Is Your Child a Sore Loser?

Sick of anger-induced board flip or tears when they aren’t winning? Here's some tips for helping them lose with grace.

Full disclosure: I do not enjoy playing board or card games with my son. Before you judge, hear me out. While I love spending time with him, I cannot handle the board flips, card tosses, screaming, tears and cheating that come along with playing games together. 

You see, I refuse to let him win. If he wins the game, it’s because he earned it. I’ve had several people tell me that I should just let him win if he’s going to have tantrums every time he loses, but I’m not sure that’s good for him in the long run. He won’t always win in life, so he needs to be prepared, right? 

The problem is that I’m not sure how to help him lose with grace.  

That’s why I chatted with Albiona Rakipi, founder of The Parenting Reframe and mom of two teens. Rakipi, who has been working with kids and parents for more than two decades, shared some insight into competition and coping with a sore loser. 

A cultural shift

My son plays soccer and loves it, but he is quick to be upset if he doesn’t score a goal every game. Honestly, I blame my husband for the pressure that my son puts on himself during sports. My husband fixates on goals and winning whereas I focus on the fun and skill building. 

Rapiki says we might all have a large issue when it comes to competition and the focus on winning. 

“As a culture, we’re focused on the end result, the product, rather than the process. This is ingrained in our kids from an early age. It’s subtle yet insidious because, over time, it sends the wrong message,” Rakipi says. “Recognize in your home where you acknowledge the process instead of the product. The more we collectively adopt this process, the better our kids will be at losing and winning.”

While it’s OK to be competitive, it becomes an issue when kids react negatively — by getting angry, yelling or sulking — or can’t rebound from the loss. This is what happens with my son when he loses. 

But it turns out that losing really is important for a child’s development. 

“It teaches our kids resilience. The more they experience a situation they don’t want or like, the better they can tolerate frustration and work through it,” she says. “Maybe they’ll see that by working harder, they can win the next time, or they can start to celebrate the friend who won even though they wished for a different outcome. Losing is a great experience, and over time it can take our kids from feeling easily frustrated and angry to resilient and confident.”

The bad news: As kids get older, it’s not guaranteed that they will get over being sore losers. 

“If you see your child struggling with losing, so much so that you observe whining, tantrums and angry outbursts, we can’t rely on time to fix it. It’s really your child expressing to you that they don’t know how to process disappointment,” Rakipi says. “Competition is an opportunity for kids to build resilience. It is impossible to always win or to always be the best at something, so it’s important that we help our kids have the full experience of losing without any attempt at fixing it.”

Losing with grace

If you want to help your child handle losing better, Rakipi suggests laying down specific ground rules before you start playing. 

“It’s best to discuss the plan while your child is attentive and calm. For example, you can say, ‘Hey, I know winning means a lot to you, but sometimes you’ll win, and sometimes you’ll lose. I know it upsets you, but you can’t throw the game or disrespect the person who won. If you can’t do that, you won’t be able to participate in the next game.’”

Once the game begins, if you notice your child struggling with not doing so great during the game, Rakipi says don’t get angry with your child when they start to show frustration. Avoid saying things like, “Cut it out. If you do this again, you’re not playing.” Instead, take a deep breath, try to remember that your child is struggling and validate how they are feeling. Try “It’s OK to be upset or even angry, but it’s not OK to yell” instead.  

And, because our children are always watching, model the behaviors you expect to see. Focus on the participation and cooperation of playing a game versus winning.

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