By Jude Bijou, MA, MFT
Our kids are exposed to bad losers all the time—not only in their sports leagues or school competitions, but also on television and in the home. They see reality show contestants thrown tantrums, parents yell and blame, and professional athletes trash their teammates or coaches when they lose.
With such poor role modeling, how can parents teach kids to be good losers? We can start by understanding the basic reasons for bad losers’ behavior: unexpressed anger, fear, and sadness. When kids have these pent-up emotions and don’t learn how to express them in healthy, natural, and constructive ways, those emotions come out in destructive ways when they lose. They pout and get depressed after a loss (sadness), they become bullies and get vengeful (anger), or they slink off the field and announce that they’re giving up (fear).
Unexpressed Emotions Keep Us Stuck in “Bad Attitudes”
In order to teach kids to be good losers, we need to explore the realm of emotions, because if we can help kids deal with their emotions constructively, they can keep their attention on their love of the competitive activity and enjoy the fullness and magic of One problem is that we adults don’t know how to manage our own emotions! Our children model us, so we need to both show and teach our children a different way to
deal with emotions that are triggered by loss.
Emotions are just pure sensations in our bodies. Emotion = E (energy) + motion. According to the theory of Attitude Reconstruction®, humans have only six core emotions: sadness, anger, fear, and joy, love, and peace. Each has its unique bodily sensation as well as physical expression.
As youngsters we expressed our sadness, anger, and fear spontaneously and then returned back to our happy, present selves. As we got older we received countless messages from our family, peers, media, and culture that it was not okay to express these emotions physically. The result is that we learned to compensate for not being able to let the emotional energy out of our bodies. We became sore losers, worry-warts, perfectionists, clowns…and the list goes on.
How to Teach Kids to Express Sadness, Anger, and Fear
Every family needs to create an “OK Room,” a designated place in a spare room, basement, or garage where family members—adults included—can express the intense emotions of sadness, anger, and fear in a safe, private, and effective way. Parents can provide such things as pillows for screaming into, old phone books to pound, heavy bags to punch, cardboard boxes or magazines to rip apart, and boxes of tissues and stuffed Kids love having a place to “lose control,” and where schools have adopted OK Rooms, they’ve met with great acceptance as well. Releasing sadness, anger, and fear enables us to process our upsets. If we take responsibility for our emotions, we will not resort to less-than-appropriate ways to meet defeat and disappointment, stress and overwhelm, or belligerence and resistance. Then we and our children can fully enjoy all the hard work that healthy competition and doing our best offers.
Here is how to handle each of these three emotions efficiently and thoroughly. Practice doing this yourself, and teach your kids how to do it too.
Releasing Sadness. Cry when you feel sad, but while doing so, refrain from shaming or pitying yourself. Crying washes us clean. It’s healthy to let the tears out when we feel them surfacing. So ignore external pressures that tell you to hold it in, and go ahead and sob. While you do, don’t indulge your “poor me…I’m no good” thinking. Allow yourself to cry while telling yourself, “I feel sad. It’s okay. I’m okay. I just need to cry.”
Releasing Anger. Expressing anger entails releasing that pent-up emotional energy a physical and constructive way. Go to the OK Room and punch the air with your fists. Scream by just making sounds and shout into a pillow. Lie on your back on a bed and flail your arms,
legs, and head. Tear up old magazines. Or even without a designated OK Room, if no one is home or family members have been forewarned, stomp through the house or push against a doorjamb. If you use words, yell something like, “It’s okay. I feel SO frustrated!” Do it hard, fast, and with abandon until you’re exhausted. When you’re finished, notice how you instantly feel calmer and more responsive.
Releasing Fear. Shiver the fear energy out of your body rather than tightening up. When you feel agitated, let your body do what’s natural. Wiggle, jiggle, shudder, tremble, and quiver—up the spine, out the arms, legs, hands, and in the neck and jaw. It might sound weird, but intuitively it makes sense. Just give it a try. Ham it up. Put on music. When you express the emotional energy with vigor, it will move out of your body and you’ll feel relaxed. By releasing the fear physically, you feel more peaceful, centered, and focused. While shivering, just make sounds, such as “eek” and remind yourself: “It’s okay. I’m just feeling scared. I just need to shake. I’m fine. Everything is okay.”
If we all commit to handling our emotions, young and old, we’ll make a far-reaching shift in our family relationships for the better because our unexpressed emotions will not come out in indirect, destructive ways.
Seven Ways to Help Sore Losers Become Good-Natured Losers
Once you and your children learn how to constructively express pent-up emotions, teaching children the following seven lessons to become a good loser will be a breeze.
1. Deal with inevitable emotions.
Remind your child that it’s okay and healthy to feel and express anger, sadness, and even fear at losing, but it must be expressed in a safe and private place. Let him have that temper tantrum or melt-down in the OK Room. For example, he can punch a punching bag at home in the basement and growl or yell at the top of his lungs, “I feel soooo angry!” He’ll feel relieved after he lets all that emotional energy out, and much better than if he took out his frustration and rage on someone else.
2. Find joy in the activity.
Running in a race on a beautiful day, and feeling healthy, fit, and alive should be fun. Remind your child that the activity she loves is fun, with less emphasis on “winning.” Remember Carolina Kostner, the Italian figure skater who going to quit skating after the Vancouver Olympics? Her mother convinced her to compete in Sochi just for the fun of it, to do it for the joy and her love of skating. Lo and behold, Kostner won the bronze.
She focused on the intrinsic rewards, on doing it for herself—not on the competition.
3. Focus on what you can control: doing your best.
Resilient people—those who bounce back easily from disappointments and setbacks—aren’t wedded to the outcome. Don’t let kids set themselves up for disappointment with the expectation that they’ll win. Teach them that giving it their maximum effort is the only thing they can control. If they do win, that’s a wonderful bonus and shows that doing their best can pay off. US skiing star Makela Shiffrin, upon winning a gold medal at the age of 18, gave many other people credit for her success–her parents, coaches, fellow competitors, and racing heroes. She also credited the value of studying videos of others whose technique she admired and sought to emulate. In the final analysis, she talked about focusing on where she wanted to go beyond the gold medal rather than on winning in this competition.
4. Look for the benefit.
Your child won’t always get what she wants, but she can always benefit from trying. Ask her, “What did you learn?” Most competitive kids can come up with an answer that’s helpful. There’s always a win for your child personally, whether it’s honing her skills, learning something about her technique, or figuring out a different and better strategy for next time. Looking for the benefit keeps children interested in improving their performance and appreciating their own growth rather than looking for extrinsic rewards for their efforts.
5. Find the silver lining.
Get in the habit of talking to your child about the silver lining in any situation, especially when facing loss and disappointment. By looking for the intrinsic rewards in a given outcome, we focus on the larger picture. “If losing was the worst thing that happened, what was the best?” (Here the parent might need to throw out some options about what was positive.) Examples might be: hanging out with friends or teammates, being part of a team or a large event, eating pizza afterwards, or making a valuable
6. Congratulate yourself.
If a child’s sense of well-being is dependent upon external recognition, he’ll always be at the mercy of outside sources for self-worth and happiness. If he’s having a particularly difficult time letting go of negative feelings, have him repeat over and over to himself: “I gave it my best shot. I did the best I could.” The idea is to have the child look for what he did well, even if it seems difficult to give himself praise. Persist, because holding on to mistakes we made prevents us from being fully present in the moment and enjoying our personal success. Being self-critical and negative about oneself does not increase performance, self-esteem, or a winning attitude. Have your child (or better yet, the whole family) make self-appreciations part of their daily routine. If you get in the habit of looking for the good in all your endeavors and voicing them, you are guaranteed to feel better about yourself, no matter what transpires.
7. Join in the celebration.
Being a gracious loser centers around the ability to celebrate someone else’s good fortune, despite the disappointment one feels. It’s fine for a kid to acknowledge her disappointment at losing, but not to diminish the success or joy of the winner. Remind her that if she won, she’d want and expect others to congratulate her too. The recent winter Olympics showed plenty of examples of teammates and competitors joyfully celebrating their own, as well as the success of others. This embodies the spirit and tradition of competition on a worldwide stage and left the spectators and competitors feeling the unity and joy of peak performance.
There are many ways to help your child become a gracious loser. In the process they will increase their self-esteem, take responsibility for their emotions as well as actions, show more compassion when they win, and reap the many benefits of healthy competition.
Help kids practice “giving it their all” regardless of their skill level or the results. The importance of sports for kids is that these activities help them develop other personal and interpersonal skills that will be valuable for their growth and their future.
Jude Bijou MA MFT is a respected psychotherapist, professional educator, workshop leader, and consultant. Her theory of Attitude Reconstruction® evolved over the course of more than 30 years as a licensed marriage and family therapist, and is the subject of her multi-award-winning book, Attitude Reconstruction: A Blueprint for Building a Better Life. Learn more at www.attitudereconstruction.com.