When children are anxious they experience worry, nervousness, or fear of things they can’t control. Playing games can help!
They may have anxious thoughts and feelings about facing things that have happened before or things that haven’t happened yet. One of the coping strategies children with anxiety often try to use is attempting to control things so that nothing uncertain can happen. This can cause them to insist on things being a certain way or they may only want to participate in activities where they can make and enforce the rules. Anxious kids may also resist change or attempt to avoid new things or experiences.
It’s normal for all children to experience some level of anxiety some of the time. However, when anxiety starts to take over and negatively impact one or more areas of the child’s life, it is important to address it so the anxiety doesn’t continue to become more severe. While anxiety can occur by itself, it is not uncommon for anxiety to occur alongside other issues. For example, many children with ADHD, autism, behavioral disorders, depression, and sensory processing disorder also have high anxiety. All children can benefit from learning to tolerate and cope with anxiety, especially kids who experience more significant anxiety throughout the day.
There are many therapeutic approaches and strategies to help reduce anxiety in children. It is helpful to look for opportunities to incorporate strategies into natural situations throughout the day. Over the years I have found that specific board games and game-like activities can be used to help kids learn to tolerate and cope with anxious situations. These games help promote flexibility because they are never the same twice, and the child cannot completely control the process or outcome. Because they have built-in unknowns, these games help kids expand their tolerance for variations and change.
Playing these kinds of games also helps kids learn to cope with uncertain outcomes. Learning to manage uncertainty is key for anxious children, and these games allow kids to get comfortable with uncertainty while also practicing coping skills as needed. Children who experience a high degree of anticipatory anxiety (they fear things that might happen or haven’t happened yet) can also benefit from these games as they learn to stay calm when the inevitable tower falls (Jenga), crocodile snaps (Crocodile Dentist), or the last chair is taken (musical chairs). Many of these games can be played quickly, which is helpful initially so that children don’t get overwhelmed. They can experience a brief period of anxiety and practice managing it, without having to stick with it for lengthy periods of time. Games also help build persistence and resilience for children who struggle with giving up too quickly.
Here are some favorite games that I use at my clinic with kids who are anxious or dislike change. You can find lots of games for children online, and many will be available in stores near you. For some of the card games, you can simply do an internet search for the rules and use any deck of playing cards. I’ve provided general age guidelines for each, but you should select the ones that are appropriate for your child’s developmental level and current ability to manage anxiety.
• Pop the Pig – ages 4+
• Topple – ages 6+
• KerPlunk – ages 5+
• Operation – ages 5+
• Perfection – ages 5+
• Crocodile Dentist – ages 3+
• Uno Attack – ages 7+
• Jenga – ages 5+
• Don’t Spill the Beans – ages 3+
• Poppa’s Pizza Pile-Up – ages 3+
• Pie Face – ages 5+
• Shark Bite – ages 4+
• Don’t Break the Ice – ages 3+
• Don’t Take Buster’s Bones – ages 4+
• Buckaroo – ages 3+
• Pop Up Pirate – ages 3+
• Hot Potato – ages 3+
• Yeti in My Spaghetti – ages 4+
• Slapjack card game – ages 5+
• Cheat (also known as BS, I Doubt It, Bluff) card game – ages 8+
• Toilet Trouble – ages 4+
• Musical Chairs – ages 3+
Have you played any of these games with your child or the kids you work with? Do you have others you recommend? Share your experiences and ideas in the comments below!