Learning to Lose

Oh the tears... you know they are coming... You try to be a good parent, encourage less time on electronics, but you also know you are potentially facing game pieces strewn on the floor, slammed doors, and cries of "No fair!"

Losing can be hard!

I offer you the following 3 Step Action Plan to Help the Sore Loser

#1 Prepare for Battle

Spend some time thinking about under what circumstances your child has the hardest time. What types of games frustrate him or her most and with which ones is your child most successful. Also think about with whom you child displays negative behavior and which environments (e.g. school, home, friend’s house) cause the most stress when playing games.

Based on the above, you can do your best to create an optimal environment to make losing less stressful, hence reducing your child’s over-reactions. Quick games are typically the best to start with for a few reasons. The time investment is lower so they feel like they have less at stake. A loss at a 10-minute game at Sorry is easier to handle than a marathon Monopoly session. Additionally, multiple games can be played in a short time, providing more opportunities to have a balanced ratio of winning and losing. The ideal number of players depends on your child. On one hand, more people involved in the game could make him or her feel more pressured. On the other hand, if you play with 5 people and only one wins, the impact of losing is diffused among the other 4 players.

#2 In the Trenches

Look for red flags that the game is going south. Red face, heavy sighs, tight jaw... you know them. Don’t be afraid to take breaks. Just don’t tell your child, "You need to take a break." This will come off as a punishment and cause more stress. If you see the warning signs, pretend you need a bathroom break or that you are hungry and come back with a snack. Start talking about a preferred topic to lighten the mood again. Keep the atmosphere upbeat.

It’s perfectly fine to let your child win sometimes. Many will say that in real life no one lets you win but that is missing the point. The goal here is to foster a positive relationship with playing games, which sometimes includes losing. Kids need a balance of both winning and losing. If your child hardly ever experiences winning, they will simply give up and avoid playing in general. Once your child gets the hang of losing once in a while, increase the number of times they lose and make sure to deliver praise for handling it without any negative behavior.

Authentically model gracious losing. Sometimes well-intentioned adults model how to handle losing by saying something like, "Oh darn! Oh well!" in a singsong voice that just comes off as fake. Try to model how the child genuinely feels during the game, (e.g. "I really want to win!") but also give compliments to the other team members during the game (e.g. "nice move"). If you lose, model a realistic but respectful response (e.g. "Ugh! Ok, good game.").

#3 The Aftermath

If your child still tantrums when they lose, wait it out and then debrief about the game. Take that information to help create an even more successful game play next time.

Check your own competitive behavior. As parents, we often tell our kids, "It’s only a game" but then display overly competitive behavior in our actions. We do things like yell instructions from the sidelines when our kids play sports and cut people off when driving so we can be first. We also find it easy to be kind to our kids but many times parents are bullies to their own selves. Shut down any negative self-talk.

You may think that you shouldn’t have to do all this work to "play." Remember that kids play is work and with it comes the development of vital social skills such as empathy, social-awareness and self-regulation. These skills lay the foundation for a happy, well-adjusted future. We all want our kids to make have strong, healthy peer relationships. Game play is often the first way in which kids establish these ties. Let's help them where they need it. We can do it!