Virtual friendships aren't enough.
If your child is constantly playing video games with virtual pals, rather than building friendships and making connections with other kids in real life, it can be concerning as a parent.
You might even wonder if your child knows how to make friends offline or if he has the social skills to do it, since you've noticed all along that your kid does not tend to make friends easily in the first place.
Of course, you know that play has changed since your childhood and that virtual gaming is what kids do these days, but now that your child spends nearly all of his time playing video games with online friends, you're worried that he's not making friendships in the real world — and that it could lead to social problems down the line.
You want to help your kid improve his social skills so he develops meaningful friendships IRL, but when you try to talk about this dilemma with your child, he shouts at you, “My video game friends are real friends! This is how people do things now.”
But you suspect that is not true, since your neighbor’s kids do see “real” friends. You fight the idea of your child only having virtual buddies and want him to start making friends in real life — but why?
Having live relationships and making friends in day-to-day life is important for your kid's social development.
When children are in a group of friends or classmates, they are forced to adapt, to compromise and work together to play a game of four square or to complete a group project in civics class. But what if you don’t want to compromise, or more importantly, you haven't yet developed the necessary social skills and don’t know how?
Human connections help us in life. Virtual friendships don’t do that, and when you can’t adapt, there is a problem.
This is a difficult — and common — issue in modern parenting. Moms and dads are trying to evolve with technology, but as a parent, you worry that the virtual world is like brain candy for your kid.
So, what can you do when you are faced with a child disappearing right after school and all weekend to an online world of video games?
If you're child is constantly playing video games, here are 5 pieces of parenting advice on how to help kids improve their social skills and make friends offline — so they start developing meaningful friendships in IRL.
1. Shift from "banning" to planning.
If you ban your child from playing video games and engaging in virtual friendships, your child will fight you, and it will become a battle.
So, what do you do? Continue to ask questions and explore what they like about playing video games. Ask your chlid, "What do you like about this virtual world?"
As adults, we tend not to ask, we tell. Instead, ask and let them talk about it.
Let them explain why Halo is the greatest video game ever. They may say something that makes you angry, but it is their truth — If they love this video game world and feel their skills are great in it, then it’s true for them.
This open discussion is the first step toward helping your child improve his social skills and encouraging him to make friends offline.
2. Together, explore what real friendship is.
The basis of all friendships is to have close bonds, compatibility, emotional connection, persistent contact, shared activities and, most of all, trust and loyalty. Oddly, children and young adults desire these traits with in-person friendship, but often have no such expectations with online friendships.
Talking about what real friendship is — without judgment, fighting or scolding — will help your child learn to distinguish the difference between true friendships and online-only friends and understand why these social skills are so important.
3. Don’t surrender the conversation.
In your role as a parent, you're often engaged in difficult conversations. And more importantly, you're not having them with someone who wants to have the conversation with you. But don't surrender the conversation.
Step into their shoes. Continue to talk and really explore this issue them. Continuing to have an open, collaborative conversation is essential if you want to help your kid learn how to make friends offline and move from a world peopled by virtual acquaintances to a world where he has live friendships.
4. Listen to your child, and find out what's getting in his way of making friends.
In order to work with your child on his social skills, you really have to listen. Have a collaborative conversation with your kid to find out why he prefers hanging out with virtual friends, and then dissect what is getting in the way of him creating real, in-person connections.
There are many questions you can ask to get the conversation going:
"What do video games do for you?"
"What interests you most about video games?"
"Why is the online gaming world important to you?"
The virtual world offers a much easier entry to friendships. You get to make your own avatar. You can be whatever and whoever you want — a rock star, an athlete, etc. The options are endless.
Remember, kids who can’t read social cues in the real world don’t have to worry about it in the virtual world. Talk to your child about how to improve social skills in a cautious way that doesn’t shut him down or crush his spirit.
By first trying to understand the video game world from his perspective, you become a partner to your child — which makes him more receptive to your input and more willing to engage in pursuing true friendships offline.
5. Get your child help with social skills.
Most kids who escape into the virtual world engage in social avoidance. Because they have struggled so much socially, and socialization is hard for them. That's why getting your child help is essential for improving his social skills and moving from virtual friendships to live ones.
To have a real friendship, you have to form connections outside of school — and offline. You have friends over to study, go to the mall, walk to a coffee shop, or play ball in the street.
However, many kids aren’t doing this. They are spending all of their time playing video games and forming friendships in this virtual world — so much so that they have forgotten how to make friends in the real one. They believe that they have friends and are "fine".
An open discussion can make your child re-evaluate — just don't expect this “ah ha” to happen overnight. Collaborate and be there for them, versus targeting the bad and exposing it, by saying things like, "You have no real friends."
Be their partner in this journey and help them develop the social skills needed to make friends offline, instead of going at them about their video game obsession.
Caroline Maguire is a certified coach, the director of the Fundamentals of ADD Coaching for Families at the ADD Coach Academy, has her masters in education and is the author of Why Will No One Play With Me?, which is coming in 2019. You can follow her tips to solve common social dilemmas by signing up for her new mini-courseon her website.