Photo by Jonathan Chng on Unsplash
Photo by Jonathan Chng on Unsplash

Teaching Children to Lose with Grace


Our child is a bad loser and will often throw a temper tantrum and throw things around his room.  How can we help him become a better sport?


The Denver Broncos had lost four Super Bowls by a combined score of 163-50, four very bad losses, before finally winning Super Bowls XXXII and XXXIII.  During the “losing” seasons they were better than every other team in the entire NFL except for one, yet they were called “losers.”  Once they won their first Super Bowl they were finally acknowledged as winners.

Whether it comes from society, coaches, team members, parents or from themselves the message is that if you aren’t number one you are nothing—and even that thought can put many kids (and adults) on an emotional roller-coaster.

This is a significant opportunity for you to teach your son some valuable life skills and in the process actually help him increase his emotional intelligence—the skills of being able to identify, understand and manage his emotions. You can teach him how to deal with defeat in healthy ways and in the process help him distinguish between “losing,” being a “loser” and being a “winner.”

Before the next situation arises prayerfully consider how to best discuss the last time he reacted and lost it.  You might ask questions like, “How was that helpful?” or “How did that make things better?” and then explore what other ways he could have chosen to respond.  Remember that the best time to talk with him is before or after but NOT during a tantrum—when he is overwhelmed with emotions he doesn’t understand.

The next time the problem occurs give him time to calm down.  Let him know that it’s okay to be disappointed, frustrated and upset, but that it’s not okay to yell, shout, scream, pout, throw things and hurt others.  Give him time to process and be a safe place for him to express his emotions.

Acknowledge how hard and painful it can be to lose.  Don’t minimize the situation or say “It really isn’t that important.”  Help him find the “one thing” that he can learn from the situation.  It might be about how the team plays together or something he can do individually or that you guys can help him do—but continue to reinforce the fact that he has a choice as to how he chooses to express his emotions.

It’s also important that both of you model what it looks like to deal with losses in healthy ways.  How do you handle defeats and disappointments?  Do you react or respond?  Does it ruin your day?  How do you talk about individuals or teams that lose?  Do you call them losers?

I have a good friend who has created opportunities to model healthy responses to his kids by periodically “losing” a card or board game—and he hate’s losing so you know it’s because he really loves his children.

Also, make sure that you notice the times that he is a good sport, praise him and reinforce those behaviors.

Remind him that this isn’t the first and won’t be the last loss of his life.  There will be other times in sports and in life when he will lose.  Anybody can win well.  The real winners aren’t defined by whether they win or lose, but by what they learn from their losses and how they choose to respond.

Gary J. Oliver, ThM, PhD
Executive Director at Center for Healthy Relationships | + posts

Dr. Oliver is the Executive Director of The Center for Healthy Relationships, and professor of Psychology and Practical Theology at John Brown University.  He has authored over 20 books and more than 350 professional and popular articles.  Dr. Oliver has over 40 years’ experience as a Clinical Psychologist, Marriage  & Family Therapist and Spiritual Director.  He leads seminars & workshops both nationally and internationally on a variety of counseling-related issues, healthy relationships as well as Emotional & Relational Intelligence (ERI).

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