Losing at any game or competition whether it’s with a peer, a parent, or a sibling (“First to the car!”) can seem to cause heartbreak for some children. There may be several reasons for their intense reactions. A common one is our reflexive tendency to praise and celebrate our children when they win. Naturally, we want to encourage them and demonstrate our appreciation, which they surely seek. While there’s nothing wrong with that intention, enthusiasm around winning also makes kids hyper aware that there’s another side to that coin — losing — and they sense we perceive it negatively. So from our children’s perspective, losing is a double whammy. They not only lose the game but also miss out on the approval of their parents.
Even without sending our kids those messages, feelings of loss are a natural byproduct of all the rapid growth and change they experience in these early years. There might also be more tangible, situational losses in our children’s lives, like a move to a new home or school, or the loss of the one-on-one relationship with a parent due to the addition of a sibling. Keeping all that in mind, it’s no wonder that our kids might seem to overact to what we’d consider the most trivial losses.
Here’s a question that I received from Nicole:
“Best way to handle a ‘sore loser’? He’s 6 and anytime he loses a game, even if it’s playing soccer with family for fun and we score on him, it’s instant tears. He pretends he’s hurt, but really he’s just upset he “lost.” It’s not even that we are being competitive, it’s all just fun, but he takes it so seriously. He did this in soccer when he was 5 anytime the other team scored or he missed the goal. Not sure how to approach or handle it. He says he doesn’t know why he gets so upset but that he just can’t stop himself from crying. Any insight?”
As always, the ideas behind my suggestions are simple but not necessarily easy to put into practice, because they are counterintuitive for most of us. Let whatever your child is feeling be. Better yet, encourage him to bring the feelings on all the way. “Yeah, it can be really uncomfortable to feel you’re not winning. Man, that can hurt, can’t it?” And this doesn’t mean just saying words. It’s taking our child in with accepting eyes, supporting his right to feel thoroughly, while we acknowledge him genuinely and then leave a moment of receptive silence so the feeling has a chance to exist. Here’s why I recommend this accepting approach:
It’s not just about the game
The momentary situation and specifics are often just symbols — the tipping point for deeper feelings underneath that need to be expressed.
There’s always a reason.
Trust the feelings. For all of us, feelings are involuntary and don’t necessarily make sense. The big difference with children is that they have far less emotional self-control, so feelings are expressed more strongly and spontaneously. When we attempt to alter our child’s feelings by distracting, getting angry, or even gently trying to calm our child down, we are fundamentally disallowing the feelings and sending messages like:
Sadness, anger, frustration, disappointment, etc., are an overwhelming and unsafe place to be and you can’t handle it (which can create emotional fragility and anxiety).
These parts of you are unacceptable/bad/wrong
Judging our kids creates distance and shame
Judging our children’s reactions (no matter how unreasonable or overblown they seem) can create shame and teach kids to turn the feelings inward. Granted, it can be challenging to refrain from teaching kids important life lessons like: It’s only a game. It’s not whether we win or lose… Be a good sport, not a sore loser. Brush it off. But our children’s feelings are real and our lessons and directives can’t erase them. Judging our children for their competitive feelings is, essentially, telling them they’re “losers” for not being okay with losing. Specifically, we might cause them to feel they are weak, petty, selfish. Young children have difficulty compartmentalizing our criticisms. They tend to absorb our words and take them on as self-labels.
Trusting, accepting, acknowledging, validating, and empathizing with whatever our children feel is what allows the feelings to be healing. As always with children, their emotions and behaviors are only the symptoms. What they need help with is the cause. Our acceptance creates the sense of emotional security that mends the feelings at their source.
When children feel welcome to process their emotions, they do so more readily. At the same time, they’re assured that they have us on their team rather than pointing a finger. Through our acceptance, patience and gentle modeling of good sportsmanship, they eventually learn to lose graciously, because they don’t take it personally. It is, after all, just a game. Win-win.