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Q: “My Son Is a Terrible Loser”

Losing at a game, whether cards or football, can send some children into full-blown anxiety that manifests as rage. But avoiding competitive situations is not a solution.

Q: “My son normally expresses emotions very well, but when he loses a game he becomes completely irrational, claiming everyone has cheated, the refs were all bad, the world is against him. It’s very hard for my husband and me not to become angry with his behavior. What can we do?”

A: This is an interesting question because this is anxious behavior that is often interpreted as oppositional or bad behavior.

I knew a boy like that who was a very smart, high-functioning child, but he could not tolerate failure of any kind. He could not play team sports because he could never be on the losing team. He could not play board games. His family adjusted their life to make sure that he was never in a competitive situation in which he would lose.

This is a big pitfall for loving, caring, helpful parents — to try to protect the child by avoiding the anxiety-provoking situation, such as not taking airplane flights, crossing the street to avoid a dog or creating elaborate and lengthy ways around separation. This is not the way treatments work and it’s not the way to help children, but it’s an easy trap to fall into.

In this case, the parents need to help their son understand that this is anxiety. They could say, “It doesn’t need to make you so anxious to lose because we all lose. None of us likes to lose, but all of us lose some of the time.”

[Self-Test: Does My Child Have Generalized Anxiety Disorder?]

This content came from the ADDitude webinar by Eileen Costello, M.D., and Perri Klass, M.D., titled “Worry Less: Managing Anxiety in Children and Adolescents with ADHD and Learning Differences”, which is available for free replay here.

1 Comments & Reviews

  1. Hmmm…interesting that the contributing authors seem to imply that the child’s response to losing as being associated solely with anxiety (and presumably in co-occurrence with ADD/HD). Because while clinical and empirical data likely supports the correlation discussused in the article, I am curious whether data supports that the response to “competative loss” has sufficiently established that it is exclusively and specifically correlated with anxiety with enough confidence to rule out all other possible co occurring conditions. The most obvious of such possibilities that I am thinking of would be clinical depression. The likelihood of comorbidity is emphasized in the DSM 5. It specifically states that, “Individuals whose presentation meets criteria for generalized anxiety disorder are likely to have met criteria for other anxiety and unipolar depressive disorders.” (American Psychiatriatric Association, 2013. American Psychiatric Association: Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, Fifth Edition, P. 226). Which is enough for me to beg the question I posed above.

    I have a personal interest about this specific presentation as well. Because during my own childhood I demonstrated this same type and degree of intolerance for losing. Regardless of whether the competition was all in fun or within the context of some official event or league, I hated to lose. And neither of my parents were “that parent”; the one that is so fervently win or go home that they yell their criticisms out loud at their or anothers child. In fact they spoke the mantra of it’s not even how but rather “that you play the game”. As an adult, I am by character and of necessity, accepting of not winning or being the best of all. Ne essity stems from being a recovering alcoholic for over a decade, and then three years subsequent my getting sobersuffering severe panic attacks and then being diagnosed as ADD with co occurring generalized anxiety disorder. And I have a son who is now 10 years old. So this hits very close to home for many reasons.


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