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Chances are, if you have clicked on this blog, you know a kid that HAS to win (yep, bold, capitalise, italics and underline) and this competitive streak is ruining their ability to make and maintain friendships and their ability at times to function. And truth be told – it can make them hard to like at times – no one likes a sore loser or an ungracious winner.

The tricky one about this is that – realistically no one likes to lose – winning has both great intrinsic and extrinsic value.

Intrinsically when we win – there is a huge pay off. It might be a reflection of how hard we’ve worked, practiced, sacrificed etc. and depending on what it was it can be a sign of self-worth as well.

Extrinsically there can be a tangible prize and praise from others.

Both of these can motivate greater achievement and help us all to strive for success. When harnessed – this super power wins AFL grand finals, allows great scientific discoveries and keeps our little ones going even in the face of adversity. However, if unchecked this super power can also be used for evil – it can make a great day go downhill fast, turn a play date into shambles and tears all around.

Like with most things, if our child has ADHD, ASD, learning difficulties or anxiety, winning and losing takes on a special cast. A child with ADHD is dealing with low impulse control as a result of poor executive management. Their expression of this is what appears to be an exaggerated/extreme response. A child with ASD sees the world in black and white – winning = good; losing= bad. A child that has struggled with learning or picking up new skills equates their ability to win – with their sense of self and thus they are heavily invested in this. For a child with anxiety – winning represents control and losing means a loss of control and that is a scary thing.

Which one sounds like your child? Could they be all four???

What do you do about it?

One of the first things that has too occur is to reframe our own thinking. So instead of thinking – this kid is never going to change – you can think this kid doesn’t know how to change. Or this kid just doesn’t know what to do next. This is where we want to use explicit teaching. We want them to know what appropriate responses are for when they are winning or losing. We can either model this or use natural consequences to help bolster our teaching. Natural and social consequences are a powerful tool – when you scream and shout and carry on about losing – no one wants to play with you – this is a natural consequence of their behaviour – and pre-warning them about this explicitly helps children to learn that their behaviour affects others.

So, the next time you notice that your child is about to meltdown during a game – stop the game. At this point you can do a few things, but remember to be explicit about it. This is not a guessing game. Tell them that you have hit the pause button. And the pause button can be used in several ways:

  1. Just that – a pause. Some time to give your kid a breather and time to build tolerance to the distress that they are experiencing or that is about to come;
  2. Tell them that you have paused for a really good reason. You have noticed that they are getting upset and that you are worried about them. For some kids this is enough to reset them. For others they are going to need more coaching;
  3. You can unpause when you see that your child is starting to calm down or
  4. Present choices for how to proceed – do they want to keep going or do they want to stop for a set amount of time or stop for the rest of the day?
    1. Go through a decision tree with them, like the one below. Make sure you get their input regarding their thoughts and feelings;
    2. Show them how their thoughts trigger their feelings and then their actions.
    3. Let them know that its ok to feel bad when they’re losing – no one likes it – but what they do with that feeling is the important bit. Brainstorm appropriate behaviours and responses. If they don’t know what else to do, they will fall back on old responses. Praise them for trying new responses.

You can also go through the above decision tree before you start playing games. This way children are aware of what is expected and they know that anyone can pull the plug on the game at any time. So the next time your child asks you to play a game with them – be honest and say you’re not sure because you don’t know what is going to happen if they don’t win. Then you can go through the decision tree with them and get them to talk through what you can expect. This helps them to be part of the explicit teaching process as well.

As always, make sure you praise children’s efforts rather than the outcome. Praise and motivate them to praise others for having a go and doing well. You can also think of other ways for your child to channel their competitiveness. Can you get them to try and beat their own score or maybe enroll them in team sport? This way they can work together with others to achieve a collective goal and have social reinforcement for behaving appropriately as well.