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Perfectionism: Being a good loser from the National Association for Gifted Children

Perfectionism: Being a good loser from the National Association for Gifted Children
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For many children it can be a hard lesson to learn- how to lose. It applies also for gifted children, as their perceptions of their abilities sometimes can cause them to feel a failure for not always achieving and succeeding.


It is common for children to begin to understand and develop an awareness of winning and losing during the pre-school years, and whilst occasions can occur when a child cannot cope with coming second, third or last, it often improves over time as the child learns about the benefits of participation and social integration in a particular activity.


Gifted children can sometimes have social and emotional issues which impact on their ability to accept certain situations. For many gifted children, their emotional and social maturity isn't in line with their intellectual levels, and this asynchronicity needs careful management. For example they can be overly sensitive to criticism, which means not achieving a perfect result is problematic in that it could lead to a criticism, whether that be a positive or negative. Equally, gifted children tend to have a more independent approach and so can be aggravated by constructive input from a parent, teacher, coach or team mate.


There are many strategies to help a child who is finding it hard to understand and accept the winning and losing aspects of life, and these can be implemented regardless of ability or giftedness

*        As a parent it is important to understand the concepts of winning and losing; it is not a natural instinct to be a good loser, rather it is a skill to be learnt in childhood. A child needs to be told exactly and simply what is expected of them, what is against the rules, and the consequences/discipline which will follow. This needs to be consistently repeated and upheld.


*        Initially when children are learning games they first pick up on how to win, and therefore, by default, how everyone else loses. Children need to be shown and taught the other benefits for taking part and 'playing the game'. Introduce concepts such as team work, enjoying the challenge, improving with practice, and sharing in other people's successes. Do not allow a child to always win at games, but experience losing, together with a re-assurance of it's alright to lose sometimes, that it is a part of life.


*        Try to indulge in activities which aren't competitive but more socially rewarding, for example a bicycle ride rather than a bicycle race, so the pressure of winning is removed and allows a more relaxed genuine enjoyment. This helps children to understand the other benefits to taking part and having fun.


*        Give a child some relevant and meaningful comparisons with real life to engage with and discuss. For example, in football discuss how Italy felt losing the world cup, or the reasons why non-league teams enter the FA cup even if they have no chance of winning


*        It is important for children to learn how to fail. The first failure can be devastating for a child, particularly one who is gifted and may not often be prone to failing. Try to praise the process of learning, rather than the outcome at the end. For example helping your child to learn his spelling words can involve praise and recognition of hard effort and patience involved in learning, without your needing to know if he got them all right in the test at school.


*        Help your child to understand his reasons for being upset and angry at losing. Was it unfair, or is he worrying about how other people view him? Often gifted children are much more aware and concerned about how they are perceived and judged by others. Discuss with him his behaviour and how his inappropriate reactions could affect his friendships and relationships in a more severe way than by his not winning.


*        When a child loses it often helps to talk through the feelings, especially with a gifted child who is more articulate and able to understand the reasoning.  Empathise with the child by relaying your own experiences of losing and how it made you feel. Show the child it is alright to sometimes feel hurt and sad, and we all feel like that sometimes, even mums and dads, but it is not alright to react inappropriately.


*        Celebrate other aspects of the child's talents and not solely the achievements and successes of winning. For example instead of only displaying the winning cups and rosettes, also show photos of the child participating and enjoying the experience. Show a real pride in your child's involvement and make a point of highlighting aspects you were particularly proud of. For example even though your child didn't make the finals of the pony club show jumping competition make him aware that you felt it was his best display of horsemanship and control.


*        Set goals which are based on effort and improvement. For example reaching a higher round in the national chess championships each time you enter, or passing the ball to every team player in a netball game, or using as many different types of media as possible to research and present a history project. Try not to focus purely on concepts of winning such as counting numbers of wins/losses or league tables. Explore other motives for being in the activity. Does he really participate only to win?


*        Try to encourage your child to participate in other activities in which they are less able, so that he can develop other interests and skills. This is important as it can help in experiencing and understanding when he isn't *the best* but can be seen as more average amongst others. Also, it can help for the future if a child's giftedness or talent doesn't produce the envisaged goal or career which was imagined in childhood; it allows for a broader option of choice.


*        Try to remember as parents to reward your child at every opportunity as rewarding positive behaviour is far more effective than disciplining the negative. This means also checking your own approach to your child's achievements; if you are rewarding a win with a celebration and a loss with a solitary comment of 'Oh you did your best, never mind,' it is enforcing the idea in your child that winning is most important and gets recognition from you.


*        Some children find it easier to discuss and understand complex emotional feelings through the use of stories which explore a particular aspect such as winning and losing in the context of a story. This can lead to asking questions and talking about how the characters feel. Carol Gray is a well known author of social stories, and this approach works particularly well with twice exceptional children for example those with autism.


*        Realise the importance of the occasion for your child. Sometimes it is right to feel angry and upset when losing; it highlights the importance of the event, we all feel aggrieved sometimes when we fail or things do not work out the way we planned or hoped. However it isn't acceptable to display inappropriate reactions or behaviour in every situation.



Coping with temper tantrums and angry outbursts when your child feels he has failed can be hard to deal with. It is important to show understanding of his situation and that he is just trying to cope emotionally. It is also important however that he learns to enjoy taking part in activities, and enjoy the many rewards that brings, not just the thrill of winning. Some children struggle with social and emotional development and it can take time and patience for them not only to learn how to react appropriately but also to accept when they do not come first.


Perfectionism is one of the common traits in conditions such as OCD where a child can feel compelled to do things 'just so' and are obsessive about particular aspects in their life for example handwriting, perfect scores etc. If you feel your child might display OCD characteristics is might be worth looking at this issue in greater depth.


Gifted children need to be supported and nurtured in their activities, as perfectionism can affect all areas including their education, where they may start to underachieve as it is a safer route with less chance of 'failure'. Also this can be linked to a reluctance or refusal to produce work if it isn't perfect i.e. poor handwriting/presentation.


It is important for them to learn how to set themselves goals which are achievable, and to learn that occasionally it may take a long time and a great deal of patience and practice to reach the levels they aspire to. With support, encouragement and guidance from their parents during those times when they fail, as well as when they succeed, they should be more able to cope, continue and hopefully reach those goals.



Useful Contacts and Resources:




Young Minds

Parentline 0800 018 2138 Charity supporting sufferers of OCD






Slip! Slide! Skate! by G. Herman

Tales for the Perfect Child by F. Heide




Perfectionism and Gifted Children by R. Callard-Szulgit


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