As parents/carers it can be really unsettling to watch our children 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 want to steer clear of games and competition altogether. But developing the ability to regulate emotions during game play is a skill that takes practise. We want our children to gain enjoyment out of and learn from these experiences so here are some tips for supporting your child 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. Ensure you provide plenty of opportunities for your child to play games with you, their siblings and friends. Choose games that give them the opportunity to take turns, share resources and communicate effectively.
Avoid over-egging winning
When spectating at a competitive event such as sports day try to avoid just cheering your own child on. Try using team names rather than individual's names and praise skills with “good effort” and “great focus” rather than focusing solely on the idea of winning. You can also talk about and reflect upon the enjoyment of the event rather than who lost and who won.
When playing games at home if your child wins try to keep it simple with a handshake and say “good game, I really enjoyed that". This helps your child to recognise 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 their 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 that 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 and informs them 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 and support from those around them. Ask them what positives they feel came out of the experience, I always find that children come up with the most interesting observations.
Avoid “telling them off”
Although we can feel like we want to shut down any embarrassing behaviour from our children for 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 them 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 feign losing ineffectively and reflect upon how your response may not have been 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.