4 Reasons We Should Let Kids Be Sore Losers

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.

Acceptance heals

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.




Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. This article is perfection! <3 I also think it applies to how we interact with anyone we love, and is the best explanation I've heard of why it's so often unhelpful to go into problem-solving mode when someone wants to unload negative feelings about things going on in their life.

    1. Yes! “…it’s so often unhelpful to go into problem-solving mode when someone wants to unload negative feelings about things going on in their life.”

      Thank you so much, Jamie!

    2. So what do you do when your kid is literally attacking the other players if they score and crying uncontrollably, shouting at teachers who attempt to comfort him? Surely this behavior cannot be enabled and what about the right of the other kids who just want to play the game? When do you just pull them out if it’s overwhelming for them

  2. I get this and try my best to acknowledge my 5-year-old’s feelings when she loses, but what about when she’s rude to the other players of a game (especially other kids) … like scowling at someone else who advances or even outright rooting against them like “I hope you spin [whatever is bad in the game being played]”?

    1. Why do you think she does that, Diana? When helping children to change their behavior, it’s important to understand where it stems from. Her discomfort in these situations is just a symptom. I’d be happy to try to explore with you. 🙂

    2. I was wondering something similar…if there is a public outburst or tantrum, how to (or weather to) lovingly remove her from the situation so she’s “not that guy” but also letting her know we don’t have a problem with what she’s feeling and she has every right to feel upset/frustrated/whatever. So if the child is in a group activity and melts down at losing and is disrupting the activity, how to remove her without making her feel punished or banished or like her reaction is unacceptable so she had to leave.

  3. Miriam Gilbert says:

    Thank you for this article. It makes complete sense, yet I struggle putting it into action :). I try to express my acceptance of the emotion, but acknowledging them seems to escalate the feeling. The tears / tantrums get worse (and always have) – and last a lot longer… any tips?

    1. My pleasure, Miriam. The point of acknowledging the feelings is to show children that we accept… and that means we DO truly accept whatever is expressed. Sometimes feelings do seem to escalate when we do that. OR it could be that your child senses that you are just saying the words and not really accepting. That can escalate the feelings, because it’s frustrating when you just want to express what you’re feeling! And your parent is trying to talk you down in some way. Here’s a post that shares more about that: https://www.janetlansbury.com/2014/11/when-empathy-doesnt-work/

  4. Great post! My 5-year-old likes to engineer the game so that he will win, changing or bending the rules, and sometimes outright cheating. I’m never quite sure how to handle this. I try to non-judgmentally tell him I think it’s more fun if we all follow the rules of the game, and sometimes I have stopped playing, because while I don’t care much whether I win or lose, I do tend to lose interest if he’s leap-frogging his way to finish first. Am I making this into a bigger deal than it needs to be?

    1. Hi Carol! Hmm… that’s a tough one. If he asked me to play the game, I think I would say something like, “Thanks for asking! But this time I am going to watch you play with the pieces as you like to do.” Then I would give him your full attention and see this as observing him play, or what Magda Gerber called, “Wants nothing quality time.” In other words, I would re-frame this for yourself so that you don’t get annoyed. For whatever reason, he’s showing you that he’s not interested in playing a game with you by the rules at this point in time. Is it possible that he senses your investment in him playing by these rules?

      1. Yes, I am probably emphasizing rules too much. It’s really interesting to think about re-framing this for myself and dropping any agenda around him learning to play a game by the rules. I suppose he has years of play with his peers ahead of him for practice with rule-following, and they will surely hold him accountable. 🙂 Thanks so much for your wisdom and guidance on this and all parenting things.

        1. Honestly, Carol, I’d bet money that he already plays by the rules with his friends. He’s just razzing you! Testing your responses. Ha, I should have thought of that before! My advice would be the same, though, and you’re so welcome. 😀

          1. He’s on to me, must be fully aware I am a lifelong rule follower. Ha!

      2. I think that this is indeed a symptom of something else but not necessarily related to the child as such. I believe it is an over competition by the parent in many cases. It appears to me that this behavior stems from the parents attempts to avoid disappointment in relation to the child in response to their own issues around it when they were growing up. Every time I have seen this in children, there are other similar things happening. For instance, one child would literally have 2 birthdays a year because he was spared the disappointment of having to watch his brother open his birthday presents on his actual birthday. Also, over praising seems to be a common theme( your the smartest, fastest boy in the world) can only lead to disappointment later. Also, let’s not discount the chance of some learning difficulties here.

  5. Glad I found Janet says:

    I love this post so much I shared it to my facebook friends and of course, my mother was first to comment. She said, “I don’t agree with all of this. There are losses all the time in life. Teach them to deal with it.”

    …and this is the parenting style that put me in the hole I found myself in and Janet’s stye was the rope that I used to pull myself out. Thanks Janet.

    1. Thank you Keith! Well, I agree with your mom about “teaching them to deal with it,” but we’ve got to understand how children actually learn. If lessons are rushed or force-fed we risk disabling our most powerful lifelong teaching tool: a loving, accepting and secure parent-child relationship. Children handle losses (and all other downers in life) graciously when they feel good about themselves. I’m touched that you shared with me, Keith. Passing these ideas along (that have SAVED me as a parent) is my pleasure!

      1. Uh oh I’ve been saying to my 7 year old ‘come on ‘bounce back’, let’s go’ ‘you’ll be right’ etc
        What words should I be using to acknowledge her when upset? Can I just leave her to feel it out herself or do I have to actually acknowledge her verbally? Thankyou so much

    2. Thank you Keith! Well, I agree with your mom about “teaching them to deal with it,” but we’ve got to understand how children actually learn. If lessons are rushed or force-fed we risk disabling our most powerful lifelong teaching tool: a loving, accepting and secure parent-child relationship. Children handle losses (and all other downers in life) graciously when they feel good about themselves. I’m touched that you shared with me, Keith. Passing these ideas along (that have SAVED me as a parent) is my pleasure.

  6. I don’t know how I stumbled onto this article, but THANK YOU! I am a child care provider. Current family is highly competitive – dad was an Olympian & mum is a successful lawyer. The children are pushed to their limits and beyond at times. Yesterday, I heard the younger child fretting as they were playing a game & when I asked what was happening, the older replied, “he’s a sore loser”. While I talked to him about how he was feeling and allowed him the space to carry those feelings ‘through, this article helps me to fully understand the dynamic; and to have something more than my opinion to share with the parents.

    I belong to a RIE FB group out of interest in serving my clients (the little ones mostly) better & of course, your name comes up often. This is the first piece of your writing I’ve read and I can see why you have so many fans. Thanks, again, from a quinquagenarian who is never too old to learn.

    1. Hi Ruthie! Thanks so much for sharing your story. I’m so happy to connect with you. And thanks also for your kind words of support. I’m a quinquagenarian as well and still learning every single day from the children and parents I work with.

  7. Another approach we always use when it comes to competition is beforehand asking him what he wants to work on. He chooses what it is. And when it’s over, win or lose, we only talk about the goal he had for himself. Ie: “Do you feel like you supported your teammates when they were running toward the goal? I noticed you working really hard at that.” It’s really been effective. We are two seasons in with soccer and our son hasn’t cried once when he missed a goal, the other team scored or they lost (we don’t really keep score.)

  8. Thank you for this article! I wonder if you can help me out a bit more specifically. My oldest son (7) reacts really strongly to losing. An example is tonight he was at a Jr Forest Wardens meeting with my husband and one part of it the group was playing games. Apparently one of the games he refused to do and the other one, when he lost at rock-paper-scissors he had a huge meltdown. He won’t participate in most group activities whether its at school or at home. Even basic ones like “tag”. He says he doesn’t like to lose so he avoids everything . He refuses to participate in any organized sport or training even if the activity interests him. I haven’t pushed him but sometimes I wonder if I should do more considering the reality of life that we some times have to do things that we don’t necessarily love and that challenges can make us stronger and more resilient. I don’t feel we are strongly competitive usually as we try to focus on having fun but it always feels like he will go out of his way to distance himself and do his own thing rather than join in with us. It feels like part of it is due to his personality and he is stronger intellectually so often people like that don’t do as well in social scenarios which I can appreciate. I guess I just feel unsure of how to address this and move forward in a supportive way. Thanks for all you do! I hope I hear back from you!

  9. I agree with this to an extent. At what age though do you decide, this is not ok, my kid’s being a jerk and I need to call them on it?

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