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What to Do When Your Gifted/2e Kid Cheats
A counterintuitive approach to cheating can help your kid regulate
As a child therapist, I’ve lost countless board games, usually at the hands of a cheating child.
This is great therapy.
Let me explain.
Have you noticed that your child likes to cheat?
They may cheat outright, or they may try to disguise or finesse what they’re doing by denying their subterfuge or pretending it’s real. Common tactics include changing the order of cards, moving pieces to a desired space, changing the order of players throughout the game, adding the score incorrectly, giving themselves extra points, and changing the rules to suit them from turn to turn.
Many parents worry that if they let their child cheat at home, the child will never learn to play properly with peers and will alienate potential friends.
But I encourage you to let your child cheat.
Traditional parenting and educational approaches view cheating as bad and encourage adults to intervene and insist on “fair play.” In this traditional approach, kids are taught that “everyone loses sometimes” and that it’s not okay to be a “sore loser” or a boastful winner.
But this approach simply doesn’t work well with most intense or sensitive gifted/2e kids. For these kids, an educational approach like this misses the mark because it focuses on thoughts about winning and losing. But for most of these kids, winning and losing are intensely emotional experiences.
Many of these kids are hyper-sensitive to cues of danger such as a loss of autonomy, status, or competence. To them, losing feels awful and can send them into a genuine panic or fight/flight response. When they’re behind in the game, even a little, it feels awful. Playing a poor turn feels awful, even if they’re still winning.
These kids aren’t “sore losers” - they are extremely sensitive beings. Even though they cognitively know that everyone loses sometimes, that can’t stop their instinctual emotional reaction - being behind / below / incompetent feels bad.
That’s why I see this type of cheating as a coping strategy.
Many intense gifted/2e kids cheat during competitive games to provide themselves with a feeling of safety and competence.
Because here’s the broader picture - if your kid is distressed by falling behind in a game, they’re also distressed about all the normal yet uncontrollable mistakes, faults, slips, disappointments, and imperfections they encounter every day. They may also be distressed by all the minor (and major) infringements on their control and autonomy throughout the day - which are common, because kids typically don’t have a lot of control over how they spend their days or structure their life.
If this resonates, your child’s body is likely in a stressed out, reactive state multiple times a day - maybe even half of the day or more.
How does this connect to cheating?
Cheating helps your kid regulate.
Cheating during a game is an example of play and fantasy - games are a realm where your child can exert control and make things go just the way they want, so they feel competent, capable, smart, and in control.
When you let your child cheat and they know they can win, you let them feel safe.
When you let your child cheat and they know they can win, you help them feel autonomous and powerful.
Different kids like different forms of this play - some kids love it when their parents are silly and exaggerate their own mistakes or moan and complain in a loud, silly manner when they get a terrible card again (when the child has managed the deck). Other kids love it when the parents focus on and exaggerate the child’s great luck, great skill, and fabulous win. Some kids just love to control the game in a business-like manner until they’ve won and they’re quickly ready to move on. Some kids are nervous about cheating and try to hide it, but loosen up and really enjoy themselves if their parents make it clear it’s okay to play however they want.
Consider giving explicit permission to cheat.
It can be helpful to give explicit permission so your kid can relax and get the most regulation benefit out of their manufactured success.
As a therapist, I always told kids, “The nice thing about therapy is that we can play however you want in here.” Or similarly, “We can play however we want in here, and I’m okay if you do that.”
You could say something similar at home. You don't have to use the word "cheating." You could say something like, “The nice thing about us playing together at home is that we can play however we want at home - and I’m okay with you playing that way [or, I'm okay with you changing the rules if you want; I'm okay with you having another turn; etc].”
By framing your permission and participation this way, you also differentiate between the way you play together at home and other situations.
In my professional experience, most kids who cheat at home don’t cheat with peers.
Your kid likely already knows that any lenience they get during games at home won’t transfer to games with friends. But if you’re worried, you can communicate this explicitly. For example, you could say, “We can play however we want together, and it’s okay with me if you play that way. Your friends and classmates probably wouldn’t like that, though. And your sister probably wouldn’t like it - but we could ask her.”
If this feels too hard, consider getting rid of competitive games.
Some families with intense gifted/2e kids - particularly kids with siblings - decide that competitive games aren’t a good fit for their family at one time or another. If losing is too hard for your kid, consider minimizing or avoiding competitive games. You could invest in cooperative board games, or play fewer structured games altogether.
If your kid finds it regulating to feel powerful, in control, or a “winner,” though, don’t be surprised if they find other ways to get this need met. It’s common for kids to devise impromptu races and comparisons about daily tasks and basic facts (”Who can get downstairs first?” “I’m taller than you when I’m on this!”).
Give yourself permission - or lean into permission from me. 🤓
I hope you feel permission to follow your kid’s lead and give their regulation a boost by playing up your own losing spot (”I’m so slow!”) or their own winning one (”You’re way taller than me up there!”).
Last week my kid was having a hard week at school and likely feeling particularly dysregulated and powerless. At home, he devised a game where he asked me to set up water bottles and he energetically knocked them down, again and again. He was very clear about what would feel best - “Say ‘stay there!’ to the water bottles!” he cried giddily, then laughed and ran around the room after knocking them down.
A lot of parents worry that this type of play indicates there’s something “wrong” with their kid - but cheating usually indicates sensitivity and discomfort with feeling powerless.
I hope that viewing these “power plays” as creative coping will help you enjoy these moments more and get a kick out of the idiosyncratic ways your child figures out to get their needs met.
If you want more ideas like this directly to your inbox, sign up for Gifted Lab Notes, my weekly email with tips and information for supporting your intense or sensitive gifted or twice-exceptional (2e) kid.
If this article resonated, you've probably got an intense gifted/2e kid. As you can tell from this article, parenting an intense gifted/2e kid is often counterintuitive - strategies that work with other kids just dysregulate your kid more, and the approaches that help your kid may make you worry you're parenting "wrong" (e.g., if you let your kid cheat!).
In my 8-week parent coaching program Support Your Intense Gifted/2e Kid, we do a deep dive on these topics so you can feel more confident you're on the right parenting path as you support your emotionally intense, strong-willed kid. If that sounds interesting to you, please check it out!