How To Teach Kids To Cope With Losing

Even the best of the best suffer losses every so often. Here's how to help your kids work through them.
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Children often put immense pressure on themselves to win. Parents can help redirect that energy and emphasize effort over achievement.
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Children often put immense pressure on themselves to win. Parents can help redirect that energy and emphasize effort over achievement.

If you’ve ever played sports or other competitive games, you know that losing is tough. Watching your child lose can be just as difficult.

But as much as parents may want their kids to win all the time, what’s more important is learning to lose with grace.

“Good sportsmanship is an important skill for play and learning on and off the field,” Katie C. Hart, an associate professor and licensed psychologist at Florida International University Center for Children and Families, told HuffPost.

“It can determine whether your child is picked first or last on a team, teaches them how to manage frustration and navigate social challenges, and can help your child positively approach difficult assignments in the classroom,” she explained. “It’s impossible to win all the time, so teaching your child to lose graciously can even help them tackle some of life’s bigger challenges down the road.”

Experiencing what it feels like to lose at a young age is a valuable opportunity to build resilience, confidence, motivation and self-control.

“By feeling what it’s like to succeed, and equally how it feels to fail, children learn to manage these emotions successfully in other walks of life,” said Amanda Gummer, a child psychologist and founder of The Good Play Guide.

“For example, losing out to a colleague for a promotion in the workplace, or struggling to pass exams for a degree,” she added. “Children can then recognize that failure is a learning experience and not be scared of it. It also encourages humility, so that when children do win, they can be respectful and empathize with others.”

HuffPost asked Gummer, Hart and other experts to share their advice for parents who want their children to show grace in moments of defeat. Read on to learn how to raise a good loser.

Provide opportunities to lose

“Adults may sometimes feel inclined to let children win all the time to avoid whining or meltdowns, but by not practicing losing, you are setting your child up for bigger failure down the road,” Hart said.

She recommended incorporating developmentally appropriate games or sports into a child’s life from an early age. Teach them how to play by the rules of the game and give them the opportunity for positive practice with winning and losing.

“Experiencing losing is an important life lesson for children,” echoed Gummer. “So while we wouldn’t suggest that you outrun a toddler, or pit yourself against an 8-year-old at Trivial Pursuit, when it’s appropriate to, you can win a game, and help them to process their feelings afterwards in these ways.”

Model good sportsmanship

“Modeling how you deal with loss is extremely important to teaching kids how to deal with losing,” said clinical psychologist John Mayer. “For example, this is why sports teams form a line at the end of games and the teams shake each other’s hands. Kids don’t do this spontaneously. It takes an adult to model and insist on this behavior. Insist on gracious behaviors and your kids will learn.”

Pay attention to what you say in their presence and try to avoid uncourteous comments in response to wins or losses.

“If your child observes you scream at the television during every football game and negatively react after your team loses, the child will learn from that and will often adopt the same behaviors,” said Brya Hanan, a licensed marriage and family therapist with DotCom Therapy and mental health therapist for the National Little League. “However, if a child sees you taking a deep breath after a loss and verbalizing acceptance of the loss, the child will more likely adopt this healthy response and apply it to their own losses.”

Praise effort over achievement

“Stress in your children the glory of their effort over the achievement, even when they are winners,” Mayer advised. “Stress the skill and effort they put in.”

Craig Knippenberg, a therapist and author of “Wired and Connected: Brain-Based Solutions To Ensure Your Child’s Social and Emotional Success,” pointed to the Positive Coaching Alliance. The nonprofit was founded at Stanford University and offers training based on the Effort, Learning and Mistakes are OK (ELM) model.

“With this approach, the discussion with children is not centered around winning or how many goals they scored but rather about their effort, what they learned from the game, and were they willing to make mistakes,” he explained. “I was the ELM coach for my son’s youth lacrosse team some 20 years ago. It has lasting effects.”

Coaches and parents can emphasize how losing and making mistakes can be positive because it helps us learn what we need to work on to be more successful in the future.

Focus on the bigger goals of sports

“Parents should strive to focus on the bigger goals of youth sports: having fun, bonding with teammates, learning skills, taking risks and being willing to make mistakes,” Knippenberg said.

Indeed, it’s helpful for kids to get experience with competitive activities, but make sure it’s not all about winning. Focus on the value of enjoying taking part in the game and working together as a team.

“Make games and competition a fun endeavor and take the emphasis off the end result,” Gummer advised. She also suggested concentrating on the smaller elements each player did well throughout the game.

“For example, ‘Well done for answering that question, it was a difficult one,’ or ‘great shot,’” she said. “This helps to take the emphasis away from the final scoreboard a little.”

Choose games and activities that have increasingly difficult levels, so kids can learn to compete against themselves as they improve, as well as others. Encourage practicing and always trying again, even after a loss.

“Teach them to show good sportsmanship if they lose and tell the child who won, ‘Congratulations, can’t wait to play again!’” suggested Reena B. Patel, a licensed educational psychologist, board-certified behavior analyst and author of “Winnie & Her Worries.”

Affirm their value and worth

“Parents can teach their children to not be sore losers by affirming their value and worth,” Hanan said. “When parents build up their children’s self-esteem, children learn that even when they lose, it doesn’t affect their value. The loss does not define them.”

Kids often seek approval or validation through winning. Foster a home environment that values trying your best over victory, so your child won’t feel as disappointed in themselves or worried about disappointing their parents if they lose.

“Self-esteem is built on parental love that is unconditional,” said psychotherapist Noel McDermott. “Parents need to show children that with strong self-esteem, losing in a material sense is less important than losing respect for yourself.”

Normalize negative emotions around losing

“If your child loses, you can remind them that it is OK to be upset, give them tools to communicate their feelings, and try out strategies they can use to calm down, such as deep breathing,” Hart said. “Praising your child for being a good sport or for using positive coping skills when they lose will help reinforce these important life lessons.”

Parents can normalize the frustration and anger that may come after a loss and explain that they feel disappointed when they don’t win sometimes too. The key is not letting these emotions completely overcome you.

“When children do display a negative reaction to loss, it is important to not shame the child and say things like, ‘Don’t be a sore loser!’” Hanan said. “Parents should validate their children’s feelings and help them to understand that it is OK to lose. You can also show confidence in your children by saying sentiments like, ‘I know you’ll learn from this loss and do even better next time!’ Or pointing out your child’s positive impacts to the game, despite the outcome.”

Encourage them to get back up

“When children are sore losers, what’s really happening is, their confidence is being affected, which is why it’s so hard for them to accept that they’ve lost,” said clinical psychologist and author Jenny Yip.

She noted that when her son loses, he has a tendency to immediately put his head down as if signaling, “I’ve been defeated.” But she tries to teach him that, yes, he will fall off his horse plenty of times, but that doesn’t mean utter defeat. Instead, she encourages him to get back up.

“You’re teaching them that losing is part of the equation to learning, to getting back up,” Yip explained. “The more practice you have, the quicker you can get back up, the quicker you’ll learn to get back up because you have had plenty of more practice. ... You can help your child figure out how to help themselves, so they can focus on improving.”

Try not to dwell on the details of the loss or how upsetting it was. Focus on moving forward.

“Explain how college and professional sports are incredibly competitive, but even these adults must learn how to handle a loss and improve for the next shot or next game,” Knippenberg suggested. “It’s all about managing the feelings and staying focused on technique.”

Similarly, McDermott emphasized fostering a growth and learning mindset.

“When one is young emotionally, one often confuses success with winning,” he said. “Real winning and therefore success is the capacity to learn and grow.”

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