We CAN survive board games with our kids.
Tykes seem to have unlimited energy. As kids morph into teens, the frenetic level of energy diminishes, but it surges when they’re presented with an activity they love.
And they expect us to keep up.
Providing fun for kids with trauma requires even more than the usual amount of parental stamina.
When our children came to us, they embodied the focus of a hummingbird crossed with the energy of a Jack Russell terrier. They wanted to play constantly and their need for attention was all-powerful.
Like twin black holes, they absorbed our energy with ferocious intensity. No matter how hard we played or how long we interacted, they demanded more.
In desperation, we searched for a creative option to provide the attentiveness they craved while providing simultaneous relief of our exhaustion.
Hubby and I both have fond childhood memories of board games.
Board games! Of COURSE!!
We’d help them gain some focus while happily bonding as a family.
I look back at the seven-years-ago-us and shake my head. We were so earnest and adorable…
We tried Sorry, a board game with fairly easy play: pick a card and follow the directions. Get your pieces around the board and safely home.
Oh, and if another person’s game piece lands on the same spot as one of your pieces, the player yells, “SORRY!” and you get booted back to Start.
No big deal. How often could that possibly happen?
It could possibly happen a LOT.
Every time one of their pieces ended up back at Start, the kids lost it.
After thirty excruciating minutes (because I still clung to the ridiculous idea that good moms make kids finish what they begin), I started mis-counting my spaces to ensure I did not send a kid back to Start. (You perhaps call this cheating…I call it a technicality.)
The game concluded in frustration and tears.
We didn’t touch another board game for two years.
If we’d been aware of a few semi-simple principles, that night may have ended with different results.
HYPERVIGILANT GAME GUIDELINES
Only play as long as EVERYONE is having fun.
Set this expectation with the adults: it’s unlikely your trauma kids will make it through a full game without some drama.
If the game needs to end, don’t judge or shame the individual(s) responsible. If possible, shut it down before the situation devolves completely.
Say something like, “well, this has been a LOT of fun, but I really have to get back to ______. Let’s play again another time!” Then (with their involvement if possible), pack up the game. If they complain about ending the game, say with a smile, “I KNOW, it was so FUN! Want to play tomorrow?”
Stay as upbeat as possible; keep the mood light. Avoid making the game-end feel like a punishment. Be as nonchalant as possible and don’t allow yourself to be drawn into an argument.
GOAL: Associate only positive feelings with game play.
Start with an INSANELY easy game.
Choose games intended for a younger population. If your child is 7-10, select a game with a suggested age of 3-5. The goal is a gradual introduction to the idea of playing and working together. If you worry about insulting intelligence, hide the box.
GOAL: Introduce the idea that games are FUN.
EFF the rules.
And by “F,” I mean FORGET.
In the house where I grew up, we opened the box, set up the game and then—before touching anything else—we read the rules together. Even if we’d played the game for years, we read them anyway. Rules were part of the tradition. The ritual.
Most trauma kids won’t endure rule reading.
By the time you get to, “collect $200,” they’ll be rolling around on the floor or test-fitting a game piece in a random orifice.
Take a look at the rules beforehand; ensure you have a general grasp of game flow. Follow the ones that make sense for your crew. Ditch the rest.
GOAL: Hold their interest and get the game moving right away.
Simplify the game, including game aspects as appropriate.
(My apologies to the purists. Grit your teeth. It’s for the kids.)
Eliminate areas of the game which require too much of your children. Some game versions include additional requirements—jettison anything interfering with smooth play.
—In a card game, play with the minimum number of cards necessary to run the game.
—In a game with multiple pawns, like Trouble, limit the number of pawns to 1 or 2.
—In games like Monopoly, leave out one or more extraneous parts of play (e.g., purchasing properties or buildings, paying rent). Keep the parts (e.g., roll dice, move silver dog) your kids can easily handle.
GOAL: Start with very basic play. As kids become used to the rhythm and are able to handle more, increase the options.
Add a third pawn to Sorry, then a fourth. Try adding the money component back to the Monopoly game. Play with a full deck.
Don’t get competitive.
In many ways, learning to lose is more important than learning how to play. Don’t allow game night to become World War III.
Learning to play means taking turns, being polite even when losing, making eye contact, finding ways to communicate, touching someone without hurting them or being hurt and learning that “I didn’t win” doesn’t mean “I will never find success.”
Once, after her younger brother won two games of Uno in a row, our girl (seven at the time) had a screaming meltdown.
“HE WINS EVERYTHING! I WILL NEVER BE AS GOOD AS HE IS!!!” The tantrum escalated as her mental state deteriorated.
“NO ONE LIKES ME AND EVERYONE LIKES HIM AND I NEVER DO ANYTHING RIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIGHT…!!!!”
The flip-out had very little to do with the game.
It had everything to do with her self-perception.
Although her ability to think with logic at that age was limited, we were able to help her recognize her feelings and show her we cared. It also gave us great insight to her thought process.
GOAL: Keep in mind, the game is not about winning. It’s an opportunity to learn your kid.
Don’t Give Up.
Success is unlikely to happen overnight. We spent several years slowly building the game mentality. Especially for kids with limited social skills, board games are important. If you encounter opposition, limit tries to once a week. Attempt different types of games. Every kid is different, but almost all children like to play. The difference between “almost all children” and ours? Most of ours have to LEARN to have fun. To relax enough to enjoy themselves. To trust the adults.
Game play is therapeutic and is an important learning experience for our kids.
GOAL: Don’t lose sight of the end result: the children are absorbing important lessons which will equip them for life.
I hope these lessons we learned on a difficult road will help you have a better time “having fun” than we did.
Try a Game Night this Friday
Let me know how it goes…may all your dice roll 6 and all your pieces make it Home!
Luckily, today was an in-home-counselor day for the girl, so she had several hours to explore the situation with her therapist. After dinner, the counselor suggested my daughter could share with me what they’d discussed.
She was obviously uncomfortable, so we pulled out a game of Uno and talked while we played. I always try to remain level-headed and objective when she talks about how she sees the world, but sometimes…
My daughter shared that she is jealous of her brother because he gets all the attention and she feels she is entitled to more of the attention because she is older. As the therapist helped her share her feelings (she provokes her brother to get him in trouble because she is jealous of him), it became evident that she’d colored a picture of herself as neglected and ignored, while Hubby and I showered our son with attention.
Photo by Adam Koford
First off, he’s been in hot water for the last several weeks due to trouble at school and ongoing infractions at home. The attention he’s getting is the kind I’m sure he’d prefer to skip.
Second, while he’s had early bedtime almost every night in the last three weeks, she’s had Hubby and me to herself for almost an hour every night. We ask her what she’d like to do and the answer is always, “Watch Girl Meets World.”
I shared this information with the counselor, then advised my girl, “if you’d prefer to play a game or just talk after your brother goes to bed, Daddy and I would be happy to do that. We only watch TV because that’s what you’ve been saying you’d like to do.”
She backpedaled quickly. “No, no, it’s okay, I like Girl Meets World. We can still watch.”
“So…” I say, “in what way do we give your brother more attention?”
She couldn’t answer.
“I think you’re right; he’s definitely had a lot of attention the last few weeks; we can start giving you the same attention. We’ll put you to bed early and make sure to get on your case as soon as you step a hair out of line.” (We’ve been on that boy like grease on a teen’s face: everywhere and all day long.)
And then I went for it.
“Let me tell you about one of my earliest memories. I was probably about two and a half, and my parents had some friends over for dinner. They put me to bed and went to the living room to play games or talk or whatever it was that adults did before HD cable.
I woke up maybe an hour later to hear them all laughing. I hopped out of bed and wandered into the living room to see my mother bouncing
my baby brother
on her knee. He was grinning and drooling all over his blue onesie. I couldn’t believe it. Obviously I was older. Why should HE get to stay up later than I did? I didn’t even drool.
Of course, I didn’t realize that babies need to eat every few hours. He probably woke up and needed a diaper change or something, then feeding, then had to be jostled back to sleep.
they had the nerve to put me
BACK TO BED.
I stayed mad at that drooly little bugger for years. He ruined my fun, got all the attention and nobody put him back to bed early.
All because I didn’t understand the way the world truly works…or that babies can’t wait.
So, here’s what I think. You’re mad at your brother for showing up and ruining your fun.”
Her face stretched in shock. “How could you KNOW that?!?”
“Because I was a 12 year old girl with a younger brother. And also, when you arrived, you told me some stories about things you enjoyed with your birth family.”
She wrinkled her nose. “I don’t remember.”
“Well, you might not have the memory anymore, but you certainly had it when you got here.”
“Sometimes little kids just make stuff up and think they remembered it,” she shrugged.
“Based on the amount of anger you had about it, I don’t think so. I think you are really angry at him and you take it out on him, but it’s not even real. He doesn’t ruin your fun and he doesn’t take your attention. You get just as much and maybe more attention. What’s making you so angry?”
She frowned. “My feelings.”
“Nope. Remember, Counselor Bob talked with you about how your thoughts create feelings and feelings create actions. You THINK you’re getting less than your brother. You THINK you deserve more because you’re the oldest. You THINK Daddy and I are being unfair. Are those thoughts true?”
Shrugging again, she said, “Maybe not.”
“I guarantee you, they’re not true thoughts. Another way to say that is
So what do you need to change so that your feelings will be different?”
I can tell she’s getting it. Reluctant, she sighs, “my…thoughts.”
We finish the game of UNO as she dissolves into hysterical giggles, throwing herself around and almost banging her face on the table’s edge several times. I admonish her to be careful, worried she might end up with a bloody nose. The therapist looks at me, eyes questioning.
“This is what we get when she has to discuss something uncomfortable.”
Or when her worldview lens gets cracked yet again.
One of these days, she’ll knock that spiderwebbed lens right out and see the world the way it really is.
I just know it.