“Comparison is the thief of joy”
— President Theodore Roosevelt
President Roosevelt’s quote rings louder than ever today. Each one of us has fallen into the trap of social comparisons, particularly in this era of social media. At one point or another, we’ve all compared ourselves to others and wondered how we measure up.
This phenomenon is known as the “Social Comparison Theory,” which is the notion that individuals determine their worth based on how they compare to other people — a concept that touches every aspect of our lives, from material possessions to relationships and talents.
We might engage in upward social comparison by comparing ourselves with others whom we perceive as better and, as a result, we feel inferior.
Or we use downward social comparison, meaning we compare ourselves with people we believe are inferior so that we feel superior.
Social comparisons are not reserved for adults, however. Children and adolescents, in their attempts to understand their place in the world, grapple with this phenomenon on an even more profound level.
Children and social comparison
Though adults engage in social comparisons, children and adolescents are more prone to it. In the process of forming their identity, they’re constantly taking in information from their environment.
They’re trying to figure out the world around them, discern who they are, and where they fit into the grand scheme of…life.
A significant influence on kiddos is their peers. After all, other kids share similar experiences, interests, and stages of development. These similarities make their peers more relatable, so they naturally compare themselves to others who are at their level.
Because of their developmental stage, kids wrestle with questions about their likes, dislikes, interests, challenges, and strengths. The desire to establish a sense of self can make them particularly sensitive to how they are perceived by their peers.
Negative impacts of comparisons
No one wants that for themselves, let alone their child.
But kiddos naturally engage in these comparisons as they try to establish their place within their peer groups. They possess a need, not merely a desire, for acceptance and belonging.
Because kids don’t have enough life experience to reflect upon, they’re more susceptible to outside influences. They turn to these external sources to shape their behaviors and beliefs. Peer comparisons become a natural outlet for them to understand and validate their identities.
This vulnerability became evident to me when one of my kids was in kindergarten, struggling to read. She was keenly aware that her peers were catching on more quickly, which increased her frustration.
She was engaging in upward social comparison.
She was ultimately diagnosed with dyslexia. Her belief that her peers were superior to her at reading began to seep into other areas of her life. Her mantra generally was “I’m not good at this” — whatever “this” was at the moment.
Over the years, my husband and I learned from counselors and teachers how to help her fight against her inner critic — the critic who told her that she failed to measure up to her classmates.
You may not have a child with learning challenges, but the toxicity of peer comparisons confronts your child regardless.
How parents can support children prone to upward social comparisons
Emphasize your child’s strengths
Emphasizing your child’s unique strengths, talents, and qualities is a huge step toward overcoming the grip that peer comparisons can have on your child. Help them recognize that everyone has different skills and interests.
Repeat this until it becomes embedded in their consciousness, if necessary.
While there are challenges with my daughter’s diagnosis, there are also gifts that coincide with them. My husband and I frequently point out her unique gifts, such as her creativity and her ability to “think outside the box.”
By focusing on your kiddo’s individual strengths, you empower them to appreciate their own capabilities without constantly measuring themselves against their peers’ capabilities.
Acknowledge their accomplishments, no matter how small, and praise their efforts. By emphasizing the value they bring to the table, you help boost their self-esteem.
Validate how they feel
It’s also important to validate your child’s feelings when they express concerns about not being as good at something as their peers. They need to know that their feelings are okay and that we’ve all experienced them.
My husband and I have done this with our daughter by, for example, acknowledging that she did have to work harder than her peers at school and that it was normal to feel frustrated by it. We praised her for rising to the occasion, despite the challenges.
Validating your child’s feelings develops trust, which will encourage them to come to you to discuss their experiences. They’ll feel more comfortable sharing information about their peer comparisons.
By creating an environment where your child can open up to you, you’re better equipped to address their struggles.
Foster a healthy mindset
Helping your child develop a healthy mindset is also crucial to avoiding toxic comparisons. This mindset encourages your child to view challenges as opportunities for growth, rather than obstacles.
Whenever my daughter reverted to her mantra that she “wasn’t good” at something, her counselor asked her to say that she “wasn’t good at it yet.”
The counselor termed it “The Power Of Yet.” My husband and I used that phrase repeatedly with our daughter to raise her awareness of her mindset.
It took several years, but she has finally reached a point where she doesn’t automatically assume she’ll never become good at any given activity.
Encourage temporal comparison
Temporal comparison is comparing “one’s present self to one’s past self, rather than to others.” How much has your child grown and progressed over time?
Temporal comparison encourages your child to strive for self-improvement and feel a sense of pride from their growth and achievements. It also deters downward social comparison — the comparison to peers whom your child perceives as less capable, making your child feel superior.
In my experience, showing our daughter how far she has come each year has helped her recognize and acknowledge her progress. She has seen, for instance, how she was able to read a book that a year earlier she couldn’t read.
These more healthy comparisons gradually became her yardstick. I can’t say she never compares herself to her peers, but those occasions have steadily decreased.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of how to help your child navigate upward social comparisons. But they’re a start. As you navigate the issue with your child, you’ll learn additional techniques.
Social comparisons are innate to all human beings, but how we guide our children in handling them can shape their perception of themselves and others.
By creating an environment that encourages self-appreciation and healthy competition, we empower our children to thrive in a world where comparisons are inevitable.
Ultimately, they’ll be better able to combat toxic comparisons into adulthood.
This article was originally published at Medium. Republished with permission from the author.