Health Team

Family Games Can Be Way to Ease Holiday Tension

Posted December 22, 2006

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— This is the season when many families plan to spend quality time together, but often, togetherness can add to family stress. Psychologists are studying ways to enhance family harmony.

Monique Shearin and her 9-year-old son, Cole, love to play board games.

"He's very competitive—very, very competitive—and so am I," she said. "And so whether it's sports or board games, we both want to win."

One game the Shearins played is more than just about winning or losing. They took part in a study at an N.C. State University psychology lab playing a game called Life Stories.

It's a roll-the-dice-and-move-your-man type of game, but cards are drawn that get players talking about emotions, values and issues in the home.

"Every family has issues and so we asked them to engage and talk about some of the issues that matter to them," said Dr. Amy Halberstadt, an associate professor of psychology at N.C. State.

One of the issues the Shearins discussed was skipping homework for play time.

"I forgot to do my division test and she started fussing at me because I was supposed to do it a couple days ago," Cole said.

Halberstadt wants to know how different families respond to even more serious issues in the home. The study is also looking how strongly family members influence each other's behavior.

Halberstadt believes games themselves can reduce stress in the home and improve relationships. It's called the 5-to-1 ratio.

"So if you can boost your positive conversations, compliment, positive experiences; to have 5 of those for every one conflict or negative experience, that really seems to benefit families," said Halberstadt.

Halberstadt also helps families talk about "shared goals" as a way to reduce conflicts. For example, both Monique and Cole want him to have good grades in school as well as have time time to play and be with friends, so now they have an understanding.

"Listening to her the first time and getting it done so I can go outside and play," Cole said.

The N.C. State psychology department is looking for more families to participate in the study. If you are interested, you can call 919-515-1730 or you can e-mail

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