By Roni Cohen-Sandler, Ph.D.
The sheer number of young people today is causing your daughter’s generation to compete more for coveted spots in private schools, sports teams, colleges, internships, and jobs. As a result, girls often feel daily pressure to beat out their peers, to be seen as the absolute greatest, and even to become superstars. Although a certain competitive edge can be motivating, for some girls this attitude becomes extreme and unhealthy.
Look for signs that your daughter may be overdoing competition. If she becomes distraught over mild setbacks or minor mistakes, or views her classmates and teammates as utter rivals, her competitiveness may be detrimental. Does she get unduly upset when she gets a disappointing grade or her team loses? Girls who are overly competitive set ever-higher goals, are rarely satisfied with their accomplishments, and continuously push themselves to do more—and to be more. Yet they never feel satisfied with their accomplishments. It is as if they are on a treadmill, going faster and faster but getting nowhere.
If you suspect your daughter is caught in this negative cycle, begin by discussing openly your concerns about her goals. Are they realistic? Are your parental expectations for her in line with her talents and inclinations? Try clarifying, “When I ask you to try your best, I don’t mean you should be the best.” Help her to realize that she can never be tops in everything, that there will always be people who are smarter, more athletic, or more talented than she is. When you praise her, be truthful and specific about what you value. Emphasize not just external emblems of success such as team wins, stellar grades, and prizes, but also her inner qualities such as sportsmanship, effort, integrity, sense of humor, and compassion.
Teach your daughter how to set her own standards, rather than comparing herself to others. Make sure she has down time to relax, hang out with friends, and daydream. Unless she needs extra help, signing her up for additional classes or getting a tutor to give her “an edge” may only intensify her pressure. Be mindful of avoiding burn-out. Similarly, make sure she has plenty of opportunities to be a kid and doesn’t take on the burdens and worries of older adolescence or adulthood. Instead, encourage her to focus on discovering which of her activities and accomplishes make her feel good—and proud of herself.