How I Used Action Figures to Improve My Son’s Social Skills

My son is extremely sensitive and was getting upset easily at school. I didn't know what to do. Then I turned to his action figures.

by As Told To Fatherly
Originally Published: 
Father and son playing with action figures on floor

My son is extremely sensitive. This is both his best asset and, to me, his most worrying.

It’s his best because, given that he’s so aware when someone seems sad or upset, he springs into action and does little things on his own to help people out. It flips this switch in him that says ‘oh I got this’ and he tries to help. He’s such a good kid in that way. Last week, he must’ve noticed that his younger cousin, who is four, was down about something and he spent the next hour writing her a silly rhyming story about her dog to cheer her up. He does this all the time. He notices and reacts. And he cares. It’s not this performative thing either. He does it because he is compelled to do it.

But the downside is that he’s also extremely sensitive to how others treat him. If someone raises their voice around him or does something unkind, it really, really affects him. He’s an open wound in that way. I don’t want to change my son, but I want to make sure to teach him that the world can’t cater to him, that things are going to happen that aren’t going to be in his best interest. I don’t want to quote-unquote “toughen him up”. That’s the last thing I want. And I don’t want to stifle his sensitivity either. But I want to help him be stronger because people are nowhere near as aware of the feelings of others as he can and it really affects him. Does that make sense?

He’s been having a really hard time at school. He just started the first grade and he gets teased a lot. This is also because, and I’ll be the first to admit this, he’s a weird little dude. He’s really into plants (he brought an orchid in for show and tell last week) and loves to sift for “good rocks” at recess. He’s my best friend in the world but he’s odd. He’s also a quiet kid and isn’t going to say something back to hurt someone’s feelings to divert things with humor. One day maybe. But he’s not there yet. And all of this makes him an easy target.

So for the past few weeks he’s been getting off the bus looking upset. Really dragging his feet and seeming bummed. It clears up quickly if we do something together but he’s obviously taking something to heart. I spoke to his teacher and he says she often has to tell kids to stop annoying him or laughing at him every once in a while but she’d scold them, they’d apologize, and so on. But a small incident like that will shape him for the rest of the day.

I didn’t know what to do. But I wanted to help him learn how to shake things off a bit more or just understand the intentions of other kids a bit better. So I spoke to a few people and what I decided to do was use his action figures as vessels. He loves his action figures, too. And role play, I was told, can help kids learn coping skills.

So we’d play with his action figures and during the course of, say, a raid of the opposing fortress or space station, I would include certain phrases that might sound mean and then apologize through them, one action figure to the other. I’d then have the one who was offended be energized again after the incident, or shrug off the comment. And we’d have conversations this way about mean comments and the best ways to react to them. There we’d be, playing with aliens or robots and role-playing schoolyard conversations.

We did this every night for a few weeks and I basically used this as a boot camp for him to learn how to shrug things off. One of my action figures would say one thing to one of his and we’d come up with different coping mechanisms. Sometimes, they’d shrug; other times they’d make a joke; other times they’d say, “Hey, commander bug face, I didn’t appreciate that.” I was hoping it might teach my son to handle such encounters a bit more. I think it was helpful.

Regardless of its effects, my son and I had some real nice time together with his action figures every night. I set myself to make sure we had some playtime together so I could arm him. We still do. I don’t know if it was the play or the conversations or simply giving him something else to look forward to when he got home, but he seemed less bummed by the day-to-day of school. I don’t know if I’m great at this whole parenting thing. Does anyone? But, let me tell you, this felt like a win. I didn’t try to change him. I just tried to help him be who he is a bit better. I haven’t witnessed him use any of these tactics, but I think they’re helping. I hope they are, at least.

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