game, even though you guys didn’t win this time.”
Your child may continue to feel sad or they may think about your reminders. Let them calm down and remain available if they want to further share their thoughts.
Play a Game: Life’s Not Fair
Instill in your children the ongoing lesson that life isn’t fair. Not everyone gets equal outcomes, no matter how hard they may try.
Practice playing out different scenarios with your child. It’s helpful to do this in the car so there’s no need for eye contact, which can add stress to conversations. Go back and forth talking about things that are 1) in favor of your child and 2) in favor of someone else. For example:
Parent: “I know you tried so hard to get the Student of the Month award that went to Susie. Do you think it’s fair Susie won?”
Child: “No. I wanted the award. I’m better at math than Susie.”
Parent: “You’re great at math. Sometimes, others win because the leader saw special things in them that we didn’t see. But that doesn’t mean you’re not special in your own way. Remember you won the free throw tournament when Jason was so close to winning? Do you think that was fair for Jason?”
Child: “No, but I was better at free throws than Jason. He won last year.”
Parent: “Can you see how different kids win some things and don’t win other things? Is life always supposed to be fair?”
You can also use this conversation after playing low-stakes games with your child, like parent-child board games.
Encourage Character Development
Help your child develop their character through recurring lessons and personal examples. For elementary-aged kids, you can use an analogy:
Life is like a Ferris wheel. Sometimes you arrive at the top. Sometimes you’re in the middle. Sometimes you’re stuck at the bottom and can only look up at people at the top. But the Ferris wheel keeps moving, and eventually, you’ll see everything from the top again.
The top and bottom aren’t permanent. Changes are part of life. Just because others are on a different level than you, it doesn't mean you are better or worse forever.
Incorporate Faith or Spirituality
Teach your kids that not everyone is good at everything. You can include your family’s faith in this lesson, if desired.
Everyone’s born with different skills. It’s not about being the best at everything (that’s impossible). It’s about knowing what you’re good at and becoming the best you can be at those things. It’s about using what you’re good at to help yourself and others.
Don’t Pressure Your Child
Some parents are serious about sports and put pressure on their children to achieve greatness. But an early hypercompetitive environment can lead to burnout and injury in addition to negative emotional effects.
Avoid pushing your child to fulfill your agenda. Your child is his or her own person with unique strengths and weaknesses. Encourage them toward healthy goals but don’t force them to be someone they’re not.
Remain Patient with Your Competitive Child
It’ll take time to help your competitive child learn better behaviors. Remember: important lessons aren’t learned overnight. Repetition, patience, and practice are essential.
Replay the “life’s not fair” game often. Have ongoing discussions about learning and faith, teaching your child that everyone has different strengths and gifts— it’s about how we learn to use these gifts to help others. Remind your child they don’t have to be perfect to be loved and they don’t have to be the best at everything to be a good team player.
You may also need to reach out for help if you find you can’t do it on your own. Some parents need extra resources that can help deal with this behavior.
Support for Overly Competitive Kids, Teens, and Families
It’s never easy to learn or implement new lessons for kids with behavioral challenges. Whether you’re dealing with a super competitive child or teenager, there are tools to help you have these conversations.If you want to learn to attune to your child’s needs and learn to speak their language, join the Bloom community today.