The stakes always feel high when you have a naturally competitive kid on your hands—and helping them cope with the inevitable losses or setbacks they encounter is no small task. For this reason, we spoke to clinical psychologist Dr. Bethany Cook—a mother of a competitive kid and self-described competitive person herself—to learn what not to say to kids who are driven to always win.
Got a Competitive Kid? Here Are 3 Things a Clinical Psychologist Wants You to Stop Saying to Them
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Meet the Expert:
- Dr. Bethany Cook PsyD, MT-BC is a licensed clinical psychologist and author of For What It’s Worth: A Perspective on How to Thrive and Survive Parenting. She's a highly-sought after therapist and quoted media expert around the globe who brings accessible, real-world guidance to families of all socioeconomic and mental health backgrounds, based on over 20 years of clinical experience in the field.
What Not to Say to a Competitive Kid
1. “I bet you wouldn’t have lost today if…”
Per the expert, it’s advisable to avoid any statement that starts this way and finishes with blaming your child’s performance on something unrelated. Say, for example, by putting the blame on your kid (think: “I bet you wouldn’t have lost today if you had gone to church with me this morning”). Dr. Cook describes these comments as “a harmful form of gaslighting that negatively impacts the child’s self-esteem, hinders their ability to learn from mistakes or lose graciously, and creates significant confusion, anxiety, and irrational thoughts.”
You also don’t want to unfairly lay the blame at someone else’s feet simply for the purpose of making your child feel better. This type of comment typically involves some kind of trash talking, like “I bet you wouldn’t have lost today if the ref hadn’t had his head up his butt” or “I bet you wouldn’t have lost if your dad knew how to get out the door on time.” Ultimately, these finger-pointing comments reinforce the child’s opinion that losing indicates a shameful personal failing unless it can be pinned to someone or something else. In other words, you’re teaching your kid to pass the buck.
That said, Dr. Cook tells us that “I bet you wouldn’t have lost if…” statements are OK if they’re done with the intention of helping a kid understand causation, rather than shaming, trash talking or glossing over the facts. For example, something like “I know you didn’t get enough sleep last night—do you think that might have impacted your performance?”or “sometimes refs miss things that can make or break a game. They’re human, too, and not everything is within your control.”
2. “You’ll always be a winner in my eyes.”
This is just one example of what Dr. Cook calls toxic positivity, in that it’s “a blanket, generic, non-specific statement that feels emotionally invalidating and gross.”
And look, we get it—when you see your kid down in the dumps after a loss, it’s a natural impulse to be their cheerleader by offering overwhelmingly positive statements. This, however, is an indication of your discomfort with their negative feelings. Alas, the “hey, rockstar!” attitude you’re projecting is likely to ring hollow and do very little to help them process the loss and shift their attitude. In other words, you’re just blowing smoke up your kids’ ass and they probably know it. (And if they’re eating it up you might be encouraging narcissistic tendencies.)
A better approach is one that involves a combination of positivity and honesty. “A competitive kid needs honesty to learn how to harness their feelings,” explains Dr. Cook, adding that “the best thing a parent can do is sit with the child and show them how the feelings will shift, and how they can process and learn from the experience once they’re out of the feelings.”
That doesn’t mean you have to join them in the doom and gloom, though. Instead, Dr. Cook recommends you focus your positive statements on the specifics. So rather than saying, “You were awesome! Don’t worry about it!” you might say something like, “I noticed you struggled a little bit with your passes today, but your ball handling skills were amazing when you scored that goal.”
3. “Maybe you’re not cut out for X.”
Remember what we said about not joining them in the doom or gloom? Yeah, don’t.
“Adding seeds of doubt only grows anxiety and stress, causing your child to rethink their choices. But if your child is passionate about something it often means they are willing to do whatever it takes to be successful at it,” says Dr. Cook.
If you encourage their passion, your child will be more likely to take the kind of “no fear” attitude that leads to success; but if you undermine their confidence, they might just develop a win-or-throw-in-the-towel approach to life, rather than learning resilience and perseverance.