Why Children Make Downward Social Comparisons

Father talking seriously to teenage son (11-13), sitting on couch

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What is the definition of a downward comparison? With this overview of the concept, learn more about what downward comparisons are, why tweens and teens engage in them, and why such comparisons aren't healthy to make all the time.

Defining Downward Comparisons

Downward comparisons are one type of social comparison or an assessment of how we measure up against our peers. When we make downward comparisons, we judge ourselves against people who are less skilled or fortunate than ourselves. For instance, a tween who is struggling in soccer might compare himself to the worst player on the team and think, "Well at least I can block better than he can."

Downward comparisons are the opposite of upward comparisons in which a tween compares himself to the best person on the team and beats himself up about why he doesn't measure up. Upward comparisons can hurt a child's self-esteem.

Why Downward Comparisons Aren't Always Good

It would be detrimental if a child made only downward comparisons and no upward comparisons; in that case, the child might not strive to be better and might develop an unrealistic, over-inflated sense of self. At the same time, a surplus of upward comparisons can also be problematic since downward comparisons serve to protect self-esteem.

Competing Against Oneself

Parents can encourage their children to judge their own efforts and circumstances relative to their past selves rather than relative to others. If the soccer player in the previously mentioned example wants more goals, for example, he should review how many goals he earned last season and examine which techniques he can use to improve. This is better than comparing himself to a student with different athletic abilities, physical stature, and other capabilities.

That said, social comparisons happen naturally and do not need to be negative, especially if a balance is struck between upward and downward comparisons.

Parents can try to limit such social comparisons by refraining from doing so themselves.

Don't compare your child to his older brother, pointing out, for example, at what age the older brother hit a developmental milestone.

People compare siblings all the time, leading to jealousy and resentment among them. Not comparing brothers and sisters is not only good for sibling relationships, but it also might inspire children to first and foremost compete against themselves.

Why Downward Comparisons Aren't Fair

Parents can explain to children that downward comparisons are neither accurate nor fair because everyone is different. If your child is built "better" than the worst soccer player on his team or has been playing the game longer, it's unfair of him to compare himself to the poor player.

The same is true for upward comparisons as well. Perhaps the parents of the best player on the team have paid for him to go to soccer camp each year. This is another advantage that makes comparisons inaccurate.

Explain to your child that because everyone is not only different but also has genetic advantages and other advantages, comparisons aren't the best move to make. Let your child know that the best athletes in the world compete against themselves and the records they have set.

2 Sources
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  1. Wang J-L, Wang H-Z, Gaskin J, Hawk S. The Mediating Roles of Upward Social Comparison and Self-esteem and the Moderating Role of Social Comparison Orientation in the Association between Social Networking Site Usage and Subjective Well-BeingFront Psychol. 2017;8:771. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00771

  2. Vogel EA, Rose JP, Roberts LR, Eckles K. Social comparison, social media, and self-esteemPsychology of Popular Media Culture. 2014;3(4):206-222. doi:10.1037/ppm0000047

Additional Reading
  • Myers, David G. Social Psychology, 13th edition. New York: McGraw-Hill.

By Rebecca Fraser-Thill
Rebecca Fraser-Thill holds a Master's Degree in developmental psychology and writes about child development and tween parenting.