Why I lose every boardgame!

accommodation equalizing losing May 24, 2024

Granny brought over dinner on a recent Sunday and Cooper (my 9.5-year-old PDA son) decided to sit with us at the dinner table. Our younger son, William, was already in bed and so – as usual – Cooper’s intense energy dropped without his brother in the mix.

Often, during mealtimes, Cooper watches TV and eats on the couch while we eat at the dinner table, but there are times when he joins us and munches on his Fruity Pebbles, bread and spicy Cheetos while we eat a healthy meal next to him. Lately, he has even been trying small bits of what we have on our plates – something that I couldn’t have fathomed even two years ago.

As we were nearing the end of dinner, Cooper requested we play Zingo – a board game where a red plastic dispenser releases yellow tiles that you then match to your Zingo board.
As we started playing, my husband and I were completely in the mindset of letting Cooper win every time and made sure to be aware of the images on Cooper’s board, so that we knew not to grab the yellow chips too quickly or accumulate them on our board at a pace faster than him.

As Granny got into the game, and started to pull ahead, I gave her a look reminding her that this isn’t a true competition and that we are in fact, playing in a way that is accommodating. That the goal is coins in the bank of felt safety in Cooper’s body. That we are going for trust on a profound level in the safety of our home environment, setting aside our own enjoyment or entertainment that comes from an *actually* competitive game where there is an uncertain outcome.

She had enough practice with our family dynamic to pull back a bit, overriding her competitive streak, and letting Cooper win six games in a row 😊.

For many people reading this – especially those who don’t have first-hand experience parenting a PDA child or teen – the first question would be:

Why do you need to let your 9.5-year-old win every game?

Isn’t that just teaching him that he never has to lose in the “real world” and not giving him the skills to tolerate the inevitable losses that he will face as he navigates life outside the walls of your household?

These are reasonable questions and ones I would have asked five years ago, too.

Becasue it wasn't until I came to understand the logic of my PDA son’s brain and nervous system that I could answer them. The “Theory of Change” for how a PDA child makes progress is one of slow and steady movement towards operating more from the their rational brain, rather than their survival (fight/flight) brain. By deliberately supporting and accommodating over the long term, we help them to create a window of tolerance so they aren’t always tipping immediately over into big meltdowns or shutdowns, unable to handle anything they aren’t in control of including accessing one or more of their basic needs (e.g. hygiene, toileting, sleep, eating, or safety).

But I know that rationale can still leave people wondering but how will they learn to tolerate losing? – and so I want to dive a bit deeper into the different logic compared to conventional wisdom.

Conventional Wisdom

The conventional wisdom is that behavior is motivated, under the conscious control of your child, and that they are operating mostly from their “thinking brain” (the prefrontal cortex or more evolved part of the brain where they can access rational thought, understand cause and effect, communication, learning, etc.)

Conventional Wisdom Assumption

Additionally, conventional wisdom assumes that losing a game does not produce a panic or trauma response, but rather a discomfort to be tolerated. And, critically, it assumes that the more times children experience this discomfort, the easier it gets for them. Therefore, we – as parents and caregivers and therapists – need to increase the child’s tolerance of losing by giving them "practice" doing so, and supporting them as they experience the discomfort. The theory is that then they will be able to generalize that skill tolerating discomfort without panic outside in the “real world.”

This logic is not wrong for many children. It just doesn’t apply for PDA children much of the time. Especially if they in or near burnout or if you are new to parenting through a different paradigm.

PDA Lens

Our children’s behavior is often driven by a nervous-system response that is not under the conscious control of the child. It is coming from the “survival brain” or the amygdala which is “pre-perceptual.” When a PDA child or teen “neurocepts” a loss of equality (for example, losing a game) their brain tells their body, “You are in danger!” and they move into mobilization (fight, flight) or immobilization (freeze, shutdown). This is not coming from the part of the brain where they can learn. The more we push to teach or get them to tolerate, their brain starts to neurocept not just danger, but rather “life threat” and they escalate.

PDA Lens Assumption

The more times a PDA child or teen experiences losses of autonomy and equality, the deeper they go into the survival brain, where they can’t learn or access any skills. This accumulates nervous system activation in the body and strengthens neural pathways to the survival brain, rather than the thinking brain. “Getting used to losing” actually reduces their tolarance for it (as it keeps them near the edge of their window of tolerance), so when they are out in the real world with friends, with whom they often very badly want to be able absorb discomfort, they are less able to do so. 

This is deeply counterintuitive for all of us, because we have been taught to parent, educate, therapize, and interact with humans mostly through “frontal lobe” strategies.

Therapeutic Equalizing

Where I see parents get stuck is, even after they understand the PDA lens, they still find it difficult to allow their child to win (repeatedly) because of all the inner doubts that come up and the feeling that they “aren’t preparing them for the real world.” 

I like to call the strategy I use to face down these doubts “Therapeutic Equalizing” – practicing ways in the home or therapeutic setting where the child can always win, gets to be in control, and be “above” the parent or therapist in a mindful way, in the safety of connection, and not in a reactive or violent way.

We have done this in a million different ways in our home:

  • Shooting baskets in the backyard
  • Running races in the driveway
  • Playing roles where my son bosses me around
  • Playing boardgames
  • Drawing competitions where I deliberately draw poorly and he gets to rank the drawings
  • At therapy where I “compete” against him in a game and he gets to dramatically beat me and rack up points in the 1,000s while I remain in the double digits.

I have found that the more I lean into it and find humor in the situation, we end up laughing at “how poorly Mom or Dad does” in the competition. 

(As an aside, we also ended up laughing a lot in our game of Zingo with Granny, especially after Cooper changed the rules to allow stealing tiles from each others' hands if they hadn't yet been placed on a board. The result was numerous mini-wrestling matches for tiles among various pairs of us Cooper always winning his matches that left us all cracking up.)

What we have found over the last five years is that this has not made my son *less* able to tolerate losses outside of the relationship with us, but rather resets his nervous system which allows him to face the inevitable losses in the “real world.”

This has been true across the board - soccer during recess at school, not being the best drawer in his class, not reading as fast or as well as his classmates, losing tackle football games where all the kids are bigger than him, and even the occasional competition with his younger brother where he lets William win.

Practical Tips

If this is an accommodation you would like to experiment with in your home, here are some tips to start:

  • View it as a mindful and deliberate opportunity to accommodate, not a game where you are just seeing where things go.
  • Employ this in a one-on-one setting, rather than while trying to play with siblings, friends, or another family member who isn’t fully on board with PDA.
  • Try to have fun and be silly – if you can emphasize your mess ups or how you are not as fast as your child, even better!
  • Set aside time that is dedicated to “therapeutic equalizing” so you can get into the mindset.
  • Suspend disbelief around your child’s behavior not being motivated and manipulative, and simply allow yourself to experiment and collect data.

Now that I have worked with over 1,000 parents of PDA children and teens, I believe that “lowering demands” is necessary, but often not sufficient to create the radical change you are seeking.

It requires a true shift in the way you think and interact with your child, based on a deep understanding of the root cause in the brain and nervous system and how this relates to the paradoxical behaviors and practical strategies that you practice day after day.



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