Nothing is harder than the first time you see your child really upset over something you can’t control. It’s one thing to deal with tantrums over broken toys or bedtime, but when it’s something they are more invested in, it can be heartbreaking. When you watch your child practice hard, get excited for a fencing tournament, try their hardest, and then lose, it can be quite the parenting challenge to know how to support them through the heartache.
Before we talk about how to best support them, I think it’s important to first remember a few things:
- Failure is not the opposite of success, but a part of success. Yes, it’s hard to watch your child be disappointed, but losing is a necessary part of life and experiencing loss is one of the many benefits of competitive sports. Expect it, take a deep breath when it happens, and know that they will be fine and better for the experience.
- Your #1 job as a parent when it comes to athletics is to be supportive. Criticism from you, no matter how constructive, is not likely to be well received. Here is a great article from Sheridan Fencing Academy that offers another great reminder: the #1 thing children want to hear from you is, “I love watching you fence.” The article also says that one of the things they often dread the most is the ride home with their parents. Your goal should be that your child never feels that way about you.
- No one, children or adults, should have to apologize for their feelings. We don’t choose our feelings; we only choose how we react to our feelings. If your child is really upset and you don’t think they should be, it’s not up to you. Allow them to be upset, it’s okay. If their reactions become extreme, perhaps it needs to be handled differently, but if your child takes fencing seriously, that’s generally a good thing.
Okay, so what can you do to help your child cope?
- Give them space. My son Adam, who is eight, takes fencing losses very seriously. He cries when he loses. Of course it’s hard for me to see him cry and a part of me wants to coach him out of this reaction. However, I know that the tears mean that he cares about fencing, and for that I am proud of him. As he grows up, I know he will learn to curb this behavior as he deals with getting older and being embarrassed from the tears. For now, I let him cry. I know that approaching him and trying to talk him down does not help, but makes things worse. If he wants to talk to me about it, he knows I’m there. If you’re a supportive parent who has created a safe place for your child, they will come to you if they need you.
- Provide distraction. It’s important to note that this tip should only be used after you’ve given your child space or if you feel they are just getting way too upset. Talk to them like an adult regardless of age. Ask in a calm voice if they’d like to do some footwork drills or lunges and suggest that it might calm them down. If they decline, let them decline. Tell them what’s next, again, in a calm voice, so they can start thinking beyond the loss. Perhaps, “Okay, take your time and let me know if you need me.” Then, “When you’re ready, we should go watch your friend in his final bout. I’ll be waiting over here.” Or maybe, “We need to start packing up in five minutes. I’ll be over here when you’re ready.” You could also ask if they feel like writing in their fencing journal! Notice that none of this advice involves telling them what to do or telling them to do something now.
- Set a good example. Some parents get more involved in their children’s sporting than others. If you are prone to getting excited and personally involved, remember that your job is to support and only to support. Make it clear to your child that you are not upset. As we mentioned before, keep a calm voice. Any strong reaction on your part will only increase your child’s anxiety or disappointment. No matter what your gut reaction is (we spent so much money/energy getting here and she tanked, if he had just focused more he could have done better, etc.), the reaction you show your child should be calm and supportive.
- Resist the urge to coach. Your child’s coaches have trained in both fencing and how to coach, chances are you haven’t. Giving your child tips and advice is not your role. Plus, most people don’t want to hear suggestions for doing better right after a loss. Remember, support and only support. If you do want to give some encouragement to focus more at practice, do more at-home training, etc., wait until things have calmed down. Most likely you should wait for an entirely different day.
- Pay attention to how they handle loss and how they react to you. Every child is different so you will learn how your child likes to be supported over time. Also, it’s important to know that children sometimes surprise their parents with their “sports personality.” It may be very different from what you’re used to at home when things don’t go their way.
Another way to help your child cope with loss is to prepare them for it by setting reasonable expectations. Look for an upcoming post on this topic. The number one thing I would say to take away from this blog is that when coping with loss, it’s more about what you shouldn’t do rather than what you should do. Show your child you’re not upset, stay calm, and let them come to you for help.
Do you have other examples of things that have worked for you in helping your child cope with loss? We’d love to hear any other tips below.