Mental Health Mondays: Winning and Losing

By Jennifer Reid |
May 26, 2020 |
Children's Mental Health

Mental Health Mondays:
Winning and Losing

by Jennifer Reid, M.A.
Early School Director/In-School Therapeutic Services Coordinator
Lucy Daniels Center

Families have had more time to play games together lately, providing opportunities for bonding as well as emerging abilities for children to win and lose tactfully and graciously. For some, winning brings the temptation to boast, while losing can trigger meltdowns or even resistance to joining in activities that have unpredictable outcomes. Understanding the significance of winning or losing to young children can be helpful in determining how to support them in this area of their emotional development.

Children under Six
Young children tend to have a magical view of their world. They often believe in magical powers: their own (such as the power of a thought or wish to be known to others or to have influence) as well as others’ (for example, the power of a superhero, the magic of figures such as the tooth fairy, and the power of their parents to protect and make all things better). It stands to reason that anything that threatens the sense of safety derived from magical thinking is undesirable and to be avoided. Young children also tend to view their world in concrete ways: Good guys and bad guys or winning means I’m good and losing means I’m bad.Winning a game therefore becomes more than the isolated achievement for young children; it supports their feeling that they are powerful and protected from life’s dangers.

Kindergarten and Beyond
While elementary-aged children can be competitive, their magical thinking about the world is gradually shifting into a more mature worldview, one that is comprised of shades of gray (sometimes good people lose or make mistakes, but they’re still good people) and peppered with the realities that there aren’t magical fixes to life’s challenges. As the magical worldview fades, a child’s ability to cope with the realities of the world grows, and an event such as a loss of a game – when it doesn’t symbolize power, control, or safety – can be taken in stride.

Helping Children Who Struggle with Losing
For some children, the process of letting go of magical thinking and accepting life’s realities does not come easily. Determining how to best help a child with any feeling begins with understanding the reasons for the feeling as well as the child’s age and developmental level. For a young child who has a fear of bad guys or monsters, for instance, mostly winning remains important while exposure to the occasional loss, with support, lends itself to reassurance that the loss doesn’t have any special meaning attached to it. As a child grows older, comments that separate outcomes from what they may symbolize help prepare a child for the unpredictability that lies ahead, “Now remember, sometimes you win, sometimes I win, but a game is just a game.”

Some children struggle extensively with the unpredictability of certain activities, so much so that their need for control interferes with their ability to participate fully. Some children may avoid games or competition altogether, protecting themselves from the dangers of the unknown, while others may bend the rules or cheat to control the outcomes. Children who struggle in this way benefit from preparation ahead of time, including thinking together with a parent about how willing and flexible he or she is feeling before playing, and consistent practice in small doses. To prevent big upsets, it is sometimes in a child’s best interest for a parent to make the decision to take a break from the game, reflecting later in the day or another time on how and when it started to feel uncomfortable. With support and guidance in self-reflection, coping with the unpredictability and the win-lose nature of playing games can become a pleasurable activity for the whole family.

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