Susan Bartell, Psy.D.
Did you know that Audrey is already reading chapter books?” “Sports always came so easily to your brother.” “See that little boy sitting quietly over there? Can you try to be more like that?” If you’re like most parents, you’ve said something along these lines to your child at some point. Maybe it’s just a comment that slipped out in a moment of frustration, or maybe it’s a frequent refrain in your home. Either way, you probably didn’t realize how damaging it can be to your child.
One of the most common things I see in my practice is parents who unfavorably compare a younger child to an older sibling. It can be hard not to, especially if the older child was better behaved or got better grades. Something similar can happen in school: You see that another child is ahead of your child and you wonder why. Quite possibly, you think mentioning this to your child will motivate her to try harder or do better. But the comparisons erode a child’s confidence and make her feel she’s not good enough.
In families, what’s often at the root of the comparisons is a parent’s ability to relate more to one child than another, often because they have similar interests or temperaments. They form a closer connection and the other child feels rejected.
Why is this so harmful? Developmentally speaking, kids core sense of self develops by the time they’re a teen. And if what they’ve internalized is that they don’t measure up, that’s a message that then becomes a part of who they are as a person and stays with them as they go through life.
Our goal as parents is to see our kids for who they really are rather than comparing them to what we expected or who we wish they could be. My advice on how:
Recognize the problem. Sometimes the comparisons are subtle: Jared does his homework every day at 3:00. Maybe you should try that. You may not feel that’s a criticism, but your child may interpret it that way—and feel he’s disappointing you. Maybe he’s just different from Jared and needs more downtime after school. How to tell whether you’re comparing? If you start thinking I wish Jeremy were more like Jared, there’s a good chance that’s the message you’re sending to your child.
Ban the comparisons—period. They’re never helpful or appropriate.
If you have a suggestion, make it without comparing. In the homework example, you could say, Jeremy, I’ve noticed you’re not finishing your homework until 8:00. How about if you have a quick snack after school and then let’s try an experiment to see if starting your homework at 3:15 works for you. This way you’ve addressed the problem without the comparison.
View your child through a separate lens than the one through which you view other kids. See her as a self-contained individual who is unrelated to any other child and ask yourself, If you were another parent and you saw this child, what would you see? This helps you view your child as an amazing person in her own right with all the positive qualities she possesses.
Understand that you are the one who needs to make the change, not your child. You want to reach a point at which you can admit to yourself that your child doesn’t need to be quieter, louder, or more athletic. Then your goal is to adapt to your child by taking an interest in his interests and finding things you can do together. Maybe he’s artistic and you aren’t but you could help him shop for an art table or frame his artwork.
Recognize that your child is who she is. You can guide, encourage, and support. You can do a certain amount to enhance a child’s potential. But you can’t make her into something she’s not. Instead, embrace and celebrate her for her many positive traits and abilities. Both of you will benefit!
How do you avoid comparing siblings and peers?