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Ask the Experts

How Do I Teach My Child It's OK to Lose?

By Debra Collins, Family therapist

Question:

My second-grade daughter is very bright. She reads at almost the fifth-grade level. The problem is that she is so hard on herself! She is often upset if she doesn't win at a math game and it can ruin her whole day. Despite encouragement at home, and constant reassurance that she cannot always be the leader or the winner, she just can't grasp this concept.

The only expectations we have for our daughter is to do her best, and enjoy school. I am afraid that this behavior, if not redirected, may be harmful in the long run. I know that I must also ignore some of the drama, but it can be hard. Do you have any suggestions?

Answer:

It is wonderful that you are examining her issue from all sides. It can be difficult to teach children how to lose gracefully. I think that in general, children today seem to have a lower tolerance for frustration than in previous generations. There are many things being attributed to this, such as keeping kids overly stimulated and active, not clearly defining expectations or giving mixed messages.

It can also be challenging for academically bright children to cope when things suddenly are difficult for them. There is no shortcut to life experience. Although she is reading at the fifth-grade level, she still is only in second grade. What are her teacher's expectations of her and how are they communicated?

Dealing with disappointment is a learned skill, and we learn first from the adults around us. You may want to explore how people tolerate frustration in your family. Even with the best of intentions we may give mixed messages by saying one thing, but modeling another. Adults come home from work and blame the boss, storm around the house when something didn't work out as planned, or call themselves "stupid." Modeling how to deal with unfulfilled expectations, by talking about what you are feeling, is one way to demonstrate coping skills.

As you mentioned, it is important to not fuel drama, especially if she's using it as a way to connect. Acknowledging her feelings, but minimizing your reaction can help. In a neutral tone you can say something like, "It's disappointing when you don't win at...". Then resist the pull to reassure her or make her stop. When she's calmer, you can ask her if she wants to come up with a solution. "Failure" teaches us problem solving, but sometimes we just need to learn to sit with our disappointment.


Debra Collins is a licensed marriage and family therapist and has worked in both primary and middle schools as a school counselor. She gives workshops to teachers and students and offers parenting classes in the San Francisco Bay Area. To learn more, visit her website.

Advice from our experts is not a substitute for professional diagnosis or treatment from a health-care provider or learning expert familiar with your unique situation. We recommend consulting a qualified professional if you have concerns about your child's condition.

Comments from GreatSchools.org readers

06/15/2012:
"did this article really offered any solution!!! "
08/23/2010:
"My son is 10 yrs old and I've always taught him that it's great to win but even better sometimes to see someone else get the Glory:) And as long as yoy try YOUR A WINNER no matter what:)"
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