When Ami Mansfield* won the final frame in the family bowling match, her glory was short-lived. Her eight-year-old son Hayden began crying on the spot. In hindsight, Mansfield isn’t surprised: Losing has always been tough for Hayden to handle.
“During card or board games, he’ll throw the game pieces across the room,” says the mom of two. Hayden will also throw tantrums when he isn’t doing well in video games. Losing—even the threat of losing—is such a sore point that Mansfield has put off enrolling her son in team sports for fear of how Hayden will react in front of his peers.
Hayden certainly isn’t alone in his inability to handle defeat. Andrea Nair, a psychotherapist and parenting educator in London, Ont., says that while some kids take winning and losing in stride, others need more support to manage their emotions in the moment.
It’s not that being competitive is a bad thing. What you don’t want is for your child to throw a tantrum or sulk when she loses, forfeit a game at the first sign of defeat or even cheat to ensure a win. Nair shares some strategies to help kids handle the big feelings that come when they’re not the first at the finish line.
1. Practise losing
Family board games are one of your kid’s first chances at learning how to lose. Play games like Snakes and Ladders, but don’t let kids win, have a do-over or get away with not sliding down a snake. Chat about how it feels to win and how it feels to lose. Siblings make ideal practice opponents before playing with peers.
2. Explain chance
Talk to your kid about why we win things: Sometimes it’s because of effort, sometimes it’s luck, and sometimes it’s both. Teach him catchphrases like, “It’s the luck of the draw” and “That’s the way the cookie crumbles,” so he doesn’t always take failure—and triumph—to heart. If your kid complains it’s not fair, fight the urge to reply, “Life’s not fair” and focus on her feelings instead. You could say, “I know you think it’s not fair. Are you angry (or sad) that you lost?”
3. Model good sportsmanship
Whether you are playing a game yourself or watching your favourite sports team lose, model being a good sport–yes, that means no trash-talking or booing! Instead of badmouthing a referee or the opposing team, you could say something like, “I’m upset the Blue Jays lost. But, it’s just a game, and I know I’ll feel better about it soon.”
4. Emphasize the positive
At a time when your kid is calm, talk about what it means to have a positive mindset while playing games. Ask your kid what he enjoys about a particular game and how he thinks he can improve. Keep the focus on pleasure and getting better rather than on winning or losing.
5. Acknowledge empathy
When your kid does handle losing (and winning) well, be sure to acknowledge it. Say something like, “I saw you congratulate the boy ahead of you, even though you were upset you lost that race.” When you talk about sports, focus on effort and empathy rather than success.
6. Be a calm-down coach
Teach your kid to take a few slow, deep breaths or count backwards from 10 when she starts to feel upset. Let her know you’re available to talk through how she feels about losing the game or race once she has calmed down.
With time and patience, Hayden will learn a more positive approach to handling defeat. In the meantime, his mom is trying to see the silver lining in his competitive nature. “He does give everything his all,” she says. For now, the Mansfield family will continue to lace up their bowling shoes and hope for the best outcome, no matter who wins or who loses.
It might be tempting to steer clear of competitive situations to save your kid from the inevitable meltdown that comes with losing, or to let her win at Candy Land, just to keep the afternoon’s peace. But some experts advise against this. In doing so, you may avoid a tantrum, but you will have also lost an important learning opportunity. Competition teaches kids that persevering through failure can yield future success, and it also strengthens character and builds skill. Learning to be a good sport when you’re a kid translates into not falling apart when your colleague snags that promotion you were hoping for.
*Names have been changed