Let’s Play! Helping our Kids Navigate the Challenges of Winning and Losing
April 4, 2021
“You win some; you lose some.” This age-old axiom may appear simplistic at first, and yet it addresses a concept that many of us struggle with: acceptance. In our daily lives, we struggle to accept the realities of life, engaging in problem-solving strategies in an attempt to resist what we hope or expect can change. Don’t get me wrong; problem-solving is useful in some contexts, but in others it is simply avoidance in disguise.
Loss is inevitable in life, and something that cannot be avoided. Parents’ attempts to protect their children early on from loss just results in older children who struggle with losing, and engage in avoidance strategies themselves as a form of self-protection. You’ve likely met the older child (or adult) who cheats, or one who does not engage in games at all; these may be strategies to avoid feelings associated with loss. This is a sad situation, since games themselves can be fun and a way to connect socially and emotionally with other human beings.
Reading this article, you must have at least some of these concerns. We all want our children to be able to navigate difficult emotions; to process the loss and then learn from it. But, how do we help them do that? Some internal work to help you respond in a supportive way, as well as conscious choices about the environment and games played can be useful in helping you help your child successfully navigate this type of loss.
Look Inside Yourself
First, begin by looking at how you frame loss. Start in the context of games, and then expand outwards. Do you see loss in only negative terms or are you able to see the positive aspects of loss? In psychotherapy, we might address this as a difficulty with framing our experience: evolutionarily, we are primed to “see the negative” - it helps us survive in a harsh world to constantly be preparing for adverse experiences. Socially, we may have been primed by our parents to view things in a negative way, adapting distorted thinking patterns rooted in rigidity (“it either is or it isn’t”), extremes (always/never), or assigning blame to either oneself or another. In terms of addressing these patterns of thinking, we would attempt to recognize that the exist and that they hold power over our behavior, and then either attempt to correct the distortion by reminding ourselves of times when the thought is simply not true or simply create distance between yourself and the thought so that it does not exert so much power over your actions. We may also begin “seeking the positive” in our experiences of loss, adapting a lens of positivity rather than negativity. At any rate, since our children take cues from us - by the ways in which we communicate, both verbally and nonverbally, as well as model behavior - examining how you perceive loss is a great place to start.
Adjust Your Expectations
As you consider adjusting your expectations, it would be helpful to know what your expectations are. Expectations for children are best when viewed developmentally and in line with his or her maturity level. For example, a 3 year old will likely have more difficulty processing the loss in a game than a 6 year old. This is due to accumulation of experience that occurs over time and development of the brain: the 6 year old has had more opportunities to experience loss and understand that he or she can win next time. In other words, he or she can see loss as an impermanent quality whereas the 3 year old may not yet be able to understand that. So, the expectations for these children should be different (but not absolute). If your 6 year old child’s struggle with loss seems to be exaggerated based on how other children of similar age handle loss, it could be a sign that he or she is lacking in maturity. Maturity emerges at different rates and in different areas depending on the child. If you find that your child is lacking in maturity regarding loss, you can adjust your expectations and work with him or her to develop that maturity.
View the Situation from your Child’s Perspective
Perspective-taking can help us develop empathy for our child. Empathy serves to balance our response to a situation which may be triggering. Some of you may have heard this a “pause,” but the question remains: how do you pause when you are caught up in emotional reactivity? To better understand how empathy works, it may help to view our emotions on a continuum. For most situations, our emotional response is within a normal range; but if certain situations remind us - consciously or inconspicuously - of unresolved or leftover issues from the past, our response becomes exaggerated. In comes conscious empathic practice (informed by your understanding of your child): by simple telling yourself something like, “my son views this loss as the end of the world because he cannot understand the impermanence of it...yet. He is struggling to manage his feelings of loss. He needs help, and I am his helper” you can dampen your emotional response. You can then be there for your child as he processes the loss, by holding him and validating his experience. And, later, engage with him in strategies to help him better navigate the loss.
Manage your own Emotional Reactivity
Though this was mentioned in the last section, how to manage an emotion crisis on your part was not. Perspective-taking can help, but sometimes an action is also needed depending on the level of reactivity. Deep breathing or grounding techniques can help with that. Reminding yourself that your child is having trouble managing her emotions and needs help, that your child does not intend to cause stress for you, or simply reminders to “take a breath” during times of crisis - written down or repeated internally as reminders to be referenced during these times - can be helpful ways to manage stress as well. If none of these techniques works in the moment, removing yourself from the situation to regain composure (using these techniques or others) may be necessary. Aside from overall good physical health to include ensuring sufficient and quality sleep and healthy food choices, and tending to your emotional health through self-care, the key in managing your own reactions is preparation, so think ahead to what may be useful in this situation and, if your plan doesn’t work for you, adjust as necessary.
Provide an Accepting, Validating Space
For many parents, it is instinctive to console children by telling them, “it’s okay” or “don’t cry” (or any number of variations). Yet, if we look deeper into these phrases of consolidation, the purpose is merely to console ourselves (because the crying or sadness is triggering for us) and only sends the message to the child that their emotions and the expression of them is unacceptable. It is important to teach our children how to express their emotions without hurting others or themselves; yet, for a child who simply expresses sadness at the loss through crying, it is important that we validate their emotion(s) and allow them to be expressed. Below is an example dialogue between a mother and her child:
Child: (crying over the loss at a game)
Parent: (with facial expression that communicates empathy) “I see that you are sad. You wanted to win the game and it didn’t turn out that way. That might also be frustrating! What can I do to help you? Would you like a hug?”
Child: (continues crying but sinks into parent’s embrace)
Parent: “When your sadness passes, we can play another round! Let’s see if you win this time.”
This dialogue is written based on my own children’s personalities and what helps them in times of sadness or frustration. You know your child and what can help them manage their sadness (a hug or kiss, hand-holding, deep breathing, singing a song, etc.) As you see, the important first step is to validate, provide a safe space for expression of their emotions, and remind them that loss is not permanent. Then, you might let them win the next round.
Provide Your Child with Experiences of Winning and Losing
While it is hard to see our children experience sadness, it is important that they do so. Research shows that by experiencing adverse situations - situations that result in feelings of sadness, fear, and frustration and having appropriate support (i.e, a supportive caregiver to provide validation, empathy, and guidance in how to appropriately express the emotion), children can become more resilient. Resilience is the ability to process and move on from challenging situations rather than getting stuck in rumination or inaction (such as in depression or anxiety). While chronic adversity can lead to a number of mental health conditions, adversity in normal amounts in appropriate situations, such as in the context of games or other competitive activities, is quite healthy and leads to the best mental health outcomes for human beings.
So… gauge what your child can handle given her age and maturity. If you are dealing with a situation wherein your child experiences significant difficulty losing, allow her to win while sprinkling in some experiences of losing. Reassure her that she may win next time, and demonstrate that by creating that condition. As she begins understanding that loss is temporary, titrate those experiences of winning by increasing experiences of loss over time. Do this gradually so she won’t even notice. At some point, you will find that she is better able to tolerate losing, and games will begin to feel more playful and less stressful.
Play Cooperative Games
There are now a variety of cooperative games on the market, and it may be helpful to invest in a few. Cooperative games, unlike traditional ones, do not pit one side against the other; rather, players have to work together to reach a common goal. So, in these games, instead of a competitive experience, you have a cooperative experience. See here for a father’s review of some cooperative games by Peaceable Kingdom). You can also change some traditional games into cooperative ones, as seen in this blog. Through cooperative gaming, young children (and you) can experience playing games without intense feelings of loss that comes with losing in competitive games.
By looking inward and preparing for emotional challenges, as well as taking control of certain things, such as the timing, types of games, and where you play, you and your child can find ways to navigate this challenge...and begin to have fun with games in time.
(This post complements the "Adventures in Parenting" Series: "You Win Some; You Lose Some.")