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Disruptive Behaviors: Using Games to Reconnect

A child with behavior problems  can rip at the fabric of a family, leaving hurt feelings, frustration, and resentment in their wake. Games can be a great way to begin to repair that damage; engaging and leaving everyone feeling more connected.   Having said that, parents of children with disruptive behaviors, whether a child with ADHD or a teen with anxiety, should use caution when selecting games so that the experience is positive for everyone.

When selecting games, it is important to consider everyone’s:

  • ability to interact for extended periods of time
  • attention span
  • cognitive abilities
  • frustration tolerance
  • response to being “attacked” by others
  • age
  • tendency toward controlling behavior

By considering information, one may choose to use games to develop appropriate skills or avoid problems depending on your goal.  By being aware, one can anticipate and not be caught off guard. For example, if one has a child who has poor frustration tolerance, one would not pick a highly frustrating game (i.e. Chutes and Ladders) if the goal is to have a relaxing game night, but one might pick a frustrating game if the goal is to develop skills to manage frustration.

The following are several general categories of games and their qualities to consider when using games to reconnect with children and adolescents with disruptive behaviors.  There are also tips to adjust house rules so that games can be enjoyed by players of varied abilities.

  1. Competitive games – These typically are races to the finish (i.e. Candyland, Chutes and Ladders, Spoons, Life, etc.).  You don’t necessarily interact with the other players but try to get to the finish line before others.  Note:  I don’t recommend “Chutes and Ladders type” games because the disappointment of going down the chute can be a bit overwhelming.  Games like Candyland can be modified so that you only move forward or take multiple cards and the player decides which order to play them.  This modification allows slightly older and younger kids still play because of the added level of complexity to a simple game.


  1. Attack games – These typically are for slightly older kids and up.  This includes games like: Sorry, Trouble, Risk, etc.  These games also have a race component, but you can also interact and combat the other players.  These games can be converted to competitive games (see above) by just having them share a space or land one space ahead of the opponent, instead of knocking them out.  I don’t recommend Attack games for people that will become upset when they feel “attacked,” because even if you avoid that player, others players will feel cheated.  Note: Some of these games have a rule that says you can only move out of “Start” when you role or draw a certain number.  Again, people that have the hardest ability to manage frustration never seem to get that number.  Of course, you can modify the game so that any number allows one to enter into the game.


  1. Attrition games – These games win over a course of time by absorbing all the resources (i.e. War, Monopoly, Ticket to Ride, etc.)  These games can be good because they require more skill and typically do not attack players directly.  They can take longer to play which can be a concern for some, because if someone isn’t able to maintain focus on playing, it can ruin the game for everyone.


  1. Cooperative games (aka co-op) – These games require a bit more strategy and are a bit complex to set up (i.e. Forbidden Island, Pandemic, etc.)  They also are prone to have lots of expansions; so make sure you know what you are buying.  These games are great because it is everyone against the game and there is a feeling of satisfaction and group comradery when/if the group wins.  They almost all come with increasing difficulty factors so as not to overwhelm players and allow them to have a greater chance of success as one learns the game. One drawback is that, more skilled or aggressive players start dictating the game and it can make others take a backseat and only move when told instead of really playing.  Note: these games almost always have a short demo video that can be watched on YouTube, which is great for everyone to watch together as part of the bonding experience.


  1. Hybrid games – These games try to blend the best of each style, but they all come with the similar aforementioned drawbacks (i.e. Uno, Exploding Kittens, Timeline, Spot It, etc.).  The major advantage is that they are quick, and nobody is really out of the game for extended periods of time.  Typically, the strategy component is rudimentary which can be good and/or bad.


  1. Interactive games – These games encourage interaction within a group, go relatively fast, and can be very exciting with a lively group (i.e. Werewolves, Mafia Games, Heads Up, Nuclear Proliferation (sounds bad but isn’t – older game, but quick and fun), Vampires, etc.).  These games typically have a great deal of interaction. Some of them encourage deceit as part of the game play (which is not necessarily good or bad, just something to be aware of).


  1. Non-board games – This category would include all non-traditional type games.  These include: hide and seek (remarkably fun for families), Sardines (Hide and Seek variant that typically invokes laughter), Wii – Bowling, tennis, etc. (need multiple controllers), Scavenger hunts (for extra fun give coded clues i.e. look in the coldest place in the house aka freezer), Truth or Dare, games that have question cards (i.e. what was the funniest moment in your life), trivia questions (use teams), and of course Charades.  These can be very dynamic, interactive and fun.  However, depending on the group and or teams it can provoke heated discussions, hurt feelings (i.e. you made us lose), etc.


  1. Personal favorites – We currently play and favor the following games:
  • Risk
  • Settlers of Catan
  • Red7*
  • Timeline*
  • Monopoly
  • Ticket to Ride
  • Robot Face Race*
  • Mastermind*
  • SpotIt*
  • Sorry*
  • Candyland*
  • Memory*
  • Yahtzee*
  • Exploding Kittens (non-explicit version)*
  • Pandemic (expansion On the Brink)
  • Chess (I know this is a 2-player game, but I highly recommend all adults and kids know how to play this classic game for strategy development along with the fun individual bonding it can provide).

*These games tend to be good for professionals looking to connect with their clients.


  1. A couple points for the advanced game players:
    • You can get everyone together in a big group or assign “stations”.  People that get knocked out or want to roam can go to a different station or just take a break.  The big advantage is for the people that don’t really want to play but like the idea of getting together.  Helpful hint: have one station be a puzzle.  It’s quiet, keeps people focused and has no pressure attached.
    • Use a leaderboard – This is helpful for people who want to play and have to wait their turn (like on a Wii).  They can keep track of the standings without being pushy to get other people off the game.  This way they have something to go up against and when the player is finished they can transition from the game to marking down their score.  Doing this in teams is a great way to keep people from being crushed by one person’s score.
    • House rules are encouraged.  These are rules that deviate from the actual instructions, but you have modified them in order to make the game more enjoyable for your group.  The only two rules I encourage when it comes to house rules is that everyone needs to know/agree with the rule and the rule applies to everyone in the game.

A few of final tips for everyone:

  • Balloons – always keep balloons on hand.  Everyone likes to hit them when they get close and they make for a great indoor volleyball game.  For extra fun…take off shoes and/or socks and play balloon volleyball with your feet.
  • When playing with smaller children you can have them participate by rolling the dice, drawing the card, moving your piece, etc.  They are helping and interacting but not necessarily playing.
  • Know your crowd, be judicious when picking games and be prepare for a quick exit (alright…let’s all go in the kitchen for some ice cream).

For more information on this topic watch our webinar Disruptive Behaviors: Reconnecting and Repairing the Damage.

Now go have fun!

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