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Winning Isn't Everything

Date added: 07/25/2014

excerpted from No More Meltdowns: Positive Strategies for Managing and Preventing Out-of-Control Behavior (2008) by Jed Baker, PhD

Meltdowns often occur when children believe troublesome situations result from personal inadequacy. For example, dealing with losing and making mistakes lead to greater frustration if the child attributes these situations to his or her lack of ability. Similarly, being teased will lead to greater frustration when the child believes the negative remarks others say. All these situations are easier to handle when children do not believe negative information about themselves. Instead, they might see losing or making mistakes as something to do with the challenging situation, rather than with their own abilities. They might see teasing as a reflection of problems the teaser has, rather than a deficit within themselves.

Winning Isn't Everything

Shawn was an eight-year-old third grader who was a terrific reader, did well academically, yet struggled with competitive games despite his interest in them. Shawn could not tolerate losing any games at home or in school. Whether he was playing sports, a board game, or an academic game in class, Shawn cried when he lost, calling himself a "loser," and at times throwing the game pieces or balls at others around him. In addition, he yelled at his teammates if he was on a losing team in gym or in the classroom.

No amount of consoling seemed to help Shawn when he was in the throes of his upset. The only thing that seemed to work was if he played again and won. Many other students, as well as his sister and parents, did not want to play with him because they knew how upset he got.

Change the Triggers

After consulting with the parents, we decided to sign Shawn up for activities in which he was less likely to have problems with losing - either because the activities were not competitive, or because he was already very good at them. We signed him up for swim lessons in which he did not have to race others, and encouraged his participation in chess tournaments, as he was quite gifted in this area.

We arranged with the school to help steer him away from more competitive recess activities and, instead, to have him play on the jungle gym. However, sports during gym time continued to be a challenge, as he initially continued to cry or get angry at his teammates when his team lost.

Teach Skills to Deal with the Triggers

We taught Shawn that there were always two games he was playing, the particular sport or board game, and the invisible "friendship" game. If he lost the sport game and did not get angry, he could win a friend and others would play with him again. We convinced him that maintaining self-control and winning friends were far more important than winning games.

We also explained that losing a game did not mean that he was not smart or talented. We went over his strengths and talents and explained that the outcome of games is not always a reflection of these abilities, but is rather due to a combination of luck and effort.

The key to being able to use these skills was to ensure that his parents and teachers reminded him of the importance of the invisible game before he began to play anything. They did not wait until he lost to go over this, beause by then he would already be too upset to listen.

Try Reward or Loss Systems

We backed up the importance of self-control and friendship by creating a home point system that earned Shawn rewards (e.g., buying a new game, book , video or toy) for maintaining control if he lost a game. In fact, if Shawn won a game he received one point, but if he lost a game and did not get mad, he would get two points. In other words, Shawn got more points for losing without getting mad than he did for winning a game. For kids like Shawn, this rarely leads to a desire to lose, but rather decreases the importance of winning.

We had the school create a similar reward chart for gym. If Shawn lost a game and did not get angry, he got two points. If he won, he got one point, and if he lost and got angry, he received no points. Points went home to be added to his point system, where they could be exchanged for rewards.

After two weeks of earning praise and rewards for handling losing, Shawn's self-esteem grew, and he commented on how much better he was at controlling himself. With this newfound confidence, he was soon able to tolerate losing graciously without any rewards.


In the award-winning No More Meltdowns, Dr. Baker offers an easy-to-follow 4-step model that will improve your everyday relationships with the children in your life: * Managing your own emotions by adjusting your expectations  * Learning strategies to calm a meltdown in the moment  * Understanding why a meltdown occurs  * Creating plans to prevent future meltdowns.

" . . . filled with compassion for the young "rulers" who reign over our homes and classrooms. These children are doing everything in their power to cope. Dr. Baker assures us that they can and will do so much better when their parents and teachers put their shoulder to the task, using the strategies suggested here." - Carol S. Kranowitz, MA