Q. My son, who will be six at Christmas, is very competitive and this sometimes causes problems for him. He always wants to win and can be a really bad loser. He had a friend over the other day and he overturned a Snakes and Ladders game when he lost and went on to have a full blown meltdown. When he plays football, he always wants to be the best and gets into trouble with the coach for never sharing or passing. I am a little embarrassed by his behaviour as I am sure other parents think I encourage him to be like that. He is so different from his older brother who is much more laid back and always giving in to him to placate him. Sometimes, I wish his older brother would stand up to him more. Does my younger son just have a competitive personality and there is nothing I can do about it? Or can I help him change and learn to share more and be a better team player?
A. When I talk to parents with more than one child they almost always remark at how different each of their children are. Even though they have been brought up by the same parents in the same home, each child comes with his own unique personality and this makes them all different to bring up. In your home, you have one child who is driven and competitive and another who is laid back and perhaps less assertive.
The challenge as a parent is to tailor your approach to each child’s personality – you want to help them discover and use the best aspects of their personalities while tempering the parts that get them into trouble.
Understanding your son’s competitive feelings
Some children are more competitive than others by default. This can have lots of advantages for them in that it can push them to excel in certain fields and to drive themselves forward. Of course, as you have discovered, it can also get them into trouble with others if competition is over expressed and if it results in them “acting out” and becoming isolated from other children.
It is important to understand your son’s competitive drive in terms of his age and stage of development. Preschool and young children are naturally more egocentric and find it very hard to tolerate an experience like losing in a game or not getting their own way.
Managing feelings of frustration and disappointment can be a particular challenge and can result in meltdowns and tantrums. You can help your son learn to manage his feelings by being an empathic coach and soothing him when he is upset. Naming his feelings as he experiences them can be particularly helpful – “I know you are so disappointed, you really wanted to win that game.”
You can also coach him in how to cope appropriately – “You did your best, you can try again later,” or “The game was fun and at least you tried,” and so on. Model these skills yourself as you show your children how you manage disappointment while watching sport or by being a good loser in games.
Encourage co-operative rather than competitive games
While your son is still young and still learning the social skills of sharing and co-operation, it can be useful to reduce the number of competitive games and activities he is involved in. When he has friends over, set him up with Lego or making a craft rather than “win-lose” games such as Snakes and Ladders.
If you do start a competitive game with him, emphasise the values of “being a good sport” and “sharing with others”. For example, you can praise him if he shares – “Good boy for waiting your turn.” Help him focus on the successes of others rather than just his own – “Look, John did a good job there.” Try to guide him in how to manage – “Say well done to John and let’s start another game.”
Channelling the competitive drive
In helping your younger son, it is also important to appreciate the positive aspects of his personality – tell him how much you enjoy his drive and energy. Then over time you want to help him learn the social skills to temper the negative aspects of competitiveness.
It can help to channel his competitive energy towards social skills and team work. For example, when he has a friend over you can set him the challenge of being the “best friend”, the “best sharer” or the “best team player”. In junior sports, skilled coaches often adopt this approach with the young children who are learning team work. For example, playing football he could get points for passing as well as scoring and he can get praised for being a team player.
Love your children uniquely
Be careful about making comparisons between him and his brother, especially in front of them. This can easily get into a pattern of “competitive brother bad” and “laid back brother good”. This will make him feel bad and actually increase his competitiveness as he will want to compete with his brother to win back your approval.
Instead, it is important to adopt a habit of loving your children uniquely. Take time to appreciate and value their different qualities. This means that if you praise one for their inherent qualities, you must also praise the other for theirs. For example, if you say something about enjoying your older son being laid back or relaxed, then you must also praise your younger son’s sense of energy or drive or something else you really enjoy about him.
This non-comparative encouragement and praise will reduce their need to compete with one another for your approval and instead help them forge their own individual identities.
Dr. John Sharry, Irish Times Newspaper, December 2013. John writes in The Irish Times Health+Family every Tuesday.