Come on it’s Only a Game

Many of you will have experienced something like the following…

A residential worker is observing two young people playing table tennis in the rear yard of the residential unit. One of the boys is quite skillful and he is winning most of the points and then suddenly the other boys stamps on the table tennis ball and throws his bat at the head of his opponent and storms out of the unit. The residential worker follows the boy out of the unit and catches-up with him; he says: “come on its was only a game”.

When deciding to play competitive games with children and young people who have experienced abuse and trauma it is important to aware of how trauma impacts on the child or young person’s capacity to remain within their window of tolerance (see: The Window of Tolerance by Beacon House

The ability to balance cooperative and competitive behaviours has important implications for a child or young person’s overall development. The development of this level of social competence can be challenging for children and young people who have experience trauma and abuse.

A defining feature of socially competent behaviour is the ability to meet one’s own needs while maintaining positive social relationships with others. Children and young people who have experienced trauma and abuse struggle to be able to anticipate the actions of others, understand thoughts and feelings, and evaluate social outcomes.

Children exposed to adverse events often develop a negative bias towards others and their intentions. When making judgments, the children and young people consistently weight the negative aspects of an event or stimulus more heavily than the positive aspects. When this is combined with a poor ability to regulate emotions and low self-esteem results in problems dealing with competitive play.

Therefore, we see the children and young people we work with:

  • Cheating to ensure their victory. They may make up their own rules, changing them for their purposes and to their advantage during the game.
  • Often, they are not content with winning. You will see children and young people take great pleasure in their victory – and in the defeat of their opponent. They also engage in some expression of gleeful triumph – boasting, bragging, and taunting.
  • Or, if they lose (or even feel they may lose), they may throw game pieces, burst a ball, insist on a “start-over,” attack another child, refuse to play and/or storm off lock themselves in their room.

We know that trauma impacts in all domains of a child’s life and this includes the ability to play and engage in competitive forms of play: sports, board games etc.