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How 'Unruly' Sports Parents Harm Their Kids' Mental Health
  • Posted May 6, 2024

How 'Unruly' Sports Parents Harm Their Kids' Mental Health

Everyone knows that specific type of sports parent – the over-the-top dad or mom who curses, shouts and even becomes physically aggressive during their kid’s match.

While they might think they’re cheering their kid to victory, such poor sports behavior actually can turn a child or teen off to athletics, psychiatrists warn.

“Some of those behaviors would be setting unrealistic expectations for the young athlete, such as perfection in a game and displaying disappointment or embarrassment if their kid isn’t meeting those expectations,” Dr. Lauren Havel, an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, said in a news release.

If children feel they can’t meet their parents’ expectations, they might start to doubt their own abilities, she warns. They also might worry whether their parent is proud of them, despite their struggles on the field or court.

On the other hand, if a child does meet unrealistic expectations, they might equate their self-worth with perfection – a sure set-up for future self-esteem issues, Havel said.

“When parents set unrealistic expectations or push too hard, kids can develop performance anxiety,” she said. 

Kids learn how to interact with others by watching the important adults in their lives, Havel said.

As a result, children might wind up emulating the disrespect their parents show towards a coach, officials, the opposing team or other parents, 

Further, when parents curse or use physical aggression, young athletes might start to believe those are acceptable ways to deal with frustration or solve problems.

In essence, parents could be training their kids to be poor sports themselves, Havel said.

On the other hand, an over-the-top sports parent might just make their kids hang their heads.

“When parents are aggressive or over-the-top, kids can also feel ashamed or embarrassed,” Havel said.

She recommends that sports parents who want to behave properly during a game:

  • Focus on the child and their motivations, rather than your own motivations as a parent. Consider why they play the game and what they love about it.

  • Embrace the fun of sports and have an encouraging, playful attitude during events.

  • Cheer for your child as well as the opposing team, to model respectful behavior and sportsmanship.

  • Emphasize the process rather than the outcome. Praise your child for effort and hustle, rather than dwelling on a bad play or a tough loss.

  • If a child seems upset, disappointed or frustrated, validate and acknowledge their feelings and then follow up with reasonable encouragement.

  • Walk away if you feel you can’t manage your behavior during a game. Take a lap around the field or get a snack from concessions to remove yourself from the situation and walk off your agitation.

  • Wait until after the game to express concerns with a coach or official. Rather than have that conversation in front of children, do so privately or through an official channel.

Children should learn that success involves how they reach their goals as much as finally achieving them.

“The idea of focusing on process rather than outcome is really important to developing a growth mindset in kids,” Havel said. “A growth mindset means believing that talent is developed through work and dedication.”

She said it's not about scoring the goal, but about improving their process of getting to the outcome they want.

“This is important for kids not just in athletics, but in school and their personal lives,” she added.

Ultimately, parents need to help kids build a healthy self-esteem that’s not too fragile, and that allows them to tolerate disappointment or frustration.

“These tips are ways to help kids not only avoid patterns of behavior and self-esteem issues that can be problematic in the short term, but future anxiety disorders as well,” Havel said.

More information

The Association for Applied Sports Psychology has more about do’s and don’ts for parents of young athletes.

SOURCE: Baylor College of Medicine, news release, April 30, 2024

What This Means for You

Parents should model their best behavior for their athletic sons or daughters, to help them grow into good sports and confident adults.

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