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Coping with failure: Why does my child "fall apart" on the field?

QUESTION: My 10- year -old gets angry when she strikes out. At softball practice and even at games sometimes, she swears at her teammates and throws the bat down, walking off in a huff. Her mood seems to go up and down with her performance. She loves the game and doesn't want to quit. Why does she behave in this way? Is the competition just too much for her?

ANSWER: You have hit the nail on the head! You are correct in your observation that your daughter's self esteem is vacillating with her performance. But her current behavior will only lead to a further loss of self-respect, resulting in feeling worse about herself, rather than better. Whether in sports, or some other endeavor, she will need to learn how to pursue perfection, rather than exist for it.

While it is common for children (and adults!) to feel badly when they do not live up to their own expectations, it is important to redirect your daughter's disappointment. She must learn to separate her self-esteem from her performance, if the situation is not to worsen. Girls are raised to cooperate, rather than compete. So, yes, she may be having trouble embracing a healthy approach to competition. But you can help!

Guide your daughter towards a stable self-image that stands up, rather than collapses under pressure. Be prepared to talk with her about what is underlying her outbursts. Help her to understand that all athletes deal with failures on the playing field. Handling failure is part of the game.

Consider the following guidelines for helping your daughter build self-esteem, rather than destroy it:

1. Coping with failure

Schedule a meeting with your daughter when she has "cooled down" from a negative episode, or before her next practice. Striking when the iron is "cool" rather than "hot" will be more likely to succeed. Let your daughter know that you love her and that it is your job as a parent to help her change her attitude towards her sports activities. Specifically, tell her that you are going to help her learn "good sportsmanship". And that swearing at others and throwing things are not appropriate responses to failure.

Explain to your daughter that it is natural for her to feel sad and disappointed when she misses the ball. But that losing, like winning, is a part of life. Sports can help her learn how to deal with times of failure so that they are temporary, rather than overwhelming episodes.

2. Acknowledging deeper feelings and learning a new attitude

Ask your daughter how she is feeling underneath the anger she expresses when she misses the ball. Let her know that anger is no doubt her first feeling, but that swearing at others masks other feelings we have about ourselves. Hurt, embarrassment, even humiliation are human feelings which can be so painful that we prefer to scream, yell and blame, rather than notice them. But if we can name the deeper feelings, we can seek comfort and learn a new attitude towards our failures.

Let your daughter know that you have had these feelings, too. Children learn more from our stories about ourselves, than mere "preaching". Tell a story of a time you felt embarrassed or humiliated when you were her age. This will help her know that she is not alone. More than anything, your daughter wants to hear that her feelings are normal.

Your daughter can learn to accept feelings without acting on them. Once she turns this corner, her own better behavior will reinforce itself. Let her know you are proud of her, not only when she strikes a hit, but when she meets failure with an attitude of determination rather than defeat. Help her build pride in her sportsmanship, rather than shame!

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Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter.

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