“Comparison is the thief of joy,” is a popular saying in the social consciousness. As adults, we recognize this to mean that when we compare our lives to those of friends and even strangers, not only are we minimizing our own joyful pursuits, we often find ourselves coming up short when viewed side-by-side with others. Still, many of us engage in this joy-stealing practice, despite knowing how unhelpful it is to our mental well-being. How, then, can we help our children avoid this pitfall and learn to practice contentment in a world that invites comparison?
During the later years of Middle Childhood and into the late teens, comparing oneself to others is a very normal part of development. Every kid within their sphere becomes a yardstick by which children measure themselves: “Am I smart enough?” “Am I thin/tall/pretty/good-looking enough?” “Do I have enough/the right friends?” and so on. This, in itself, is not a problem as it’s pivotal in developing self-awareness and self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is your child’s belief and confidence in their capacity to perform a task and is an important contributing factor to their overall maturation and wellness. The difficulties ensue when comparison and perceived deficiencies create a barrier to other areas of development and/or lead to a pervasive negative self-image.
Recent research studies encompassing a wide variety of adolescent participants confirm that social comparison has the potential to have a detrimental effect on the emotional well-being of children. Upward social comparison – comparing oneself with someone they perceive to be superior – is particularly fraught with peril and potentially leads to increased rates of depression, isolation, substance abuse, and other forms of self-harm. With this knowledge, and given the inevitably of comparison, how can we best help our kids navigate through this tricky developmental milestone?
Here are a few ideas:
Model positive reactions and behavior: In addition to working on not comparing yourself to others, think about how you react when a comparison is placed in your lap. Perhaps your child has mentioned that their friend’s home is bigger than yours, their car is nicer, or something else that encourages comparison? In these moments, we can say with sincerity, “That’s great! I’m happy for them, but I’m also content with what we have.” If it’s your goal to improve in the future, do be honest about that, but also let your child know you’re happy with where you are.
Help your child find their “sweet spot”: Every child has something they’re great at. Help them find that thing and then encourage them to pursue it and become the best they want to be at it. When comparisons invariably come, remind them of their own wonderfulness. If they see themself as being behind others pursuing the same goal, help them adopt a “growth mindset” vocabulary. Encourage them to say, “I’m not where I want to be YET,” which is a reminder of the growth to come. When opportunity arises, tell others about your child’s wonderfulness! Give them a cocoon of being known for what’s great about them.
Center the family: Provide your child with regular opportunities to center themself within the family who loves and sees the best in them. This means putting away devices and outside influences for a little while. Getting away from social media won’t stop comparisons, but feeling accepted, appreciated, and valued is a great barrier to the negativity that flows from comparison. Celebrate your child and tell them they’re loved just as they are.
While comparison is normal and often upsetting, it needn’t lead to despair. Working with your child to discover their strengths and best methods of support can go a long way toward bringing them contentment when they feel under pressure from our culture of comparison, even as they’re reaching for new goals and growing before your eyes.
Julie Ball, MS Counseling & Guidance, PPS, is a freelance writer