Becoming a Winning Loser

My son is a poor loser – at sports/board games etc. How do I approach this issue?

It’s pretty normal for young children (up to about 10) to be upset about losing games. Do you remember what it was like to be smaller and less capable or coordinated than everyone else? When you’re a child you don’t fully realize that your physical and intellectual abilities are going to develop and eventually you will be able to match the people you play with. You tend to feel you’re just not as “good” at everything as other people. If your son feels as if he always loses, give him a chance to express his feelings so that he can feel heard and understood. Then talk with him about how we learn from our failures and gradually become better at things when we keep trying. Give personal examples if you can. Be sure not to give the “lecture” about this until after you have listened to how he feels and sympathized with him.

Set your son up with opportunities for competition in which he’s evenly matched. Play board games with him like Yahtzee, which depend more on luck than skill, so that he will win half the time and lose half the time. When you lose, set an example of losing graciously. Say “Oh well, it was fun playing even if I didn’t win,” congratulate him on winning, and offer to play another game even though you lost. He will both have the opportunity of feeling good that he won, and learning from the way in which you lose. During the game, if you notice you’ve made a mistake (and you might make one or two on purpose), show him by your example how to handle it, both laughing at yourself and saying “Well, I know what not to do next time.”

If your son becomes upset when he loses, just sympathize and say he may have a chance to win next time. If he refuses to play, yells or throws the game equipment, don’t respond or try to reason with him at the time; he can’t hear you when he’s so upset. Don’t try to continue the game. Later, when he’s calm, point out that in that game he has just much chance to win as you do, but it’s not fun to play a game with someone who’s yelling and throwing things, so you’ll only play if that doesn’t happen. Say that even if he loses a game, he can be a personal “winner” by being a good sport, and helping the person he plays with to be happy as well as him.

Who is your son playing games with besides you? A younger child may have trouble playing with older siblings, because they’re still competitive, always win, and gloat when they win. Set up a system of “handicaps” as they have in golf, so that he can “win” when the handicaps are taken into consideration. This can be done in sports as well as in board games. Watch how the older kids play, and speak to them about not gloating. Mind you, they may do this because he’s a poor loser, and it becomes a vicious circle. I have memories of always winning at Monopoly, and my younger siblings throwing the board and all the pieces all over the room when the game ended. I got my own back by gloating. You may need to set up some “rules of games” which are about how to behave when playing games. And make sure all the children know some games which do not depend upon size and skill to win.