My 6-year-old is a very passionate kid, which is the most polite way I can think of to say that he is a sore loser when it comes to friendly competition. It doesn’t matter if he is on the soccer field blocking the goal or at the dining room table playing Connect Four, he will sulk, whine, cry, or even throw a fit if he doesn’t win.
Honestly, it is hard to not be annoyed by this behavior. But the silver lining is that with a little bit of guidance from parents, kids can learn how to lose with grace and step up to the challenge of good sportsmanship — slowly, but surely.
According to Amy Morin, LCSW, “Being a sore loser isn’t likely to do your child any favors. After all, no one wants to play with the kid who cheats because he’s losing or the one makes excuses about why he didn’t win.”
To help your kiddo overcome being a sore loser, the trick is to be a model for what good sportsmanship looks and feels like. Here are a few tips the experts use:
Focus on the good behaviors.
No matter how much your child whines or even throws a knock-down tantrum, do your best to talk up the highlights of his or her behavior. Praising when your child is gracious and patient toward other players and when he shows real effort (even if he fails), and making a point to congratulate him when he finishes a task (no matter what the outcome), will teach your kid that the value of being a teammate who follows the rules and shows respect is more important than winning.
Don’t give in to the tears.
Sometimes as a parent, it is super tempting to just let your kid win to avoid the disaster tantrum if he loses. This is a terrible idea because it teaches your child that the threat of a meltdown is effective. Letting your child lose a few times and using those experiences as opportunities to teach self-control and how to flip a negative perspective into a positive one will help your kid understand that losing once is no big deal because the point is to have fun.
Calm the belly monster.
“As soon as you feel your body sending you a warning sign that says you’re losing control…take three deep slow breaths from your tummy,” says expert Michele Borba, Ed.D., who teaches kids anger management skills. Even kids need help in this department. Forming new habits takes around 28 days, so adopting easy-to-memorize skills, like belly breathing to calm down, can turn into a positive habit that will help your child deal with big feelings in an appropriate way.
Simmer down the bragging when your child does win.
It can feel like a huge accomplishment when your child wins and is not throwing a temper tantrum, but then sometimes the opposite happens: Kids who are sore losers will also be boastful about winning. Take every win as an opportunity to teach your child grace. Sure, praise your kid and certainly celebrate the win in an appropriate way, but also make sure to point out to your kid the importance of humility in winning, as this is just as important as handling a loss with grace.
Show them good sportsmanship OFF the field.
Good sportsmanship is built on a foundation of respect, compassion, humility, and grace under pressure. Not only are these skills vital to sports and games, but when you think about it, these are the same skills we aim to teach our kids to prepare them to be great people.
Take every opportunity you can find to model good sportsmanship in real life. If you get cut off in traffic, don’t swear under your breath. If you are running late to something, don’t bark at everyone to hurry up. It’s easier said than done, but using respectful language, effective self-calming techniques, and generally being a decent human being is a pretty powerful way to teach your kids how to follow in your footsteps.
Kids go through lots of tough phases as they grow, and being a sore loser is not likely the first (or last) of behavioral problems you’ll encounter with your kids. With some compassion and consistency, you can help your child understand how to deal with feelings of disappointment in a mature way that exemplifies what good sportsmanship is all about.