How to manage your sports-loving kid's outsized emotions

If your kid overreacts to their favourite sports team's wins and losses, here’s how to help them regulate their emotions and understand it's just a game.

Photo: Stephanie Han Kim

Like many Canadians, our family was captivated by the Raptors’ NBA championship run last spring. But for our six-year-old son, Omar,* who could expertly pronounce Jonas Valanciunas’s last name when he was four, the epic highs and lows of the post-season were almost too much to bear.

Superstar Kawhi Leonard’s iconic buzzer-beater shot in Game 7 of the Eastern Con­ference semi-finals bounced Omar into the stratosphere with giddy excitement. But when the Raptors were down early in another game, he ran to his room, sobbing. “They’re going to lose!” he cried from under his covers, unable to fall asleep that night. Every game ended in unbridled jubilation or utter devastation. There was no in-between.

The late nights, of course, didn’t help. Because it was a historic moment, we had decided to let him stay up past his 8 p.m. bedtime to watch the first two quarters. (We screened the rest of each game for him: If the Raptors won, he could watch the fourth quarter in the morning, over his Cheerios. If they lost, he could only see the highlights.)

We didn’t realize just how worried we’d been about Omar’s intense reactions until after the final game. As we watched the celebrations on TV, my husband turned to me and said, “Thank God they won.” We were relieved we wouldn’t have to break bad news to our little superfan.

Toronto mom Karen Geller* had a similar situation with her son Adam,* who started watching a lot of baseball on TV around age eight. At first, she explains, they thought it was pretty cute that Adam, usually a fairly reserved kid, was becoming such a big sports fan. “It was fun to watch how pumped he’d get when the Blue Jays would make an especially great play. He’d scream, ‘Let’s go!’ every time anything good happened,” says Geller. “But if the other team scored, Adam would freak out: He’d angrily punch the couch, yell something like, ‘We suck!’ or even swear. He’d fly into a mini-rage, unable to regulate his emotions.”

Concerned that Adam’s inappropriate outbursts were negatively influencing his three-year-old brother, they started a one-strike-and-you’re-out policy. “He got one warning, but if he raged a second time, the game was turned off,” Geller says. They also gave him some ideas for more acceptable ways to release his anger, like taking a few deep breaths and a five-minute break.

Just breathe

The Gellers were on the right track. Toronto psychologist Kate Hays says parents should help their child label their feelings, and encourage them to take slow, deep breaths. Remind them that the only thing they can control is their own behaviour, whether they’re playing sports or watching on TV.

Make it special

What rep sports are really doing to kidsIf you already have well-established routines in your house, then staying up late for events like the NBA Finals or the Olympics can be fun exceptions to the rules, says Julie Romanowski, a Vancouver-based parenting expert. Explain to your child that these are special occasions, so it’s clear why you’re pushing bedtimes or skipping school. It’s back to the old routine when the games are over.

Introduce variety 

If you suspect your child is becoming overly invested in one team, try branching out, says Hays. She suggests exposing children to a variety of sports, whether they play the game or not, including individual ones such as tennis and figure skating. It gives kids the chance to see what victories and losses look like in multiple contexts. Talk about how the players interact and what’s at stake in each game, and make sure you’re watching together: One 2016 study of soccer, cricket and rugby fans in the UK found that a shared interest in a pro sports team was an important bonding experience for parents and kids.

Identify “bad fan” behaviour 

If you’ve ever been surrounded by rowdy fans at a game, you know that negativity and heckling can be contagious and overwhelming. Romanowski says that if you find yourself in a situation like this, just “get out of there.” Away from the crowd, explain how “those fans made a bad choice,” and discuss acceptable behaviour.

Find teachable moments 

Kids can learn from their favourite players. For example, pro athletes are experts at putting in the work, every day. “Practising is vital to becoming accomplished, whether it’s sports or schoolwork or learning any new skill,” Hays says. This lesson might inspire your armchair athlete to take up a team sport, or to work harder on their homework.

The Gellers found that Adam eventually did well with their one-warning-and-that’s-it system, along with clear consequences outlined in advance. Now 11, he’s able to watch baseball without getting as riled up.

We’ll be rooting for the Raptors again this year, of course—it’s a great way to connect as a family. But I’ll also be supporting Omar as he learns to handle the larger-than-life emotions that come with cheering on his larger-than-life heroes.

*Names have been changed.

Read more:
Hey, world? Not all boys play sports
How to handle the pressure on kids in sports

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