Competition - helping children to win and lose gracefully

As parents/carers it can be really unsettling to watch our child compete - when they are winning we want to temper their bragging and when losing we want to hide as we watch them transform into a version of Veruca Salt - it all gets a bit too uncomfortable and can make us steer clear from games and competition altogether. But developing these skills takes practice and of course we want our children to be able to get enjoyment out of and learn from these experiences.

Here are some tips on teaching your child about winning and losing and supporting them as they learn how to compete, collaborate, win and lose.

Play lots of games

Like any other skill that children learn, winning and losing needs to be practised in order for them to improve at it. Ensure you play lots of games with your children and support them when they play games with siblings and friends. Choose games that give them the opportunity to take turns, share resources and involve communication. The more they do it the better they will get at it!

Avoid over-egging winning

Cheering at sports day is great to encourage children but try to avoid just cheering your own child on and maybe try using team colour names rather than individual names. You may also want to try calling out to praise skills like “good effort” and “great focus” rather than focusing solely on the idea of winning. When playing games talk about and reflect upon the enjoyment rather than the fact that you want to win. If your child does win, giving them a simple handshake and saying “good game, I really enjoyed that” can help a child see that it's not all in the winning.

Acknowledge that losing can be hard

When your child loses they can respond in many ways. If they go into crisis mode and a full blown tantrum ensues then avoid disciplining them or being too hard on them. Approach them softly and ask them if they would like a hug. Once they have calmed down the rational part of their brain will be back in play and able to reflect upon the experience clearly. If they are ready you can talk to them about the situation. “Would you like to tell me about what happened?” If they don’t want to then let them know that you are ready to talk should they change their mind. If they agree to talk then you can ask them openly - “what happened” or “I can see you found losing that game hard, losing can be tricky sometimes, I understand”. The naming and acknowledgement of their feelings can help to calm them down and informs a child that they are heard and understood.

Find positive takeaways from the experience

Alongside acknowledging that losing is hard, encourage your child to think about the fun they had in the process of the game and specify special moments such as time with friends, learning a new skill, laughter, support from those around them. Ask them what positives they feel came out of the experience for them, they always come up with the best observations.

Avoid “telling them off”

Although we can feel like we want to shut down any embarrassing behaviour from our children in fear of what others may think of them, avoid ‘telling them off’ or shutting their reaction down. Try to remember that they are still learning the skills to lose gracefully and in terms of brain development they may still have a way to go before they can integrate all the different parts of the brain that allow us to manage and regulate feelings that arise.

Model losing gracefully

Just as with any learned skills children need to see you modelling the behaviours you are expecting from them. Ensure that when you play games with them or others you are responding in the way that you would like them to respond. Perhaps you could pretend to ineffectively manage losing once or twice and reflect upon how your response may not have been the most mindful, children like to see that we make mistakes too!

Allow them to experience winning

Without winning children will never learn how to do it gracefully. If your ego will allow it, let them win sometimes so they can put their learned responses into practice.

If you would like more support in responding to your child’s behaviour you can explore our Online Parent Sessions. We also offer FREE 15 minute check ins and 1:1 Parent Sessions.

You can also check out our play ideas and recommended books for primary aged children.