What to Do When Your Child Has a Hard Time Losing

Resilience and respect: Learning to “win at losing"
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Have you ever wondered, “What do you do when your child is a really sore loser?!”

You’re in the game aisle at the store, visualizing the wonderful memories you’ll create during Family Game Night. (For a brief moment you forget about your child who has a hard time losing.) You bring the game home and reality hits:

  • “I hate this game!”
  • “You cheated!”
  • “It’s not fair!”
  • “I’m not playing anymore!” Swish, and the game goes flying, or the winner might even get an angry whack! 

Sound familiar?

Hard to believe, but board games have great learning potential for kids. Depending on the game, kids can develop valuable skills: sequencing, planning, problem-solving, math skills, direction following, waiting/turn-taking/delay of gratification, collaboration, communication, negotiation, and resilience when things don’t go their way.

Oops. That last one, perhaps the most valuable skill of all, is where it often falls apart and ends badly, with parents wondering, “Why did I think this would be a fun family activity? Let’s remember not to do this again!” If parents communicate that, verbally or nonverbally, kids may believe, “I’m too big a problem for my parents to handle.”

At Connected Families we believe that any child can learn the resilience needed to lose respectfully, but parents will need insight, determination, and grace to help their child. The Connected Families Framework guides us through this challenge. (These ideas can be adapted for kids who struggle with sportsmanship in athletics as well.)

Foundation: Identify what’s going on in me as the parent

It’s really helpful in any parenting challenge to start by considering possible judgments you might have about your children because those judgments can be a subtle but powerful factor. What thoughts do you have when your child struggles with losing? “What a sore loser!!! This is so frustrating!”  

Or what do you say about that child to others? (i.e. “She acts like such a baby when she loses.” or “He just ruins it for everyone.”) Do you ever find yourself saying things to your child like, “Don’t be such a sore loser! No one will want to play with you.” 

Over time these judgments can build identity in a child: “I am such a loser,” or “I’m the one that’s always in trouble.” Even though it’s easy to slip into judgmental thinking in stressful times, we start with this issue because your judgments and your child’s negative identity can keep you all stuck, and we want to help you get unstuck. 🙂  

Of course, it’s great to carefully avoid saying terms like “poor loser.” It’s even better to ask God to transform your beliefs, perhaps toward something like: 

  • “My child thinks that losing a game makes them less valuable. I want to help them learn they are fully loved regardless of their performance.”
  • “My child’s rational thinking goes offline when they lose. I can help them with that over time.”

“…out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks,” Matthew 12:34b so ask God to fill your heart with an abundance of grace for both you and your child! 

Connect: Communicate unconditional love

A key question that bridges both Foundation and Connect is: “What is it like to be my child?” Or, more specifically, “What is my child believing about themselves, and how might shame influence their struggle with losing?”  ​​

It’s quite possible that a fragile sense of worth is the source of your child’s struggles. An example of this is Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria, in which kids have heightened, even painful physical sensations when they feel rejected or ashamed. It may show up more often in kids with ADHD, but it might simply reflect higher anxiety in general. These children will benefit from parents’ intentionality to build a deep sense of being lovable and loved no matter what!

Build beliefs of a child’s unconditional value as a person – win or lose

When a child struggles with explosive losing, it’s vital to shift away from a primary goal of managing behavior about losing, to mentoring beliefs about unconditional love and value. 

You can ask your child questions before the game. “If you win, does that mean I’ll love you more? If you lose, are you less valuable?” You can even help them understand the idea by asking your child how they feel about you, “If I lose this game, will you love me less?”

You can prepare your intense child by asking the same question of various family members in the context of daily family life, “Do you think I love you more because you did such a good job on your chores?” or “Do you think I love you less because of this big mess?” The children’s book, “Just Because You’re Mine,” can help deepen your family’s understanding of true unconditional love. 

Another mom, Becca shared her story: 

Our youngest, 6-year-old TJ, struggles with yelling and hitting when he loses a game. I had tried lots of things and was overwhelmed, but with some coaching, we began to make unconditional love more concrete. Now when we talk about it, he can almost repeat some of the things we say 🙂 So he has it in his head and I think it’s going down to his heart. He’s been calmer in games with us and seems to be thinking before he reacts. 

This challenge is a great opportunity to build a biblical identity – “Remember, when you lose, that does not make you a “loser!” It makes you a beloved child of God, who happened to lose a game!” Remind your child that you love him because he is God’s gift to you, not because he wins at games. You might even occasionally repeat this during the game.

Connect with humor and encouragement during the game

Notice times when family members, especially your intense child, seem to be having fun or success during the game. “Seriously, you got UNO just like that? You lucky dog!”

Sherry’s 5-year-old son Zach would often scream and become aggressive when he lost a game, but he has made significant progress in wisdom and self-control in the last year or so. Sherry shared how she provided silly encouragement throughout the game to diminish the emotional impact of the win/lose end result: 

She said, “Fun smack talk helps a lot! I’ll say things like, ‘How did you know that!!? Can you see through my cards!?’ That helps him feel some success along the way, so he still feels like he played well and won some battles even if he ultimately lost the war.” 

Coach: Mentor values and skills

Once your child understands that their value doesn’t come from winning or losing, and they are loved unconditionally, they will be ready for you to coach them in resilience and self control.

Find the “just right challenge”

The bigger the stakes (the more people and the longer the game) the more upsetting it is to lose, especially when your child has a hard time losing. You might consider gradually increasing the challenge (adding another person, trying a more difficult game, etc) for your child, while offering loving support when they lose. 

A “just-right challenge” means grading or adapting an activity to be achievable but not so easy that there’s no learning involved. Research shows that learning is optimized when a person succeeds about 85% of the time. At that level, your kids occasionally learn from mistakes, but are usually successful and reinforce helpful new brain pathways. Just-right challenges empower people to see that they can improve and succeed on their own, and aids in promoting resilience.

How can you adapt the activity so the task of losing with respect is still a challenge but not unattainable for your child?

  • What’s a good length game for your child to practice respectful winning/losing? You can start with tic-tac-toe or quick card games (like Speed) and help a child feel successful at being resilient and respectful when they lose. Then remind them of their success as you gradually try longer games.  
  • Who is it easiest to start with – just one parent instead of the whole family? When introducing more family members, you might go back to shorter games. 

Sherry stated, 

“It was safest for Zach to compete and lose to Mommy rather than fight with his sister. I invested in different games that I knew he’d like so that he would play at least one game with me per day and at least one other game with his sister and Mommy (with me arbitrating), and maybe another with Daddy. We worked on losing safely and gracefully, and playing by the rules knowing that it is okay to lose sometimes.” 

Help kids face their reality

As your child is ready to play a longer board game with more people, the following types of questions may be helpful to build realistic expectations: 

  • How many people will be playing the game? 
  • How many people can win? 
  • How likely is it that you will win? 
  • If this doesn’t go well for you, how do you want to respond? 
  • Do you think you’re ready to play this game?

Another mom described the key to teaching her boys to lose well:

“We just continually talked things through. We would emphasize that it’s more about having fun while we play than who wins, and about being a good sport so others still want to play with us. We kept playing games together and pointing out that only one out of four of us could win.”

Model appropriate expression of frustration 

When you lose a game, if you are super chill and keep your “Mr. Rogers’” face on, it’s probably too big a step for your child to relate to or imitate. Instead, you can model frustrated, but respectful losing. “Ugh, rats!! I lost! (breathe) But that was so much fun! I love playing with you.” 

You can even fuss in a light-hearted or goofy way, which helps everything feel less personal and shaming. “Seriously! What was I thinking during that last move?”

Sherry stated, 

“Most lessons with Zach are learned by consistently showing more than telling. In the game ‘I Sea 10!’ Zach would refuse to relinquish his pieces to the sharks when he drew one. So I started playing up how I hated to give up a match to ‘those pesky sharks’ and I’d kind of throw my match into the box and mutter, ‘Those stinkin’ sharks!’ After weeks of playing daily, Zach picked up on it and starting throwing his pieces in (reluctantly) when he got a shark and saying ‘I hate those stupid sharks.’  He learned to be upset at the game or a run of bad luck without taking it out on friends or family he was playing with.”

Note: this wasn’t a one-and-done effort, it was weeks of daily modeling

Help kids focus on character and growth mindset*

Research shows:  “…if you believe that intelligence is fixed, failure poses a major threat. It’s a sign that you lack ability, and aren’t going to improve. Public failure is particularly devastating…” 

When teaching growth mindset related to games, you can teach that there are multiple types of “winners:” game winners, effort winners, and attitude winners. You can’t always control if you win a game, but you can control your effort and attitude.

*Growth mindset is a term originally coined by Child Psychologist Carol Dweck and popularized by numerous authors. Our use of the term is most closely informed by her work.

See our blogpost, 4 Ideas to Build a Growth Mindset as a Family for more details. 

A useful chart to teach character 

Help kids embrace the benefit of being resilient and respectful when they lose (and being gracious when they win.) You can even help them develop a “character scorecard.” (We’ve provided a PDF for you or you can just write the ideas on a paper.) 

Help your child identify a truth they want to remember during the game. Then you can help them decide on an important skill and a helpful attitude so they honor others as well as themselves. Examples:

Effort: 

  • I paid attention to what was happening. 
  • I played by the rules. 

Attitude: 

  • I didn’t give up when I got a bad card. 
  • I congratulated the winner. 

After the game, your kids can give themselves a grade in the boxes. Your role is to:

  • help kids remember all the positive things they did
  • notice and acknowledge any progress from previous games
  • make a bigger deal out of the “character wins” than game wins

Download our “Character Scorecard” for quick reference

Becca, shared that 6-year-old TJ gets overwhelmed when asked questions about his own behavior. She had the idea to ask questions about Andy (a friend of TJ’s) who gets really upset when he loses at basketball. 

Here is how that looked: 

  • Becca: “TJ, would you have any advice for Andy?” 
  • TJ: “He should take bunny breaths when he gets mad.” 
  • Becca: “That’s a great idea to help him calm down! But sometimes Andy thinks he’s bad or not good enough when he loses. Do you have any ideas for that?” 
  • TJ: “He should remember… It’s not about winning or losing, it’s all about having fun!” 
  • Becca: “That’s a really great idea!!” 

TJ loved giving advice and this was a great way to mentor helpful beliefs! When we played hide and seek a few days later, we reminded everyone about TJ’s great advice. ‘It’s not about winning or losing, it’s all about having fun.’ We also discussed some possible efforts or attitudes that we could focus on. 

The first time we played, however, TJ totally melted down because he couldn’t find the ‘right’ hiding spot. I helped him calm down, and then helped him find a good spot for the next game, which went better. He said he got an A for playing by the rules and for hiding in a really hard spot. They all said they got an A for having a ‘win-win attitude” (defined at school as everyone got something they wanted) and they also had a ‘fun’ attitude.

What I love about this story is Becca did some really good work that initially didn’t seem to be helpful. However, she stayed calm and loving, tried again, and set the kids up to focus on whatever they did well, not on the things that had gone poorly. 

During the game, reinforce that kids are learning and growing; notice any calm responses to setbacks, good teamwork, or positive character. Affirm any small improvement when a child loses, for example, “You used strong words, but kept the board and cards safe this time. That took some self-control!”

Some beliefs your family can embrace together are: 

  • “We are all learning and growing.”
  • “God’s grace is bigger than our conflicts. We can work on this together.”  
  • “Winning at respectful losing is more important than winning at a game.”

Build awareness of everyone’s feelings 

Sherry stated, 

“Both Zach and his sister agreed they would not want to play a game with someone who cheats or lies. So a little ‘friendly smack-talk’ is ok, but we help them be mindful of ‘Do unto others…’ Play like you’d want others to play with you, and that means playing fair.”

Another parent shared,

“It really helps if we empathize strongly when our sensitive daughter loses a game. It is sooo disappointing and frustrating for her! After our empathy has landed, we can guide her to consider what the other person feels, and gently ask “What do you think _______ feels right now? Are they having fun with you?” 

A good book about growing wisdom and grace in competition is: Buster’s Ears Trip Him Up: When You Fail (Good News for Little Hearts Series). It gives helpful language for how kids can handle it when they brag but then lose. It even contains memory verses in the back of the book you can cut out as reminders.

Identify your child’s “gift gone awry

It can be soothing to a child’s upset heart when they see you are trying to find the good in them. What might be a good gift that contributes to your child’s difficulty? 

Maybe she likes to succeed, participates wholeheartedly, is passionate or expressive. You can identify that gift, “You really play with all your heart, don’t you? That makes it harder when you lose, but it’s a really good gift in many ways.” (Then name some ways you’ve noticed that good gift.) “I’ll bet you could use that intensity to help solve our board game challenges.”

Maybe he has a strong sense of justice and fairness…even if his assessment about what’s fair still lacks a little accuracy. 😉 

You can share the verse below. “Both justice and kindness are really important to God! Sometimes in the games you focus only on justice, but I know you are really growing in both of these things.” 

And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. Micah 6:8 

Correct: Kids make right what they’ve made wrong

“Play fair or we don’t play.” 

Sherry shared,

When Zach refused to play by the rules or cheated, or he got threatening, aggressive or started throwing game pieces, I’d calmly repeat the phrase, ‘Play fair or we don’t play,’ and I’d pack up the game. I’d explain, ‘Zachy, you lost the privilege for today but you can try again tomorrow.’ This was rough. But consistent and calm follow through with our key phrases was really helpful.

If a child does damage either to the game or the feelings of other players, you can help them solve the problem they’ve created after they’ve calmed down. Other privileges can be on hold until they are sincerely ready to make it right, by cleaning up/repairing the game, or reconciling with those they’ve hurt.

When parents take the time and energy to thoughtfully guide their struggling child, that child gets important messages: “I’m worth the effort, I can learn and grow, and my parents are confident even when I struggle.” These are pretty important messages to build into your intense child!

The parents I connected with on this issue saw gradual, but significant changes in their sensitive and intense children!

Sherry said, 

“Last week when I beat Zach at Go Fish, he got a little downcast, but I asked him ‘Want a rematch?’ He agreed and was confident he’d beat me, and with a little helpful coaching on my part, he did clean my clock on the second round. It is a hard developmental phase, but it’s good to see the progress slowly but surely.” 

The point of all this faith-filled, persistent effort is not to get an annoying behavior to stop. It’s to lean into the discipleship opportunity to equip your kids for faith-filled real life. Games and competition provide a valuable opportunity to help kids learn to overcome disappointments and failure, consider the feelings of others, and work well with a team.  Most importantly, they will learn to stand strong in an identity as a beloved child of God, win or lose!   

With an opportunity like that, if you’ve got a child who has a hard time losing…  Get out those UNO cards! 


Frustrated by constant discipline challenges? Take 15 minutes to read our free ebook Consequences That Actually Work.

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Lynne Jackson
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