Is your child a sore loser?

Does your child sulk and get angry at losing? Does his poor attitude at losing affect the way he approaches play? Read on to find out what makes a child a sore loser and how you can help.

By Dr Meghna Singhal

Is your child a sore loser?

“My 6 year old sulks every time he loses a game, even if It’s just a game of carrom we play with our family for fun. If he gets the least pieces, he instantly starts crying, sometimes throwing the pieces around the room. He starts saying that someone cheated or that we should all play again. This when we’re not being competitive. At school when he doesn’t get a prize for the running race, he mopes around all week. This is such a sore point that I have put off enrolling him in team sports for the fear of how he will react in front of his classmates at school. Not sure how to handle this. Please help!”

It is natural for a child (or even an adult) to feel bad about losing a game or competition. While some children are able to take losing in their stride, for some others it causes heartbreak. Signs that your child may be a sore loser are:

  • He sulks, yells, gets angry, or generally displays a poor attitude because he didn’t win at something- it could be a silly game (“Lets race to the car”) with less at stake or a school-level competition
  • He quits mid-way because he’s behind or deliberately disrupts the game
  • He cheats because he knows he is losing
  • He repeatedly challenges his peer, sibling, or even parent for a re-match to avoid leaving the play session as the losing player

But what makes a child a sore loser? There are several reasons why a child could become a sore loser:

  • Our immediate tendency to praise our child when they win or even do well plays a role in putting winning on a pedestal. While there’s nothing wrong in our children seeking our appreciation and celebration at winning, this may make them perceive losing negatively. Both losing the game and losing out on their parent’s approval can cause some children to struggle to maintain a positive attitude.
  • For some children, the need to win stems from some earlier emotional upheaval, when the child may have felt helpless or alone. According to Hand in Hand Parenting’s founder Patty Wipfler, wanting to win is a sign that the child wants to be noticed and feel good about himself.
  • Being unable to regulate their feelings of anger or frustration is another reason why some children may become sore losers. These children may not have the tools to appropriately act out their negative feelings in the face of a loss, or might not know how to make themselves feel better after an upset.
  • Another reason why some children may become sore losers is, paradoxically, when their parents have called them out for being one! Judging a child for her competitive feelings (“Why’re you being so sulky?”) or issuing directives (“It’s only a game, brush it off!”) means, in effect, telling her that she is a ‘loser’ for not being okay with losing.
  • A child can’t lose well if they have never got an opportunity to win. When they are able to experience the thrill of winning, they derive confidence and then losing doesn’t seem like the end of the world.

So, should you let your child win?
Does this mean we should let our child win in a “I’ll lose deliberately to make you win” manner? Sometimes, but not always. For children to experience the delight of winning in the safety of your presence is important. It helps them play out their feelings and supports their needs. Then, even when they do lose, it doesn’t threaten their identity. Some ways in which you can let them win are:

  • By asking your young child at the outset, “Do you want me to let you win?” If your child says yes, let him. The idea is to be upfront about letting him win, instead of tricking him, and enabling your child to enjoy the game without always worrying about the outcome
  • Let your child make up her own rules and let her lead the game. This gives the child power and control and can enable her to make up (emotionally) for the times she has lost

As your child enters grade school and starts playing skill-based games, winning and losing starts to matter. You can, over time, explain to your child that you do win mostly due to the advantage of your age or size or experience. One way to help your child appreciate this is to pit yourself against multiple children of different ages, to even the odds. Another way is to include in your repertoire games that involve chance or luck (only just the ones that depend on physical and mental competence).

So, what can you do when your child does lose?
The short answer? Stick around, show your support, and let your child express her hurt.
The long answer? It is vital that you don’t get preachy or judgmental. Telling him not to get angry or upset won’t work. It may in fact end up making your child feel worse. Let him express himself in whichever way he feels like (unless it violates your boundaries or family rules).

Convey empathy by saying something like, “I understand what you’re feeling…not winning makes you feel frustrated” instead of “It’s not a big deal, get over it”. Then brainstorm ways in which he can feel better. The idea is to empower your child by demonstrating that even though he can’t control the outcome of the game, he can choose what he does with the outcome.

Is your child a sore loser?

So, how can you inculcate a positive attitude in your child with respect to losing?

  • Look at the positive. Even after a defeat, you could discuss with your child what positive aspects of a performance were. Even if, for example, India loses a cricket match, you could have a conversation with your child about which player played well or what a good sportsmanship the team displayed. Instead of focusing on how not to act when losing, focus on how a winner should behave.
  • Role model. You won’t be displaying good sportsmanship when you yell at a player on TV for missing a goal, or at the referee for handing out a yellow card. Your child is watching you—when you congratulate the winner you were not rooting for, or cheer on the players on the losing team for playing well, you display good sportsmanship, even when you’re not playing the game yourself.
  • Practice being a graceful winner. When your child does win, teach her to show kindness to other players by saying, “Fun game”, shaking their hands or giving high-fives with a genuine smile, or saying, “Thank you for playing with me.” Help your child focus on the pleasure of playing, instead of on who won or lost.
  • Emphasise uniqueness. In your everyday interactions, focus on how everyone is good at something. Each one of us is unique and different, with our own set of strengths, which one can inculcate with practice and hard work, no doubt, but one person can’t be skilled at everything. Talk about your own failures, both big and small, and how you could bounce back from them.
  • Inculcate a growth mindset. Press the view that any failure is never permanent. Emphasise that a person’s skills can be honed with perseverance and practice, and that mistakes or failures are learning opportunities. Praise your child’s efforts regardless of the final outcome. Avoid using labels when your child does win, such as “smartest boy” or “fastest runner” which can fuel competitive spirit and inculcate a fixed mindset. Instead point out good sportsmanship (“I liked how you cheered for other children today”).
  • Teach emotional regulation. Talk to your child about feelings of sadness, anger, disappointment, and frustration. Help her identify these feelings and develop healthy ways of expressing them. When your child is in a neutral or positive mood, for example, sit down with a pen and paper and brainstorm all the ways that can make him feel better when he’s angry. Call this his anger list. Let him stick it up in his room. When she does get angry, reminder him to refer to this list. On your part, validate your child’s feelings, instead of brushing them aside.
  • Don’t condone a victim mentality. Some children receive a message that says, “You won’t succeed, so don’t bother trying,” or “Why do these things happen to you only?” This is a victim mentality. Suggests Amy Morin in her book 13 Things Mentally Strong Parents Don’t Do, don’t rescue your child at the first sign of struggle. This underestimates the child’s ability in himself, throws his sense of control out of the window, and teaches him that he must depend on others to do things for him, such as winning a game.

So, Dear Mom, by all means go ahead and enroll your child in team sports. Let him experience the sting of losing. Give him space to express his hurt and frustration to you, without any judgment or criticism. Coach him in developing a positive attitude toward losing. After all, we don’t really win until we lost. All the best!

In a Nutshell

  • There are many reasons why a child can become a sore loser: indiscriminate praise, emotional upheaval, inadequate emotional regulation, or not having had an opportunity to win
  • It is not a good idea to always let your child win. If you do, instead of tricking him, ask him upfront whether he wants you to let him win. For older children, focus on playing games that involve chance or luck
  • To inculcate a positive attitude toward losing in your child, it is important role model good sportsmanship, practice being a graceful winner, emphasise uniqueness, inculcate a growth mindset, and avoid condoning a victim mentality

What you can do right away

  • When someone grabs the parking spot you were eyeing or gets their turn first, avoid losing your cool. It emphasises that winning matters
  • Play cooperative instead of competitive games as a family, such as The Secret Door or making one big puzzle together, which requires everyone to pitch in and help each other
  • During game night, enforce the rule that games will continue if everyone is having fun. If your child starts to whine or tantrum on losing, take a pause without judging or shaming him, and tell him you’ll resume if he can be in a better mood

About the author:
Written by Meghna Singhal, PhD on 28 January 2020.
Dr. Singhal is a clinical psychologist and currently heads the Content Solutions Zone at ParentCircle. She has a doctorate degree from NIMHANS (Bangalore) and holds a post-doctorate in parenting from the University of Queensland (Australia).

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