Teaching your child to make friends… with games!

For many kids, socialising can be one of the hardest things to do. Some just can’t get social cues, while others may get emotional easily. I also have students who find speech in an informal context awkward. As adults, we generally know what not to say under certain circumstances, but again, this doesn’t apply to everybody, particularly kids and youths.

See, much of our behaviour is heavily influenced by the environment we grow up in, and the types of activities we do on a daily basis. The type of leisure activities we engage in, the people we hang out with — these affect how we think, act, behave and react. We’re an extension of the culture that we grow up in, as much as it is a part of us.

As such, when you have a world with popular fads and trends as sub-cultures, this can become problematic for young people who are easily influenced. For example, getting unnecessarily angry (also known as ‘raging’) while playing a competitive game like League of Legends is not uncommon. The accessibility of social media and online communities has also made it very easy to engage in deviant acts or behaviour, such as bullying and voyeurism.

It’s overwhelming, and oftentimes depressing when you think about how much you have to deal with as a parent.

Nevertheless, I’ve always advocated dealing with problems one step at a time. In this regard, parents of kids enrolled in the Swords & Stationery programme know that I like to use games to teach an array of positive values.

Why games though?


With guidance, games can be a powerful tool for fostering positive social interactions. They’re also fun, which means you’ll have a far easier time getting your child/teen engaged.

Note that when I say ‘games’, I am referring to games in all forms—video games, tabletop games, and even live action role-playing games.

With that being said, here are four different ways in which games can help your child to develop social skills, and what you need to be mindful of as you run through the checklist.

1. Winning humbly

In most competitive games, players will want to play to win. Whether we’re talking about popular video games like Counter-Strike, or tabletop war games like DUST 1947 or Warhammer 40K, most players go into a competitive game with the objective of winning.

The problem when the winners rub it in the faces of those who lost. That’s usually the first spark to fuelling tensions.

However, we can use this same platform to teach our kids to do the reverse.

Let me explain: games by themselves induce all kinds of emotions in us. We’re happy to play, and emotionally charged when we win (or lose). We often find ourselves getting carried away in the spirit of victory, and forget about the players on the other side of the fence.

Why is this an issue?

Teach your child to win humbly, by appreciating the efforts of their opponents. Condition them to express a kind word or gesture, and to be grounded in humility despite victory.

For one, it can lead to an elitist mentality of “I’m better than thou”, and that’s no good. Failure may become an increasingly unacceptable outcome in that child’s life. The bigger one’s ego is, the harder the impact when one falls.

For another, it can lead to the player being shunned. Nobody likes to be around a braggart unless for pragmatic reasons. You know the cliche: player wins, player snubs the opponent, others walk away in disgust. It’s for the same reason that the Internet loves celebrities like Keanu Reeves and Matthew McConaughey—they’re humble and don’t flaunt their achievements.

Using games to build the virtue of humility

Teach your child to win humbly, by appreciating the efforts of their opponents. Condition them to express a kind word or gesture, and to be grounded in humility despite victory. Even if their opponents really don’t deserve to be appreciated, do this anyway! It’s important to know that nobody can take away your sense of humility, no matter how much of a sore loser they are.

In time to come, not only will your child understand that humility is a virtue in games, but that it extends to all aspects of life. You’ll find them being able to make more genuine friends because, obviously, it lends them a more likable persona. They’ll be better people, and hopefully will be positive influences to others around them.

2. Losing gracefully

Rage FaceAs with the above, competitive games can lead to outbursts when one loses. Remember those stabbing incidents with Counter-Strike and DOTA at LAN shops? The player loses, something in his mind snaps, and then the situation explodes in a moment of impulse.

In fact, this doesn’t just happen with video games (or competitive games, for that matter). Tabletop gaming has its fair share of people flipping out when they lose.

It’s no surprise that these are the same people who behave badly in front of others when things don’t go their way.

Why is this an issue?

Being unable to cope with losses/failure is unhealthy. It can create social isolation, as no one wants to be around someone who gets upset at losing. In the worst case scenario, we see the manifestation of envy, jealousy, hate, and other negative and potentially destructive emotions. These often get in the way of one’s ability to interact properly with others.

Again, nobody wants to be with someone who throws a hissy fit when things don’t go his/her way.

Using games to build the virtues of grace and calm

Regardless of whether they are competitive or cooperative, games typically have what we call a “fail state”. This is the point at which you’re declared to have lost the game.

We can use games to teach our kids to lose gracefully (and calmly) because the losses are never permanent. You don’t lose all your actual wealth, and you don’t lose anything except a bit of pride.

This is hugely important, because when our kids actually experience REAL setbacks (e.g. in their career), they can learn to take things in their stride. They will understand how to handle their emotions better—a skill that’s especially important for children with ADHD. The last thing you want to do is for your child to lash out at you and your spouse, playing the blame game with everyone but themselves; or worse still, blaming themselves so much that they inflict self-harm.

Use the opportunity when you’re gaming with your child, to teach them that everything is transient, that nothing is permanent. Teach them the value of picking themselves up and fighting on. These lessons are far more important to your child in the long-run, because it’s not just about winning or losing anymore—it’s about resilience and acceptance.

And when your child can accept him/herself despite losses and failures, it makes it easier for others to do so too.

We can use games to teach our kids to lose gracefully (and calmly) because the losses are never permanent. You don’t lose all your actual wealth, and you don’t lose anything except a bit of pride.

3. Learning to work with others

Fundamentally, cooperative games are all about working with one another. In role-playing games, for example, nobody likes to play with a special snowflake for long, especially when that player hogs the spotlight for him/herself.

Similarly, in school, kids are expected to work with one another in group discussions and projects. At times, they’re not given the choice of who to work with.

So, when a child gets assigned a group that he doesn’t like to work with, with people who don’t share their views, you can expect the sparks to fly (and not the good kind of sparks either).

Why is this an issue?

Honestly, learning to work with others is harder than we like to acknowledge. Even as adults, we find it difficult to work with certain types of people. What more kids, who are not taught how to work with people that they dislike, or who have a different “frequency”?

The ability to work with others isn’t just limited to school projects. It also affects our kids’ capacity to empathise, to put oneself in another’s shoes, and to understand how roles are assigned. In any group setting, any form of interaction involves power dynamics; trying to make friends with each other is no exception. The child needs to know when to give, and when to take.

Using games to demonstrate how to work with others

There is a huge swath of games out there that highlight the importance of cooperation. In role-playing games, players are advised to share the spotlight with one another, so that everyone can have a good time. In board games like Dead of Winter, players are encouraged to work together to keep their survivors alive. Even cooperative video games like Left 4 Dead, the popular zombie first-person shooter, require players to work together to survive.

EmpathyFrom these examples, there’s no shortage of games that emphasise cooperation. However, it may be difficult for kids to understand how to get their ideas across to other parties.

It is therefore necessary for parents and educators to step in and guide their kids on how to be effective communicators. Use games as mirrors. For instance, if your child is bossy by nature, playing cooperative games will bring out that characteristic. When this happens, point it out to your child, and explain why it can create conflicts. This can help to steer the child in the right direction, and makes them more self-aware.

Finally, we can use games to teach the concepts of common goals and compromises. In the real world, people often have to make sacrifices to advance towards a common good.

This is the process of giving and taking, which is also required for cooperative games.

However, unlike real life, games are harmless fun. We can therefore use games to demonstrate this philosophy. It’s really important that kids learn the value of concession, to develop a more amicable, less aggressive persona in school (and at the work place in future).

Appealing to a child with ADHD to behave

4. Learning to observe others

In 99% of the games out there, you need to observe your opponent in some form. You have to scrutinise their actions, read their body language, etc.

It goes without saying that this is an important life skill. It affects the child’s development, including his/her ability to empathise with another, engage in non-verbal communication, and, ultimately, make friends.

However, learning how to observe others is easier said than done!

Why this is an issue

Learning to read body language and understanding non-verbal cues doesn’t come naturally for everyone. Kids on the spectrum may choose to withdraw when they are unable to cope with the sensorial overload from having too many people around. Likewise, those with ADHD may lash out impulsively, as a result of emotional dysregulation (Barkley, 2015).

How does this affect them socially?

For one, this can lead to others shunning them. Another potential issue that can arise is the development of mental health issues, including anxiety disorders. Children who do not know how to identify with social norms can make it equally hard for others to empathise with them.

Using games to teach kids the power of observation

However, kids need to know that games aren’t all about winning. They must also understand the value of peer-to-peer interactions. Only then can they derive self-awareness, as well as empathy for others.

As has been mentioned throughout this article, games provide fun but safe avenues for children to interact with one another. In particular, tabletop games allow for kids to observe one another, to connect the dots between one’s emotions and actions.

However, kids need to know that games aren’t all about winning. They must also understand the value of peer-to-peer interactions. Only then can they derive self-awareness, as well as empathy for others.

Concluding Thoughts

I think we can all agree how hard it is to make friends anywhere, regardless of age. In this respect, games are very helpful because of the controlled, interactive peer-to-peer environment they can provide. With guidance from adults, we can teach kids to identify core emotions or express themselves appropriately; and, not only can we teach them to win humbly and lose gracefully, but we can also demonstrate the skills needed to work well with one another.

The next time you rack your brains trying to figure out how to get your child to develop good social skills, whip out that Monopoly set, and see how many teachable moments you’re able to find!

Enjoyed reading this post? Found it insightful? Follow Swords & Stationery, the world’s first game-based remediation programme for kids with specific learning differences, on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest for the latest learning tips, strategies and discussions.

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Teacher Shaun

Teacher Shaun

...is a self-professed geek and lover of all things old-school. When he's not playing Fallout or Deus Ex for the nth time, he can be found sitting in front of his laptop hacking away at his keyboard, typing blog posts like this one.He also runs a little company called Swords & Stationery.
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