Parenting an Overly Competitive Child: Expert Tips

Written by Dr Lucy Russell DClinPsyc CPsychol AFBPsS
Dr Lucy Russell Clinical Psychologist Founder of They Are The Future
Author: Dr Lucy Russell, Clinical Psychologist

In this article, we’ll explore the nuanced world of overly competitive children. How can it affect them negatively and what can we do as parents?

As a child psychologist and a parent of two teenagers, I’ve seen firsthand how over-competitiveness can impact young minds.

One of my children has always leaned towards being overly competitive. This trait, at times, propelled her to remarkable successes, but the journey hasn’t been without its challenges.

We will look at how we, as parents, can guide our children towards a healthier competitive spirit.

family of four playing a board game together

Overly Competitive Children: Some Perspective

Competitiveness is a natural part of child development. It can be a driving force that spurs children to learn new skills and strive for excellence.

However, when the competitive spirit overshadows other important values, it can of course become a concern.

As parents, distinguishing between healthy competition and excessive competitiveness is important.

Whilst some competitiveness is great, we need balance both our children’s abilities and their mental health, ensuring they grow into well-rounded individuals.

Sometimes we have to work very hard to help our children get this balance. I am talking from first-hand experience here!

In the next section, we’ll delve into the fine line between healthy and unhealthy competition, shedding light on how to identify and manage it effectively.

a mother and child chatting in their kitchen

The Fine Line Between Healthy and Unhealthy Competition in Competitive Children

Understanding the distinction between healthy competition and excessive competitiveness is key to nurturing your child’s growth.

Healthy competition, which encourages children to learn new skills and strive for personal bests, is a vital part of development.

It’s about challenging oneself, not just defeating others. It can lead to a child learning important life lessons and the development of a growth mindset: the idea that we can constantly grow and adapt.

However, when competition turns into focusing solely on winning or being the best, it can lead to undue pressure and stress.

This is where competitive behaviour can become a bad thing, overshadowing the joy of participating and learning.

For kids, especially those in high school or involved in sport, this pressure can be intense.

Recognizing when your child is putting too much pressure on themselves is important.

What is their overall attitude towards activities, challenges and life in general?

Super-competitive kids might show signs of distress over minor setbacks or have a hard time dealing with loss.

Pressure to be the best can impact their mental health and peer relationships, turning what should be a positive experience into a source of anxiety.

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Recognizing Overly Competitive Behaviour in Children

Over-competitiveness manifests in different ways, depending on the child and the situation.

It might be evident during a basketball game, in a classroom setting, or during everyday family life.

Key signs include:

  • Disproportionate reactions to winning or losing.
  • An intense focus on being the best.
  • Difficulty enjoying activities unless they’re the outright winner.

Do any of these resonate with you regarding your child?

In competitive situations, your child might struggle with peer relationships, as their drive to win can overshadow teamwork and empathy.

Siblings often bear the brunt of this competitive zeal.

For instance, a super competitive child might have a hard time playing a simple game with a younger sibling without turning it into a high-stakes competition.

Extreme competitiveness can of course extend to their academic and extracurricular activities. In high schools, overly competitive students may view every test, game, or performance as a make-or-break moment.

Such an attitude, while sometimes leading to short-term success, can have long-term implications on their mental health and social development.

Now let’s explore the impact of excessive competitiveness on child development and strategies for managing it.

close up of 12 year old girl playing basketball

Overly Competitive Child Case Example (Emily Age 12)

Emily is an avid basketball player and a high achiever in all areas. She is a serious and driven child.

Emily’s competitive drive initially helped her excel in sports, but over time, the pressure to always be the best began affecting her mental health and school performance.

Her emotions were extreme. If she won she would be on a high. If she lost, her anger and distress could last several days.

Emily’s parents also noticed high anxiety before games.

With guidance and support, Emily learned to focus more on personal growth and teamwork, rather than just winning. But more about that later!

Cases like Emily’s highlight the need for us to help children find value in the process, not just the outcome.

If children’s moods and mental wellness are based on external circumstances like the outcome of a game, they will be at the mercy of this outcome and their mental health is likely to be volatile.

Let’s discuss strategies for parenting overly competitive children. We want to build a healthier competitive mindset, avoiding an “all or nothing” attitude to competition.

ten year old boy resting his arms on the back of a bench thoughtful

Strategies for Parenting Overly Competitive Children

1. Praising Effort Over Outcome in Your Overly Competitive Child

Shift the focus from winning to effort and what they have gained. Acknowledge the hard work your child puts in, regardless of the result. Also acknowledge their feelings of disappointment, frustration or sadness.

Consider a child who loves football but gets upset when their team loses.

Instead of focusing solely on the loss, engage them in a conversation about what they learned from the game and what moments they enjoyed.

“I noticed you made a great pass in the second half. How did that feel?” or “What do you think you learned from today’s game?”

This method helps your child gradually start to appreciate personal achievements and the joy of participation. It teaches them that growth and enjoyment are just as important as the final score.

This might sound impossible but honestly it works. One of my children used to be overly competitive and has very much mellowed over the years!

2. Introducing Low-Stakes Activities

Incorporate activities where the outcome is secondary to the enjoyment of the activity itself.

This could be family board games or non-competitive hobbies like crafts.

Your child is motivated by competition, but they also need some time to relax and gain simple enjoyment from just taking part. There is a balance, and their mental health will undoubtedly benefit from mixing non-competitive with competitive activities.

a young girl happily playing the piano

3. Teaching Gracious Winning and Losing

Encourage your child to be a gracious winner and a supportive loser. You will need to have regular conversations about sportsmanship and respecting other people’s feelings.

Think of yourself as both a parent and a life skills coach!

Gracious winning and losing can be a tough skill to learn, especially for highly competitive children where it means so much.

If your child wins a game, encourage them to consider the feelings of their peers who didn’t win.

Suggest ways they can express kindness and support, such as saying, “You played really well,” or “I really enjoyed playing with you.” You will be building their emotional intelligence and empathy.

If they lose, support your child in expressing gratitude for the opportunity to participate and learn. Encourage them to acknowledge the skill and effort of the winner.

It hurts when we lose, but it’s inevitable that we can’t always win or be the best. It may take a long time for your child to become skilled at this, because it takes a high level of emotion regulation.

4. Encouraging Team Activities

By being part of a team, your child can learn that success is not just about individual achievement but also about working together towards a common goal.

A collaborative environment helps them appreciate the value of each team member’s contribution. It will teach your child the importance of cooperation, communication, and mutual support.

Team settings also provide an ideal backdrop for children to develop empathy and social skills. They learn to celebrate not only their own successes but also those of their teammates.

Experiencing both wins and losses as a group helps them understand and manage their competitive instincts. It builds resilience and sportsmanship.

5. Setting Realistic Goals

Setting realistic goals helps temper your child’s expectations. they can still aim high, whilst reducing the risk of disappointment and frustration that can arise from unattainable aspirations.

Have open conversations with your child about their abilities and limits. You are aiming for a healthy sense of self-awareness and self-acceptance.

Setting goals is a wonderful way to encourages a growth mindset, where the focus shifts from winning at all costs to personal development and continuous improvement.

Realistic goal-setting teaches children the value of perseverance and hard work. It helps them recognize that success is a journey, often marked by setbacks and learning opportunities.

This approach builds resilience, equipping them to face future challenges with confidence and determination.

6. Modeling Healthy Competition

Demonstrate healthy competitive behaviours yourself.

Children learn a lot from observing their parents. Show them how to engage in competition in a respectful and positive way.

7. Creating a Balanced Lifestyle

Beyond guiding your child in their competitive endeavours, it’s crucial to work towards a balanced lifestyle.

To manage the demands of competitive activities, your child needs to eat right, get sufficient sleep, and engage in some low-key or relaxing activities.

My top tip is that kids need more help with lifestyle than you think, even in the teenage years.

For example, negotiate a regular bed time in advance and remind them, give them countdown warning and so on.

serious teen boy in a library

Building a Supportive Environment for Growth

A supportive and understanding environment is essential for children who exhibit overly competitive behaviour.

Let’s explore how you can build this supportive space:

Encouraging a Broad Range of Interests

Encourage your child to explore various activities, not just competitive ones.

This diversification helps them discover different aspects of their personality and talents.

Open Communication and Emotional Support

Maintain open lines of communication. Let your child know they can talk about their feelings and frustrations.

a children's sports coach celebrating with the children

Consistent Routines and Healthy Habits

One important key to supporting overly competitive children is establish consistent routines.

Prioritize their physical, emotional, and mental well-being. Actively integrate structured times for rest to teach your child the importance of recharging, essential for maintaining overall health and preventing burnout.

This balance is crucial for children who might push themselves too hard in competitive pursuits.

Positive Role Models

Expose your child to positive role models who demonstrate healthy competitive behaviour.

This can include coaches, teachers, or family members who embody the values you want to instill in your child.

Overly Competitive Child Case Example Continued: Emily’s Story (Part 2)

Let’s now catch up with our case example, twelve year-old basketball player Emily.

Emily’s parents tackled her competitive streak by gently shifting her focus from winning to personal growth and teamwork.

They started with open discussions about the joy and satisfaction of playing and the lessons learned from each game, win or lose.

They also introduced family activities and games that emphasized fun and cooperation over competition.

They encouraged Emily to join a new basketball team that valued personal development as much as winning.

Emily’s parents then made a point to praise her sportsmanship and team contributions, not just her achievements.

The change in Emily was gradual and came with its challenges.

There were days when old habits resurfaced, especially after tough losses, but over time, Emily began to see the value in teamwork and personal effort.

She learned to handle losses better, seeing them as opportunities to learn.

Her anxiety around competitions eased, and while she remained competitive, it was with a healthier mindset.

a young teen boy playing guitar in his room

Conclusion: Supporting Overly Competitive Children

In your parenting journey, balancing your child’s competitive spirit is a delicate task, one I deeply relate to as a parent and psychologist.

A competitive nature will take your child far in life in terms of success, but happiness and mental health are just as important.

A healthy lifestyle, with proper nutrition and sleep, plays a crucial role in them flourishing.

Your constant support, understanding, and unconditional love are pivotal.

You will gradually be nurturing a well-rounded competitor but also a compassionate and resilient individual.

Related Articles

Developing Flexible Thinking Skills in Kids: Why and How?

Signs of a Controlling Child (and What to Do as a Parent)

Helping Your Child Cope With Setbacks

Bossy Child, No Friends? Compassionate Parenting Guide

What Are Your Child’s Behavioural and Emotional Strengths?

Dr Lucy Russell is a UK clinical psychologist who works with children and families. Her work involves both therapeutic support and autism assessments. She is the Clinical Director of Everlief Child Psychology, and also worked in the National Health Service for many years. In 2019 Lucy launched They Are The Future, a support website for parents of school-aged children.

Through TATF Lucy is passionate about giving practical, manageable strategies to parents and children who may otherwise struggle to find the support they need.

Lucy is a mum to two teenage children. She lives in Buckinghamshire with her husband, children, rescue dog and three rescue cats. She enjoys caravanning and outdoor living, singing and musical theatre.

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