When your child loses at something, do they react with meltdowns, hitting, or throwing game pieces? During games, do they try to cheat or change the rules in their favor? This is a common occurrence in childhood, and I see it frequently in my office.
Why does it happen? While some children take losses in stride, others have a lot of trouble separating a game loss from their worth and intelligence. They think that losing = “I’m stupid,” and it hurts. The hurt turns to anger (which feels more powerful) and they lash out. Or, if they’re not prone to displays of anger, they may cover up their vulnerability with defensiveness and make excuses for why they didn’t win.
Fortunately, I have suggestions that can help you respond to your child when they lose. It’s important that ALL of these statements be accompanied by a genuine, empathetic tone of voice. Be careful not to sound shaming – especially when you’re setting boundaries.
What to do:
EMPATHIZE: “I get why you’re upset. It’s disappointing not to win.”
(Note that I didn’t say “lose,” which can be a bit of a trigger word.)
INTERVENE BEFORE AN EXPLOSION: “It looks like you’re getting stressed. Let’s take a break and come back to this in a few minutes.”
(Don’t ask if they want to take a break, because they’ll almost always say no, and it’ll backfire on them. State it calmly and firmly, and stand up from the game. If they get annoyed with you leaving, reflect their feeling. “You want to keep playing. We’re going to take a break, and we’ll start again in a few minutes.”)
BE AWARE OF WHAT YOU MODEL: You might lose gracefully at Chutes & Ladders, but what do you do when you lose at the video game you like? How do you react when your favorite sports team is doing poorly? Be mindful that kids watch your reactions and internalize them.
SET BOUNDARIES: “I know you love to win, but we’re not for breaking the rules. When this game is over, what would you like to play next?”
BE TRANSPARENT: “I notice when you play that video game, you have a hard time when you don’t win. Let’s find a different one for you to play.”
NOTICE PROGRESS, HOWEVER SMALL: “It’s okay to be sad when you don’t win. I noticed that you didn’t throw the game pieces this time. I’m proud of you for working on that.”
(Even if they still shouted and screamed and stomped their feet, their progress deserves to be noticed. Your acknowledgement will feel good to them, and they’ll try harder next time.)
A couple additional questions…
Should I let my child try to change the rules? In my practice, I’m fine with children finding new and unique ways to play games. I think this encourages creativity, and when an idea doesn’t work, they get to learn this on their own. Natural problem-solving at play! HOWEVER, if we start a game playing by the correct rules and a child suddenly wants to change them in their favor to avoid a loss, that’s a different story. I set the same boundary that I listed above.
What if they don’t have meltdowns or try to cheat, but I still don’t like their response? Aggression and destruction are behaviors that can and should be worked on; however, kids should always be allowed to express feelings about things. So if your child reacts to losses by whining, pouting, or being grumpy, let it go. Those are developmentally appropriate ways to respond to disappointment. You can say, “I understand you’re disappointed,” and leave it that.
You can also check out these cute children’s books on losing! Clicking the picture will take you to the Amazon page.
The above links are Amazon affiliate links, which means I get a very small percentage of what you spend without it costing you anything extra. I only recommend books that I honestly see value in, whether or not you purchase it through these links. If you’re uncomfortable using the affiliate links, you can visit http://www.amazon.com and type the book you’re searching for.