Play your way to mental health: Therapeutic family games

Family game time can be tremendously useful in helping us get to the bottom of everyday issues and resolve concerns. Here are some tips on how to use games to improve your family time.

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  • In facing many of the emotional issues that arise in our day-in and day-out lives as a family, it can become discouraging to know exactly how to reach our kids. From smaller, shorter term problems like temper tantrums to broader scope issues like depression, autism or ADHD, psychologists have found that therapy through game playing can be an effective way to find solutions. At the very least, playing games as a family can be a platform for opening up lines of honest communication. This article presents some options for therapeutic family games that can be brought right into your own living room.

  • Traditional family board games

  • It’s therapeutic just to have plain old family time. Traditional board games like Scrabble and Monopoly can occupy the logical side of the brain, allowing family members to be more open and have conversations that are less guarded. Conversation hot spots like riding in the car or at the dinner table can be high pressure zones to talk, and family members may not feel quite as inclined to just speak their minds. When we are distracted by trying to solve a logical problem in a game, we are more inclined to speak freely. And when we’re talking to each other honestly, it makes it much easier to get to the root of any unresolved issues in the home.

  • Team games

  • Games where the family is divided into teams can also be tremendously therapeutic. It can create bonds, using teamwork, that last far beyond game time. Our family plays charades regularly, and end up with “inside jokes” that become part of Christmas cards and family events for years. In charades, we break the group up into two teams, and each team member writes down a movie, book, person, song, or object that the other team will have to act out and guess. Laughter ensues, and although we may not use this particular game as a way to work out the tough issues, laughter is the best medicine.

  • Art therapy games

  • Art Therapy is widely used by therapists to heal traumas, bring autistic children out of their shells, and bring families closer together. The opportunity to be a part of the life-affirming process of creativity together makes for an uplifting and revealing activity.

  • Our family favorites are the “Exquisite Corpse,” “Catch me if you can,” and origami paper folding.

  • The “Exquisite Corpse” is a game that originated with Surrealist painters in France. This game is an excellent way for family members to work together to create a fascinating, and often amusing, work of art together. It’s certainly a way for us to see how differently our minds work. An Exquisite Corpse is started by folding a piece of paper width-wise so there are as many equal panels as there are players. Player One will draw something in the first panel, without completing the bottom part of their drawing, but instead, connecting it with 2-3 lines into the second panel. They will then fold their drawing under, so that player two can only see their blank panel, with the lines that connect to player one’s panel. Player Two then draws a connecting drawing (having no idea what player one drew) and connects it with 2-3 lines on the third panel and so on. The final person to draw will complete their drawing at the bottom, and open the paper for everyone to see.

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  • “Catch me if you can” is best played with 2-4 players, and starts by one player drawing a ladybug on the paper. Player two then draws something (creativity encouraged.) that will “catch” the ladybug. Player three draws something that will prevent player two’s object from catching the ladybug. Player four will stop player three’s object, and so on. Players just keep playing until the page is full, or until there is an unstoppable force that cannot be caught.

  • Origami paper folding is a Japanese tradition that encourages meditation and stillness. This particular form of art therapy can be a tremendous catalyst for deep conversation, as a full focus on the precision folds can tie up parts of the brain that want to argue or put up walls. My kids and I frequently fold paper cranes together when tensions get high.

  • Games designed specifically for therapeutic purposes

  • . The internet is ablaze with small companies that create board games that target anger, boundary setting, grief, anxiety and any number of specific issues that plague families. These games seem to follow a basic theme, where a problem is presented, and the players are given multiple possible solutions to play out. By seeing how their choice affects their future, they are more clearly able to see how they can make different choices in the future. Many of these games are used by therapists in their offices as a way to engage with children, but some of them look quite fun, and could be used within the home as well.

  • Every family faces different challenges, and sometimes it seems as though the answers to our problems elude us. It may be surprising to find that more often than not, the solution is closer than we think. Learning to communicate effectively with each member of the family can be a great foundation to resolving our issues. Have fun!

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Margaret Crowe is a poet and mother of two from Charlotte, North Carolina. 

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