This Tips for Parents article authored by Eileen Kennedy-Moore, PhD is from a seminar she hosted for Young Scholar families. She highlights some of the key challenges that gifted children face related to cooperation and competition, and she offers practical ways that parents can help.
Helping Gifted Children Handle Cooperation and Competition
Being able to handle cooperation and competition is an essential part of working and playing well with others. However, gifted children often struggle with group activities. Their strong views about the “Right” way to do things may make it hard for them to compromise. Their sensitivity about evaluations or fears of hurting others’ feelings can lead them to avoid or overreact to even mild forms of competition. Because they are used to performing well, they may also find it hard to cope with setbacks, struggles, or losses.
Some common situations that can present challenges related to cooperation and competition include: working on group projects at school, handling winning and losing games, dealing with performance fears, and coping with competition within the family.
- Start by acknowledging your child’s feelings. You could say: “It’s frustrating when you have a clear idea of how you want the project to go and the other kids don’t want to do it that way,” “You’re disappointed that your team didn’t win and angry that the other kids didn’t seem to be taking the game seriously,” “Having the whole class watch you during the spelling bee makes you feel self-conscious,” or “You wish your teacher wouldn’t compare you to your brother.” When parents accurately and lovingly reflect children’s feelings, it helps children to feel cared for and understood. It can also help children to be more open to considering coping options.
- Encourage empathy. When gifted children focus completely on outcome and ignore process, they may overlook, dismiss, or disregard other children’s feelings. After you’ve acknowledged your child’s feelings, your child may feel calm enough to consider others’ reactions. You could ask questions such as “What did you notice about how Matthew was feeling during the argument?” and “What could you do to help him feel better?”
- Discuss what good process looks like. Children don’t automatically know how to cooperate or how to be a good sport. These are learned behaviors. Knowing what behaviors they’re aiming for can make it more likely that they’ll be able to do them. For instance, you could brainstorm with your child about ways to contribute to group morale. Possibilities include asking other children, “What do you want to do?” or “What do you think?”, working cheerfully without complaining, and complimenting other children’s work.
- Build up your child’s tolerance for winning and losing. The key to coping with competitive games is to realize that winning and losing are temporary states. You can help your child understand this by gradually exposing him or her to increasingly involved competitive games. If your child is very sensitive in this area, you may need to start with cooperative games, where players work together to try to achieve some goal. https://familypastimes.com/ offers some excellent cooperative board games. Move on to “beat your own record” games, then very short competitive games, then longer, but low-threat “kids against the grown-ups” games. When your child is ready, participating in sports or other organized competitions can also encourage good sportsmanship. Explain to your child that we can’t always win a game, but we can always “win the fun” by having a good time playing and enjoying the other players’ company.
- Normalize performance anxiety. For some gifted children, fears about competition are related to performance anxiety. It’s normal to want to avoid things that make us feel scared or anxious, but anxiety doesn’t have to be a stop signal. Sometimes those butterflies are just our bodies’ way of getting ready to do something challenging. Research consistently shows that the best performance tends to occur at moderate levels of anxiety. Too much anxiety can make us feel paralyzed, but too little means we’re indifferent. Talk with your child about ways to keep anxiety at that moderate level. Deep breathing, visualization, calming self-talk, and focusing on the task at hand (rather than feared outcomes) are good possibilities.
- Focus on growth. Gifted children are used to doing well, so they may feel at a loss when someone else—such as a sibling or a classmate—performs better than they do. Because children tend to be black and white thinkers, they may quickly decide that they are “no good” at a task where they aren’t instantly successful, or that certain subject areas belong to the better-performing sibling or classmate and are therefore unavailable to them. Judgments such as “I’m good at math and my brother is good at English” can become self-imposed prohibitions. If you hear your child talking like this, leap on it. No area of learning is off limits. Some areas just take more effort to master. Help your child embrace effort rather than feel frightened or ashamed of it by explaining that the important thing isn’t where we start, but where we end up.
- Explain that comparisons are relative. It’s dangerous for children (or adults!) to attach their entire self-worth to being The Best or Better Than Everyone Else, because when the pool gets wider, that may no longer be true. To help your child understand that comparisons are relative, start by talking about physical size: Is your child big or little? The answer is: bigger than a toddler and smaller than a teenager, but big enough to do his or her favorite activities. Is your child’s bedroom big or little? It’s bigger than a closet and smaller than a gymnasium, but big enough to hold your child’s bed, clothes, and favorite possessions. So size is not a yes/no question. The same is true for smartness. The important thing is that your child is smart enough to learn whatever he or she wants to learn. Ask your child, “What is it that you want to learn?” That’s a much more interesting and important question than “Who is smartest?”
Eileen Kennedy-Moore, PhD, is a clinical psychologist (NJ lic. #35SI00425400) and co-author of two books for parents, Smart Parenting for Smart Kids: Nurturing Your Child’s True Potential (Jossey-Bass/Wiley) and The Unwritten Rules of Friendship: Simple Strategies to Help Your Child Make Friends (Little, Brown), as well as a book for mental health professionals, Expressing Emotion (Guilford Press). She is also the author of an award-winning children’s book, What About Me? 12 Ways to Get Your Parents’ Attention Without Hitting Your Sister (Parenting Press). Dr. Kennedy-Moore has a private practice in Princeton, NJ, where she offers psychotherapy for gifted children and gifted adults. She frequently speaks at schools and conferences.
NOTE: The contents of this tip sheet are for educational purposes only. They may or may not be relevant for your particular situation.