Is one of your children a sore loser? This post will change that entire dynamic. Stick with me.
The behavior came about gradually…
Then it started taking over.
One of my sons just Could Not Lose without flipping out, crying, whining, or blaming everyone else. We were patient. We were kind. We were understanding.
And then we got fed up.
If he’d lose a board game, he’d cry and run away. If he got an answer wrong to one of our questions (and a sibling got it right) he’d get angry. His anger and sadness at not “winning” would often be directed at us or his other siblings.
Needless to say… it was not fun for him or for the rest of us.
The breakthrough for us came when discussing something with my Language of Listening® group. When Sandy said it, I knew immediately it was true for us. For my son.
The truth is this…
➡️ A child can’t lose well if they never get to win.
➡️ Only a child who thinks they’re a winner is able to lose well.
What To Do When Your Child Is A Sore Loser
The truth is, the problem stumped us.
But when we figured out what to do (with Sandy’s help) then this problem got nipped in the bud in one hour. I repeat, in one hour this problem got resolved and he’s never struggled with being a “sore loser” again.
First, Don’t Preach to the “Sore Loser”
Honestly, when a child freaks out after losing it can trigger something in us.
We don’t want to raise sore losers.
We picture our children losing gracefully and shaking their opponents (and siblings) hands and congratulating them.
We think it’s very morally upstanding to lose well so – if our children start to exhibit difficulty losing – we are kind of embarrassed.
Pull out these fun connecting questions to share some laughs with your precious ones!
Use them at:
- meal times
- car rides
- as a “calm down” trick
- for dinner time conversation
- or any time the day is getting chaotic or
- you need a reset to connect.
But we need to hang on to a few things:
- Share the lessons you want to teach, but don’t preach. Telling them not to be sad/angry/upset will not work. It will only make them feel worse. Do you think they like feeling bad? No, of course not.
- Making the scene even more strained won’t help. Let the kids feel what they feel as long as it doesn’t cross your family boundaries.
- Children who feel like they never get to win cannot feel happy for others. The key isn’t to “make” them feel happy, it’s to help them feel like a winner.
I’m not talking about a namby pamby definition of a winner. I literally mean, a child needs to feel the thrill of “winning.” Then, when they have, they’re okay with losing because it doesn’t threaten their identity.
Give Them Clear Chances To Win
So this is what you’re here for: give your child chances to win.
Many parents feel like this…
You can’t just let kids win. They need to learn to work hard if they want to win and if they don’t win, they gotta learn to lose well. Life doesn’t let you win.
Look, I get it. In fact, I agree.
And the good news is this: life will teach them this lesson. But it’ll be an easier lesson to learn if they have felt the thrill of winning and know they aren’t doomed to lose forever.
“Sore Loser” is not a role they must always fill.
How to give chances to win:
- Take 1:1 time with your child to play a game of their choice and ask them, “Do you want me to let you win?” If they do, let them. Now they are free to play without worrying about the outcome. Kids who are worried about losing don’t have fun because they’re so stressed about losing then they quickly start to hate playing at all because they associate it with fretting then losing.
- Let them make up their own game with their rules and go with their lead.
- If you’re playing a game like baseball or soccer, force a temporary suspension of disbelief and forget about the real rules. They won’t carry this into an actual game, but give them freedom here.
- I’m not saying you should let one child falsely beat the entire family at Monopoly and have everyone pretend they won. Be upfront about letting them win, don’t trick them. Individually, give them a direct chance at winning. Be clear that’s the aim.
- Start special play times with your child. They will likely act out this desire to win during that time. (see below for more on this)
Kids will not need this forever and ever to be gracious losers. In fact, it took us one hour.
Here’s Our Special Play Time Story Involving the “Sore Loser” Theme
Emotions are a H U G E part of a young child’s life. These “I Am Feeling” cards will reduce tantrums, meltdowns, and help your little one learn emotional awareness.Learn More
I decided to institute Special Play Time with this particular son.
Special play time is a 30 minute block you set aside once per week (for a limited period of time) with specific toys to help your child play out what’s bugging them.
The first day I started Special Play Time, I laid out all the particular toys and gave control to my son. I let him choose what we’d play with.
An interesting thing happened…
He chose the handcuffs and the key. He was in charge of making up the game and deciding what we’d do. We spent an entire 30 minutes with him telling me what to do.
He’d lock me up, tell me I lost and put me in jail.
Then he’d uncuff me, tell me where to run, how fast to run, and when to let him get me. Then he’d lock me up again and tell me I lost.
And we repeated this for 30 minutes.
After this session his behavior improved. His mood improved. His general outlook improved. His reactions to losing and not getting what he wanted started shifting.
After only one session!
The next week I set all the specific toys out again for Special Play Time and guess what he chose? A simple game of winner and loser.
Horseshoes and stakes.
We went outside with these. He was so upbeat and ready to play. I was fascinated the entire time because he created random rules that changed the whole game based on one thing: him being able to win.
Then, when it looked like I might win… he’d change the rules!
No matter what happened, he shifted the rules so he’d be the winner and I’d be the loser. I would say, “Oh, man! You got me again!” and we’d keep going. He got his fill of winning. Felt the thrill of victory and the power to get what he wanted.
And that boy has not acted like a “sore loser” since. And that was months ago.
It’s A Small Thing That Really Makes A Big Difference
Every child won’t have this need. Some kids are naturally optimistic, self-confident, or just aren’t bothered by losing.
But some kids need this.
Don’t be afraid you’ll set some type of entitled pattern by helping your child feel like a winner. Don’t minimize them by repeating over and over that they can win if they’d try harder or get luck on their side.
Instead, think about it like sharing. You never want to share if you never get a turn.
After that combined hour of being the winner, my son was transformed from a sore loser into a contented player. If he wins, great. If he loses, fine.
Start brainstorming rules to make your family life more peaceful, connected, and strong!
He can even let his siblings win without whining and tears.
Because he felt doomed to lose, each loss was a catastrophe.
After he’s won and won until it’s out of his system, a loss is just a loss.
Jani Teeter says
Thank you. That is a very beutiful idea, and it may come in to be handy in my future parenting!
Donubari Omolayo says
Hi Rachel! I just want to say “Thank you!” Your mails and content have been encouraging and helpful. Keep up the good work. God bless you.
Thank you for these incredibly liberating emails. As a preschool teacher and mother of 2 young boys I greatly appreciate reminders of how to support my kiddos development instead of respond emotionally.
Oh wow…. this just makes so much sense!
I will be trying this with my 6yr old son ASAP!
Thanks so much
RENEE SAMS says
Thank you! I always love reading your stuff- hits me right where I am. I am learning to be a better listener with my 5-year-old son, and I always appreciate your perspective.
Angeline Loh says
I might suggest that additionally you role modelled healthy reactions to “losing” so many times as well during those play sessions and that contributed. Well done you!
Lauren Tamm says
Special playtime really is the bomb! It helped my son overcome so many big challenges by simply playing them out when he was in control.
I have a son who is now 11 and he was exactly like this when he was younger. I wish I had known this strategy then, and am wondering what I can do to check in with him now, to know if he still has this need. He’s just quieter about things now. Thanks for the post!
Priscilla | The Mother Lode says
Ahhh this is so great! This really helped me to understand some of my 5 year olds “game-playing” behavior! He isn’t always a sore loser, but I can see now that when he is, it is because we haven’t played games for a while and he hasn’t had the opportunity to win!
Ashley Hoober says
My son used to be such a sore loser, then we started playing cards and teaching him about winning and losing in a more controlled environment
I’ll give it a try. My boy is 11 now. I have waited too long. He has been in soccer, chess and many activities, but he seems to just gravitate toward games he is good at. We all do that to an extent, but he is already starting to pigeon hole himself into specific activities and reduces his ability to learn new things based on the outcome of him receiving respect for winning or being thought of as clever. So I am going to try this overdue activity on my 11 year old anyway…. Thank you
At football training tonight, my 6 year old son hit one of his friends hard because he was the goalkeeper who stopped him from scoring. I have been trying to help him with his emotions when losing for 3 years now and although it is much better than it was, his behaviour tonight was like going back to square one. I feel angry and so at loss with how to help him. So I go on the net for help and find this article. But what it makes me want to do is exactly the opposite of what you recommend: I want to stop my son letting losing and winning define him and so I feel like the right thing might be to take him on a marathon of games tomorrow, and ask him to lose at every single game (while reminding him after every loss that he is still this wonderful boy, whether he wins or not). What do you think?
That sounds really depressing :(
Because if it’s rigged to loose, that’s such a huge focus there’s no place for fun.
In the article, so much is about just having fun! And winning, but in that process, just playing the game and having a good time.
I can’t imagine myself having the focus of the kid loosing, but also having the focus on the fun of the game.
So it would be a sad afternoon.
Instead of a silly whimsical day where the rules just bend to keep the fun up
This sounds like you’re trying to force him to like losing and using external reassurance. I get where you’re coming from unfortunately both tactics only contribute to feelings of inadequacy. “My mom(my) wants me to lose.” is the message being sent and received. He needs to fill this need internally from deep within, otherwise it’s like not taking the whole cavity out and just putting a filling on top of it. He’ll learn how to fake it, so his mom(my) doesn’t feel bad. He’ll learn to take care of other people’s feelings, and hide his own because other people’s feelings are a bigger priority than his own. The author here offers a concrete way to fill this need internally, so the cavity can be healed and not just covered up. Sometimes, we all need to feel like we can’t lose, can’t do anything wrong (example, coloring/drawing/sculpting/dancing however we please and feel in the moment, not “the right way”.)
My sister is the same way but still even as an adult. If she loses she will physically make herself sick. She cant take second place because she hasnt found self confidence. She should be ok with second place but has this issue. How can we get her to love her life even when she doesnt have it her way?
Rachel Norman says
So hard that she struggles so much. I bet she HATES how she feels when she loses and doesn’t know where to put those feelings!
So sick of the sore loser when mathematically speaking he’ll only win about
20% of the time it makes game time joyless about 80% of the time. Can’t wait to try this out. Thank you!
Rachel Norman says
Yes! Hoping it’ll make your games at home much more enjoyable :)
I do understand the concept you are presenting here but what if they do win a lot of the time. He wins, he’s happy. When he loses, complete meltdown. We’ve always taught gracious winning and losing, never put emphasis on winning is best, etc. Nothing seems to work. I give him time to calm down and ignore the tantrum, or reassure him, nothing. Stubborn kid. But yes, we’re having a problem now because no one wants to play with him at all now. Ugh…
Rachel Norman says
Then you keep on doing what you’re doing!
Heather Althouse says
If you let them win all the time, what’s that teaching them ?
Rachel Norman says
Heather, you don’t let them win all the time! You create a short period of play in which they feel like winners and can move on! Then, you let them win or lose as is.
Lanning Taliaferro says
How did you build your Soecial Game Time kit? What else did you put in other than horseshoes and a play handcuff and key set?
Rachel Norman says
I used a list provided by my parent coach, but I’m sure you can Google a special playtime toy assortment!
This makes so much sense! I am so glad you emailed this out today! I have two competitive boys that are both going through this and leaving me at my witts end! Oddly sometimes when they play they will take turns winning, and they are also absolutely delighted when they tie. I love how you set aside a time so that your son knew he could predict that that time would come. Thank you for helping put the pieces together, we will definitely start implementing this today!
Rachel Norman says
I hope it works out! I’ve found this to be invaluable. And my son recently who had to go to counseling for something, I saw that his counselor did the same thing and he came out so happy he’d beat an adult at UNO! :)
Can you suggest some ways to create this special one-on-one playtime for a single mother with 5 year old twins. I can find ways to carve out moments of 1-on-1 that are a few to five minutes but I am baffled at how to separate them for 30 minutes without the other feeling left-out and neglected.
Rachel Norman says
This is certainly a difficult thing, not wanting the other to feel left out. However ,if they know they’ll get their own turn it should be easy enough to move past that. Or you could do that when one is at a relatives house?
Rachel – thank you SO much for your well written articles, your insight and your really valuable advice. I so appreciate your emails and your work, they have helped me in my last 18 months of parenting tremendously. I have a “real-life-go-to-mama” friend and you are my “on-the-net-go-to-Mama”. Your work is AWESOME! Thank you.
Hi, my name is Matt. I’m not you usual reader, I’m a 43 year old man with no family of my own, though my parents are still active.
I’ve lived the sort of life that drives a person to browse the web for hours and hours and days and years hoping to find anything that might Help. Everything is so wrong and bad that Help is just an overall, nebulous concept. I simply am my personality defects now.
What you’ve written very simply, is one of the only things I’ve ever found that made the slightest bit of sense. What is losing without ever winning? It’s not something that you open your etiquette handbook and look up how a well adjusted person loses, and then follow the instructions. Its a lived experience… Or it isn’t.
I never won. Never had a chance. Not from the earliest I can remember. Not games, sports, academics, relationships, etc… I very quickly learned that any show of upset in any way invited attack. Either physical bullying, verbal torment, put downs from everyone, dismissive or humiliating responses from adults, and so on. When there isn’t any other option, you’ll either adapt by internalizing your role because that’s clearly your requirement for continued existence, or you die. Somehow, suicide, carelessness with a valueless life…
I don’t blame my parents although they bear much of the responsibility. They were raised poorly as well, and we all only have the tools we know about… I get the impression they gave up on me being a winner before I even knew how to. “Quitters never win and winners never quit.” was one of the well worn quotes that was trotted out in place of instruction/support. “Well if you want to win like those boys you’ll have to live/breath/and eat that sport, and practice for years, and dedicate…” Pointing to ordinary kids I was in school with.
Lessons were somehow incredibly brief and interminable lectures at the same time.
Without going into my entire dreary story, I wish so much someone had shown my parents your message back then. It would have taken so little, and maybe I wouldn’t have to be writing this now.
Thank you for putting your insight out here, I hope many parents find this article specifically and apply it.
What are the specific toys you used?
Rachel Norman says
I’d Google ‘special playtime toys’ and there’s a comprehensive list out there I’m sure!
I have a 9 yr old who gets very angry when she loses. She doesn’t lose all the time, she has won plenty of times. It was her 9th birthday party and we had 6 games to play. The first two games we had two winners and she was one of the winners in both games. The 3rd game she wasn’t a winner and when everyone’s turn was over she wanted a second turn and she was told no as we had two clear winners and didn’t have time for a second round. She got so angry she lashed out by hitting me and was told to stop and I calmly turned away only to be hit by her in the back. Not only did she hit me but she bite me on my arm. This is the first time she has every hit me. Because she has won a lot, I dont think your play time way will be effective. What should I do?