Young girls today are taught to believe that they can be anything they want to be: “Girl power!” But reaching for the top requires a healthy competitive drive, and new research shows that many girls have trouble managing the stress and emotions that go along with competition. This reluctance to compete can have an impact on girls’ educational choices, career trajectories and eventual earning power, contributing to the historic pay gap between men and women. Fortunately, psychologists say that parents can help girls to become more comfortable with competition—as long as the focus is on the right kind of striving against others.
For many young people today, society’s definition of success is narrow: getting straight A’s, gaining admission to an elite college and launching a good career. Girls know that they are competing with their friends for educational and work opportunities. But while most boys are socialized to think that competing is fun, even when battling it out with their closest friends, most girls are conditioned from a young age to work together to reach their goals.
A study of nearly 60 affluent girls in grades six to 12, published last year in the Journal of Adolescent Research, found that they feel pressure not to acknowledge their aspirations openly, which adds to their stress. For two consecutive years, researchers conducted in-depth interviews with students, parents and teachers from two independent, single-sex schools to discover the major stress factors facing the young girls. One significant source was “peer competition” and a lack of adult guidance on how to navigate being part of a close-knit but competitive community. According to the researchers, “Many of these girls talked about heightened anxiety and stress and even low self-esteem as a consequence of feeling like they were not meeting the high standards and keeping up with their peers.”
Lead researcher Renee Spencer, a professor of social work at Boston University, says that competition is “more complex for girls because their relationships are so central to their well-being.” Girls can struggle to reconcile their desire to be a strong competitor with being a good friend, says child psychologist Lisa Damour, author of ”Under Pressure: Confronting the Epidemic of Stress and Anxiety in Girls,” in part because of the mixed messages they receive. “Parents sometimes conflate being ambitious with being unkind, so, without even realizing it, they may signal that girls should temper their striving in order to protect them from criticism,” says Dr. Damour. Adults have been so pointed about directing girls to be nice, she says, that many girls don’t even know that having a competitive drive can be good for them.
Researchers distinguish between healthy and unhealthy competitive feelings. A healthy competitive attitude is driven by a personal desire to excel, finds joy in competing against worthy opponents and is associated with high self-esteem and prosocial behavior. Unhealthy competition, on the other hand, is driven by the desire to display superiority over an opponent, relishes an opponent’s loss and is associated with low self-esteem, anger, depression and anxiety.
Which type of competition a young person engages in can depend on the tools they have to manage the complex feelings involved. In a study of adolescents presented at the 2018 Canadian Conference on Developmental Psychology, researchers Tamara Humphrey and Tracy Vaillancourt examined the relationship among competitive behavior, jealousy and aggression in 615 Canadian adolescents from seventh grade to 12th grade. Using self-reported questionnaires, they found that on average, the boys reported more unhealthy competitive behavior than the girls, but the girls were more jealous and more likely to use indirect aggression, such as exclusion and gossip, than the boys. Unhealthy competitive behavior in lower grades predicted higher levels of jealousy in grades 10 and 11, and greater use of direct and indirect aggression in 12th grade.
Parents can teach girls to reframe jealous feelings and use them instead for inspiration.
Dr. Vaillancourt, a professor of psychology at the University of Ottawa in Ontario, says that when we compare ourselves to someone who is better at some skill or activity, we feel jealous, and it is tempting to try to repair our fractured ego by employing indirect aggression, like cutting our competitor down. What is harder, she says, “is accepting when we are falling short and finding ways to remedy it, like working or training harder and building more relationships.”
So what can parents do to help encourage healthy competition in girls and discourage the unhealthy kind? Dr. Vaillancourt says that they can teach girls to reframe jealous feelings and use them instead for inspiration. Instead of lingering on negative emotions, they can ask “How did my opponent achieve this and what can I learn from them to better myself?”
When girls are young, parents can reinforce the idea that being a fierce competitor isn’t only acceptable but desirable by modeling healthy competitive behavior. Dr. Damour says, “When you’re playing games with your children, instead of letting them win, which sends the signal that beating them is unkind, parents can play to win while also being encouraging and celebrating their daughters whenever they make a smart move.”
For adolescent girls, it is helpful to make a clear distinction between being an aggressive competitor and being an aggressive person, notes Dr. Damour. “When I’m watching the Olympics with my daughters,” she says, “I point out how the female athletes push each other so hard when they’re competing, but when they come across the finish line, they immediately congratulate and hug one another.”
Girls need to internalize the message that being a competitive person and a good, supportive friend don’t have to be at odds with one another, says Dr. Damour: “They can be felt one right after the other.”