I used to think of my child as a sore loser. I can’t even count the number of times my five-year-old threw the biggest tantrum, including throwing dice and all pieces over the floor and yelling for a significant amount of time after losing a game.
I know how to recognize the look on his face when he understands the game is not going as he expected it to, and each turn makes the future clearer. I honestly began fearing his reactions and wondering if playing games is even worth it.
Last week I shared one of our latest Monopoly games and how it ended with my Positive Parenting Membership group, and I learned that the struggle is real. Kids HATE losing. So I collected everything the members shared and combined it with how I decided to approach game-playing in my own house from now on, and this is the result. If your child is a SORE LOSER and you have no idea what to do to bring back the fun into playing, this article is for you.
Why Do Kids Hate Losing?
Okay, this isn’t a real question. It is here to stress how actually weird it is. We, all of us, don’t like losing. When we’re kids, it’s games and petty-fights. When we grow older, it’s jobs, partners, and schools. The experience of “having” something is utterly different from the experience of “not having” that same thing, even if it doesn’t change your life that much.
Young children are only taking their first steps in this experience we call “life.” They don’t have the knowledge or the experience needed to differentiate between what matters and what doesn’t. They only know how things feel. And losing doesn’t feel nice.
The Interpretation of Losing a Game
As adults, most of us know that a game is just a game, but we react similarly to kids in other life areas when we lose. We take losing and give it meaning; we interpret it, judge it, and tell ourselves stories about who we are, based on the fact that “we’ve lost.”
If we didn’t get the job, we tell ourselves that we aren’t good enough. When we fail a test, we tell ourselves that we aren’t smart enough. When a potential partner rejects us, we tell ourselves that we aren’t attractive, funny, or desirable as another. We take a small fact of life, and we let that fact define us, who we are, and mostly – what we aren’t. And these definitions hurt.
Why are Games Actually Hard?
What is it about games that make it so hard for kids to lose?
First and foremost, the arbitrary rules. Why arbitrary? Because they mean nothing to the kids. They don’t know who decided upon them or why; all they know, these rules are unquestionable. And kids? Kids question! Their “job” in life is to question everything and change everything they can to make their lives more enjoyable. So how are they supposed to take these rules that seem to lead to loss and not get super frustrated?
Secondly, playing games is supposed to be fun, right? So why is it that it ends so poorly at least 50% of the time?
It doesn’t seem like much to us, adults, but when you’re a kid after some fun with your parents or friends, and you end up coping with such harsh feelings, it’s a real contradiction to what you were about to do.
Ilay’s Lost Monopoly Game
Last week Ilay and I played Monopoly. The game wasn’t going well for him. Few minutes into the game, he was all over the place, crying, asking to change the rules, not willing to pay, begging to get a loan from the bank, and whatnot. I was feeling myself getting tenser and tenser, not wanting to play, not having the energy to deal with this (hey, we’ve been in lockdown forever!), and I started taking deep breathes to get back to being calm and present with him.
When he came through that emotional tunnel, he laid on the couch and asked for the TV. I told him that I want us to talk first.
“Talk about what? It was all because of you! You took all my money! You’re so annoying!!!!!!”
And then I said everything BUT was going through my head. I used empathy and a lot of it.
“You hate losing, don’t you”?
“Are you telling yourself all kinds of stuff when you lose a game? Like you’re not good enough or not smart enough”?
“Yes. I’m not smart enough”.
“I know that feeling, Ilay. I often feel the same”.
“No, you don’t. You’re the best at everything that you do. I want to be the best at every game I play”!
And here it was. Something I could connect to, a place where my heart can meet his heart. So we spoke about playing, and winning, and losing. And how these little facts mean nothing about who we are.
Then I took the rest of the evening to reflect upon what had just happened, see what I can learn from it, and where I can take responsibility to shift things around for him.
Bring FUN Back into Playing Games: 10 Things You Can do if Your Child is a SORE LOSER
- Review how you address “failure” and “loss” in your parenting. Do you make a big deal of “mistakes” or failed attempts? Do you celebrate success with intensity? What do you focus on in your parenting? Is it the process or the outcome? Our modern world teaches us to emphasize the outcome, the result, and the final grade, over the process, the trial, and the error. Finishing first or getting an A is more important in most families than personal improvement, the pure attempt the child has made. In other words – it’s not about the result; it’s about the progress, the smart moves, the faster running, the higher jumping.
- As a direct result of the above, we parents tend to hide our own “failures”, thinking that our children will see us in a better light if we only share our successes with them. What actually happens is that we don’t teach them how to cope with failed attempts and lost games. Share your struggles with your children, share your failed attempts, share your lost games. It’s you who coaches your child on emotions and how to cope when things don’t go as hoped or expected.
- Set your child up for success: before you start playing a game, ask your child how they think they might feel if they lose, and remind them that the result is only the end; the process of the game itself is what you are here for.
- Ask them to repeat after you and see which part of this message lingered in. If it didn’t – rephrase (with a lot of patience) until it does.
- Whenever your child does lose and does lose it right after, wait with patience. Then ask them what they are telling themselves when they lose – what is their internal dialog? Is it that their siblings always win? Is it that they never win? These statements are powerful statements that talk about so many aspects of life and don’t have much to do with the game itself. The game is then a symptom to something much more profound. Learn what it is – coach them through.
- Don’t be afraid to negotiate “new rules.” When your child wants to change the rules to work for their benefit, decide on three new rules to add to the existing ones. This is a beautiful exercise in creativity and flexibility. And no, it does not mean that your child will learn that any rule can be bent; it means that you are focusing on free-thinking, fun, and enjoyment right now.
- Next time you play, discuss the new rules in advance and the different options the game might result in.
- During bedtime or any other time of connection, talk about the experience, empathize with anything your child might bring, encourage an open conversation.
- Remember that what we are doing here is not about teaching your child how to lose with grace and respect but rather about the meaning they breathe into playing – this is the origin of grace and respect.
- Be patient, keep talking, keep listening, and remember – we are not what we do – we are a collection of needs and feelings that eventually funnel down to “behavior.” Focusing on the behavior will forever keep us from what’s actually going on.
So now that you’ve read through the list, let’s rephrase: your child isn’t a sore loser – they’re probably struggling with something internal that breaks through when they lose.
That’s where you come in with curiosity and no judgment, and help them deconstruct their internal dialogue and rebuild it with empowerment.
I invite you to join my Positive Parenting Membership group to learn how to communicate with your children in a way that builds your mutual connection or to join my free life and parenting support group on Facebook.
I’d love to meet you 🙂