Q: My son is a VERY bad loser. He's seven and loves board games but we dread him losing as he gets annoyed, sometimes cries but more often he hits himself or something or someone nearby. It's got to the point where my daughter, who's five, doesn't want to play games with him as she finds it scary. (HH, London)
I feel your pain! My son is a similar age and we are working on this too. In fact, this is an incredibly common issue and one which is all about socialisation and learning to manage that competitive instinct we all have to one degree or another.
There are two things at play here – firstly an inability to put things in perspective, so that losing that game of snakes and ladders or Junior Scrabble seems more important to him than it should. Secondly, it's about managing his reaction when he does feel a reasonable amount of disappointment, so that it's a more socially acceptable response than trashing the Monopoly board or whacking his sister.
What you can do to help him realise winning isn't quite everything
He needs to realise that winning every time is nice but the world won't fall apart if it doesn't happen. You'll have to keep plugging away at this as there's no quick fix:
Acknowledge how he feels and that you understand it's disappointing to lose. (Kids rarely fully buy that 'it's the taking part that counts' line – it does count but they prefer to be the victor).
Do however remind him that you can't realistically always win and perhaps it wouldn't be so much fun to play if there was no chance of losing.
Ideally make sure that you and any other grown-ups don't gloat too much when they win. Dad acting like he's just scored for England in the World Cup final when actually he's won Monopoly, will not help! It makes winning seem the be all and end all.
Indeed Child Psychologist Dr Amanda Gummer of FUNdamentals Consultancy, which specialises in children's play, adds: "Make sure that the way you treat winning doesn't create a bad loser. Ensure 'winners' are gracious and not given more attention - especially in games of luck."
By the way, I definitely do not advocate letting children this age win, as it won't help their ability to learn to be good losers one bit.
How to manage his reaction
As well as gaining perspective on losing not being the end of the world, he also needs to learn to react in a more proportionate way when he doesn't reach the finish line first.
Have a chat about this with him when he is calm and you aren't mid-game. Ask him what he sees other people do when they lose, for example, his favourite footballer (choose carefully!) you/ your partner/ his little sister and what he could do differently. Talk about what his own reaction might make other people around him feel 'when you start hitting after a game, it makes us not want to play with you next time'.
Try and come up with a technique together which he can put into action when he feels angry about losing – this could be useful for other situations too. It could be that he counts to 10, takes deep breaths or has a 'swear' word he can say a few times until he feels calmer (not a real one obviously).
Define what is and isn't acceptable behaviour when he loses. Perhaps 'it's okay to feel disappointed and say your word but it is not okay to shout/ hit/ stamp your feet/ damage the game'.
Go through the consequences of not sticking with these rules. Remind him of them before he starts a game. Dr Gummer advises: "A simple, behaviourist technique is to stop playing at any sign of bad 'losership'. Just say you don't enjoy playing when he acts in a certain way. Don't make any more of a fuss of it than that. The following day do the same and repeat until he realises that there's no upside to being a bad loser."
This can however be tricky if it's not you playing him but a sibling or friend, as it might not feel fair on them. If that's the case, state that he can't play the game (or an alternative) next time he wants to and stick by that.
I also suggest rewarding a positive reaction to losing by giving him praise (don't go over the top as kids his age see through that), or possibly introducing 'good loser points' and keeping a tally.
This might work by appealing to his competitive side. I wouldn't give a direct material reward just for being a good loser but if he has a star chart still, it could be effective as one of several categories on that.
I hope this helps but also bear in mind that maturity should too - this is something many children get better with over time. And if he doesn't, maybe you have to look on the bright side and hope he channels his competitive streak well - perhaps he's the next John McEnroe!
Liat Hughes Joshi is author of Raising Children: The Primary Years.