Help! My Child Struggles with Games & Competition (Listener Question)

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In this episode, parent coach Margaret Webb joins Debbie to discuss a question from a listener whose son struggles with games and competition, responding with physical aggression when he loses. They explore strategies for practicing losing, navigating losing in real games, and redefining the purpose of games. They also discuss handling frustration and judgment from others, developing coping strategies over time, and considering emotional regulation skills. The importance of reframing expectations, practicing and redefining winning, minimizing game play opportunities, practicing in calm states, and exploring occupational therapy are also highlighted.


About Debbie Reber

Debbie Reber, MA is a parenting activist, bestselling author, speaker, and the CEO and founder of TiLT Parenting, a resource, top-performing podcast, consultancy, and community with a focus on shifting the paradigm for parents raising and embracing neurodivergent children. A regular contributor to Psychology Today and ADDitude Magazine, and the author of more than a dozen books for children and teens, Debbie’s most recent book is Differently Wired: A Parent’s Guide to Raising an Atypical Child with Confidence and Hope.

About Margaret Webb

Margaret Webb is a certified Master Life Coach, parenting coach, nature-based coach, former teacher, wife and mother. As a life and parenting coach, she weaves together her experience as an elementary education teacher with the tools she’s learned in Martha Beck’s Life Coach Training, Sagefire Institute’s Nature-Based Coach Training, and what she’s applied to her own life as a mom of a now 20-year-old son with special needs.


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Episode Transcript


Hey everyone, today I have parent coach Margaret Webb with me for this Parent Lean In episode. Margaret is a dear friend. She was my very first parent coach back when my kid was a little and I was really struggling. She’s also the lead parent coach in my Differently Wired club where she provides a ton of support for the parents in that community. You also might have heard my recent episode with her where we talked about her wonderful new book, A Hero’s Journey in Parenting: Parenting the Child You Didn’t Expect When You Were Expecting. So if you haven’t heard that yet, definitely go back and check that episode out. But Margaret, welcome. Thank you so much for being here.

Margaret Webb:

I’m so excited to be here.


Okay, so today we’re gonna tackle, I thought this was a really great question, it was sent in to us, and I am pretty confident that at least some aspects of this question are going to resonate with a lot of listeners. Okay, so the question is, our son really struggles with games or any competition and responds with physical aggression when he loses. We’ve tried many therapies and medication with no changes in this area. We know this is a nervous system and possible PDA response, thus accommodate at home by allowing him to win. However, he started to play games at school and is having outbursts as his peers don’t accommodate and will win. I’m not sure if our accommodations are inadvertently creating more issues as he is so used to winning and if we should create more opportunities at home for him to lose so he can learn to work through it. However, I feel like we’ve tried that and he still was never able to cope, would love any ideas. And just for context, this is a nine -year -old who is diagnosed with autism, ADHD, and anxiety. I have a lot of thoughts about this one because I read it, I was like, oh yeah, been there. And Margaret, I’ll be so curious to hear what you have to say. But here are a couple of my big picture thoughts. 

First, I would just say this is definitely something that you will want to practice, especially if your child is drawn to games. You know, if a child doesn’t want to play games and it’s not necessary, then that’s also something you could just reduce exposure to for now until your child’s a little older and has better coping strategies. But if your kid is really drawn to games and competition like so many of our kids are, I think it’s a great idea to start practicing losing. And this is something we did really explicitly at home. And we would do games like Connect 4 or Uno, so games that could be really fast. The stakes were pretty low and they were also games of chance, which can be especially frustrating, but it kind of took that piece out that there’s a skill deficit or your child’s not smart enough. It’s just random, it’s just chance. So we would really intentionally practice those games and we would do a lot of prep work. We would talk about what’s our plan? How do you think you’ll respond if the game doesn’t go your way? What are you going to do if I win? Do you want to practice? Like, we could role play this. And we would role play losing games. You can be silly with this, too. But role playing can be really powerful here. And then when playing the actual game, you as the parent who’s playing with them, constantly like checking in and noticing, right? And trying to be really attuned to what’s going on with their nervous system. So if you notice they’re starting to escalate or you can see this game is looking like it’s not gonna go your way, you could then say, hmm, I’m noticing you’re starting to get a little upset at, should we take a pause? Or I have a feeling that you may not win this game. Do you wanna keep going? Do you think you’ll be okay? What’s your plan?

So it’s that kind of practice. And I’m talking about short practice. I’m not saying it’s long drawn out, you know, or other game tournaments. Sometimes these are just very small opportunities. But I think navigating losing, kind of generally speaking, is a big skill for so many differently wired kids because there’s so much unpredictability. There are big feelings that come up. And again, those games of chance can sometimes be worse because they’re so unpredictable, but then skill games can be challenging in their own way because sometimes a loss might feel like it’s threatening to a child’s sense of competency or identity. So those are some initial thoughts. I have more, but I want to actually pause and check in with you, Margaret. What came up for you first when you heard this question?

Margaret Webb:

Yeah, I definitely, I had written down, you know, like practicing. And so I think, you know, in any situation, I like to think of it like a recurring source of tension for you, your child, like experiences that they’re having. I love to kind of reflect upon things like the before, the during, and then the after. And so the before, the practicing and really prepping them is so great, especially when there’s anxiety involved, to see what is it gonna be like if somebody else wins. And then, you know, kind of sorting out the other aspect of like, do you want to play with peers? And do you want to play these games with friends? Because if you do, then there are some things to take into consideration of like if, you know, if one person wins all the time, then is it, you know, is it fun? And is playing, like what is the purpose of playing games? Winning, yes, winning is a huge part of it. But how do we kind of redefine why we’re playing games? And are we playing just to win or are we playing so that we can do things with our peers, with our friends and you know and really thinking about okay like if I’m doing it to play with peers and I also want to win. You know, that’s where the practice comes in of practicing like, so what happens if you don’t win? And can we practice being excited for somebody who does win, even though we’re kind of disappointed that we didn’t win. But what does winning really mean? Does it mean anything? And what does it mean for you if you win?

And I think that comes more into play when it’s a skill -based game of what are, you know, and asking them like, what are you making it mean if you win this game? Or what are you making it mean if you lose it? And another thing that came up is, and the words, you know, sore loser, I don’t like those. I know that Michelle Garcia Winner, she has a character as part of her social thinking and it’s the destroyer of fun. And I like using characters like that of really thinking about, okay, you know, if I’m playing a game and let’s pretend, and that’s where going back to what you were saying about role playing, maybe you can be the one who has a strong reaction if you don’t win. And it’s like, well, that’s weird or that’s different or that was unexpected or I don’t really know what to do with that. But to play out what it might feel like for the other people involved when one of the participants has a strong reaction.Debbie:

I love everything that you just shared and I especially like that question of just really having that honest check and do you want to do this? And what do you get out of it? Because I think a lot of our kids are pulled toward and drawn to play games because it also can be really exciting. It can be like, there’s dopamine hits involved and you know, it can really be satisfying on so many levels. And so I understand how tricky it can be if you have a child who really wants to play and you kind of are observing it not going well. And then when other kids get involved, that can feel scary for us as parents because we worry about, you know, that our kid is gonna be escalating and then it’s going to impact the way other kids perceive them and it’s going to kids are going to start to exclude or tease or bully and so I understand that it can feel really stressful and this is something I observed with my kiddo with video games too. As Ash got a little older and I would hear you know, this game playing happening virtual gaming and I could hear just the end you know my end of the conversation, I was like, oh my gosh, like what is going on? And sometimes I’d communicate with the other parent and realize that their kid was just as escalated. And I was like, okay, good, it’s not just my kid. But I do think this stuff is really, really hard. And I just wanna throw this out there. Handling the frustration of losing is one of those skills that it can develop and it can grow over time, but it can take a long while. So it’s something that, again, I think going back to, this is a nine -year -old. So there’s so many coping strategies and emotional regulation skills and executive function skills that are gonna develop over time. And those skills are gonna help your child tap into strategies in the moment and help them not get as escalated when things don’t go their way. But it is a long game. So I just want to be real about that.

Margaret Webb:

Well, and yes, absolutely. And when, you know, one of the things that has been so helpful for me to realize is that, especially during these challenging situations, a nine -year -old chronologically in that state of frustration might be responding or reacting or having feelings more like a six or seven -year -old. And so it’s, you know, you might look at this nine -year -old and be like, oh my gosh, you know, should be able to handle this. But when we step back and view, okay, would we feel the same way about a child who is younger? The answer is probably no. We would be like, oh, okay, yep, they just haven’t gotten there. They’re like, they don’t have those skills yet. Like you were just talking about, but it’s, it’s helpful to have that reframe of this isn’t just a nine year old, you know, that there’s anxiety, that there’s impulse, you know, there might be impulse control. There might be emotional regulation stuff and taking that into consideration and knowing, you know, it’s not just that they’re doing this to be difficult or they’re, they’re not picking up on it right away. It is going to be a long haul. It is going to be a lot of repetition and a lot of support of, okay, you know, like this is what I noticed. And, you know, is there something, you know, do you want to practice this? Is this something? You know, yeah, you can vent about how it was unfair and how all of your feelings like let’s vent about that. But then moving forward, what can we do the next time so that you don’t have to feel that frustrated? Like, is it something that you want to do? And if so, there is a chance that you’re not going to win. Are you still willing to go and do this? And can we practice some things to say if you know or do if we don’t win and go from there, but there’s, you know, it is not a quick fix of just, hey, get over it. You know, this is part of life. They feel things strongly.


Right, right. Yeah, and I love that you said that, get over it, this is part of life, because I think that is something that we can internalize judgment from other parents and other people if our kids are having a hard time publicly with losing. So I just wanna throw that out there. I wrote about this in Differently Wired. There was a meme that was going around about, you know, being a poor sport was a reflection of a parent’s, you know, how good of a parent you were. And yeah, that really hurt when I read that. So I just wanna kind of, yeah, put that out there too. I know that this can be really, really tricky for a parent to navigate. I wanna share just two more quick thoughts and then we’ll wrap up. So one is, if your child isn’t that into games, I’m thinking specifically at school and, wondering if this is a child who it would feel like a relief to not have to play games at school or with other kids right now. That would be something I would also get curious about or just get clear on, right? Because you might want to then in that case, think about how can we support and work with the school or the classroom environment to minimize the opportunities my child has to get dysregulated through game play and to do that in a way that kind of preserves your kid’s sense of belonging because it can also feel weird if everyone else is doing something and you’re not because you can’t handle it. But I would want to find out more and if it is something your kid would actually really be happy to not participate in, get creative about how you could minimize that. And then the last thing I wanted to share is just when you are practicing, if you choose to practice like we’ve been talking about, it does kind of take the right opportunities. So you want to practice when your child is in a calm state. So if your kid is already kind of escalated, that’s not the time to play. So you want to start with a calm nervous system and you want to make sure that you are calm as well so that you can really be attuned and to help co -regulate throughout the gameplay and then support and look for opportunities where you could then, you know, reinforce like, oh gosh, I noticed you didn’t win that round and you stayed calm. How did you do that? And in a really just curious way. So we can kind of coach our kids through this when the conditions are right. The last thing I’ll say is that if your child isn’t working with an occupational therapist, like I’m thinking DIR Floortime, which is what we did when Ash was quite young. A lot of that time was spent practicing playing games and losing and navigating all the unpredictability of game play. So that would be one last thing I would recommend exploring. Do you have any last thoughts?

Margaret Webb:

Yeah, and there might be social groups near you that are where your kiddo is working with a trained therapist and you can have that a lot of times around that age. That is what they’re focused on. So definitely look into that. Don’t give up on the therapies.


Yeah, great, thank you. Thank you so much for that question. Margaret, thank you so much for joining me to talk through it, and we will see you guys on a next episode. Bye.

Margaret Webb:



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