"I win! No, I win!" Competition and Rivalry From Preschool-Elementary Age
Some families thrive on healthy competition--board games, sports, or other activities bring them together. But there is sometimes one family member who is not “into” competition, or whose self-esteem seems so fragile that everyone fears them losing the game! Anyone walk on eggshells around someone who just can’t stand to lose, or whose entire existence is bent on being the best, the winner? I’d also add when this is the case, taking responsibility for actions is also often really hard!
All families have a relationship to competition, and it often comes with a host of big feelings. If there are siblings in the house, there is also most likely sibling rivalry. Rivalry might be all-day, every-day. Fights, comparisons, “hey, you gave her more orange juice than me!” or “Why does HE get to sit in the front seat EVERY time? You like him more than me!”
Whew. I feel upset and ready to have the “be a good loser” and “life isn’t fair!” talk even right now as I imagine these scenarios. You’ve probably asked yourself what is going one with them? Why can’t they tolerate losing a single game of Connect Four? Or why is there so much obsession over fairness?
My first instinct as a parent might be to ban all competitive board games and pull my kid from the soccer team. And rivalry is another place where we get sucked into keeping score, convincing our kids that we don’t love either one more, and that it’s okay to lose a game to each other.
But guess what? Competitiveness on its own serves a purpose! Whenever I’m at a loss for what’s going on with my own kids or with someone I work with, I fall back on the research, and especially on the work of Stanley Greenspan, M.D. Here’s some information from his chapter on competition and aggression in Playground Politics: Understanding the Emotional Life of Your School-Age Child. Greenspan says that a person’s ability to regulate and reason through angry feelings is developing throughout the lifespan. Each stage of development gives us new tools for handling these feelings. So, let’s see what tools each child has at each stage.
In preschool, children are black-and-white, all-or-nothing thinkers. They see the world in terms of me and “primary other” usually the primary caregiver. Aggressive or jealous feelings are viewed in terms of “if I get mad, [mom] will be mad at me!” As black and white thinkers this might be scary--they might think that as a result, their parent might leave them!
Anger and jealousy can be really scary feelings for preschoolers! And if they don’t get a chance to experience caregivers who stick with them in their feelings, they may get “stuck” at this stage in development.
Later, around age 4, aggression might be channeled into competition. And what better place to practice this than with siblings. Enter, sibling rivalry. But competition, on its own, just means “seeing who is better at something.” But it is often linked in with our sense of love, rejection, being mean, or being “nice.” As children develop the capacity to see multiple relationships rather than just me and “primary other,” they can start to see competition or feelings of jealousy and aggression as less of a threat. However, if your school-age child continues to struggle with this--difficulty taking responsibility, difficulty losing, black and white (I’m either the best or the worst!) thinking, consider whether something big like the birth of a sibling, a family move, separation, divorce or marriage trouble, or other big changes, have occurred that might be affecting your child’s ability to move smoothly through this developmental stage. Another piece that might make it difficult to achieve the milestone of security in competition is developmental differences, learning differences, or sensory processing differences. All of these differences affect physical and emotional development and sense of self from an early age.
If your child deflates, collapses or morphs into full-blown anger when they lose a game, they may actually need more practice at competition! I’d prescribe that they practice losing, winning, and feeling the feelings that come with competition, in a safe, warm, nurturing space. The goal here is to help your child begin put competition in context and cease seeing losing as a threat to self-esteem. It’s not an easy fix, and takes time--you’re literally changes pathways in the brain and creating new neural connections. But if you have consistent, warm nurturing relational time centered on building tolerance for these feelings, you’re on the right path! And, as always, if you feel out of your depth, your child is not feeling better, or feelings just seem too big to deal with, seek help from an expert professional who is well-versed in child mental health and development.