How to Help Your Child Checkmate Frustration 🧠

By Amy Weber LCSW, Co-Founder of Speak, Learn, & Play, LLC

Amy Weber

“I hate this game!” Theo yelled, as he threw the chessboard into the air.  “He cheated!  It’s not fair! I’m never playing again!”

Sound familiar?  Although it may feel like it in the moment, your child is not the only person struggling to handle the frustration and disappointment of losing a game.  In fact, managing frustration and disappointment is the number one reason that parents contact me for child therapy!  

Where does this dysregulation come from?  Our nervous systems!  Our brains are scanning for safety four times every second.  They’re scanning the “inside” (our own internal experience), the “outside” (the environment), and the “in-between” (our relationships).  If the information that they receive is mostly “safe,” then we rest into our thinking brains (relaxed, connected, and ready to learn).  If the information they receive is mostly “not safe,” then we shift into “protection mode,” and engage in all of the behaviors – screaming, becoming physically or verbally aggressive, running away, collapsing, etc.

So what can you do?  Here are a few pointers:

  1.  Recognize this behavior for what it is – dysregulation.  Your child’s nervous system is simply out of balance, and they need help to regulate.  The more you can keep in mind that your very good kid is having a very hard time, the easier it will be to empathize and support them.
  2. Prepare ahead of time.  Way before you ever arrive at the chess tournament, talk through the possible scenarios.  What will happen if your child wins?  What will they do?  What will happen if they lose?  How will that feel?  Have they felt that way before?  What can they do with those feelings?
  3. Redefine winning.  Winning is important, of course.  But there are lots of ways to win.  I encourage kids to set four or five goals for themselves, so that even if they don’t win the whole tournament, they may “win” at anothergoal that they set for themselves.  Maybe a goal would be to try out a specific opening move, or to control the center of the board.  Setting several mini-goals will keep the focus on the bigger picture rather than just the end of the game result.
  4. Encourage reflection.  You can start with the moments that you noticed went well:  “I saw you congratulate the winner.  Great job!”  Or “I noticed that you were flexible and changed your strategy.  Good work!”  And encourage your child to do the same.  What was their favorite part?  What part did they hate?  What are they looking forward to doing next time? 
  5. Practice, practice, practice.  Like everything, managing disappointment and frustration gets easier with repetition.     

 Is this easy?  Absolutely not!  But when you focus on maintaining your relationship with your child (rather than focusing on their “bad” behaviors), it keeps you and your child on the same team, and things will improve.    

Amy Weber, LCSW is a clinical social worker in private practice in Brooklyn, New York.  She provides in-person individual and group therapy for kids, and provides online support for parents all over the world.  You can learn more here:

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