Finding Family Fun When Your Child Has Social, Emotional or Behavioral Challenges

My daughter flung the game pieces across the room as she lost her temper during a board game.  A lower tolerance for frustration accompanied Katie’s diagnosis of autism, but we were trying to work through it to enjoy a family game night.  Unfortunately, the only “togetherness” that night was my husband grabbing Katie’s hands before she swept the game board clean.


As summer nears, our family, like yours, would like to plan and spend some fun time together. Having a child or children with social, emotional or behavioral challenges makes this a challenge. However, it’s still important to build some positive memories with our kids.

Our children are young adults now, but when they were younger we tried a variety of activities to “have fun.”  We tried bike-riding, but our younger daughter disliked it. We attempted camping but the tight quarters bred discord, and my husband and I were embarrassed that our campground neighbors heard every grumble and gripe.  Our attempts at family time became tense as we anticipated emotional upset with almost every activity.

We felt defective as a family because we couldn’t enjoy the typical activities that bonded parents and children.

We persisted in trying new things, however, and eventually found activities that worked.

Here are some guiding principles that helped us in our quest for family fun time:

  1. Choose an activity that none of your children are “working on” in a therapeutic way. It’s hard for anyone to relax when a child is intensely learning and parents are coaching. In our case, losing gracefully was something Katie had not yet mastered.  We had to re-label games as “work” until she could handle them better.
  2. Keep the activity short. A visit to our neighborhood park ended most successfully when it was less than an hour and we quit while everyone was still happy.
  3. Consider outside activities or playtime with a pet. Research shows that spending time outdoors and with animals are natural anti-depressants and stress-reducers for most people.  For our family, throwing balls to the dogs (and watching dog videos) keeps everyone smiling. Feeding geese at our neighborhood park was another successful activity.
  4. Don’t keep score during normally competitive activities. We learned that games like Pictionary and Catch Phrase are just as fun without keeping score.

Finally, it is important to know that kids and parents need not be relentlessly cheerful or super adventurous to bond as a family.  And not every moment has to be filled with laughter to be a good memory.  As a matter of fact, our family laughs now at some of our difficult times because they are funny in retrospect. Struggling families can enjoy togetherness in the right environment.  Pray, stay creative and flexible, and you will find something that works.

This blog was adapted from and originally written as an article for Focus on the Family/Thriving Family Magazine  (June/July 2015).  It appeared on the Key Ministries/Not Alone website on June 3, 2016

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