Playing with Your Child: Games for Connection and Emotional Intelligence
"Play can be the long-sought bridge back to that deep emotional bond between parent and child. Play, with all its exuberance and delighted togetherness, can ease the stress of parenting. Playful Parenting is a way to enter a child's world, on the child's terms, in order to foster closeness, confidence, and connection."
-Lawrence Cohen, Playful Parenting*
I know, you think you hate playing with your child. But what if I gave you permission to set a timer and forget about your To-Do list and just connect with your child for ten minutes? What if I promised that if you do this on a regular basis, your child will become more cooperative, and you will feel more energized? What if it helped you become a happier parent?
Children need to play. It's their work. All mammals play; it's their way of learning skills they'll need when they're full-grown, from finding food to getting along with others. It's also the way small humans process their emotions.
All day, every day, children have to manage complicated feelings: Fear (What if there IS something under the bed?), Jealousy (Maybe you do love their sibling more!), Humiliation (The teacher acted like he should already know that, and all the kids laughed!), Panic (What if she doesn't make it to the bathroom on time?), Anger (It was my turn!), Disappointment (Doesn't anyone care what I want?!).... The normal challenges of every day for a growing child of any age stimulate all kinds of feelings. Children release these emotions through play. Laughter, specifically, transforms our body chemistry by reducing stress hormones and increasing bonding hormones.
Kids are more physical than adults. When they get wound up emotionally, their bodies need to discharge all that energy. That's one of the reasons they have so much more energy than we do, so they wear us out.
But we can use this to our advantage, because when we play physical games with children, they giggle and sweat and scream -- and they release the same pent-up stress hormones that they'd otherwise have to tantrum to discharge. Playing is also how kids learn, so when you "teach" an emotional lesson by playing, your child really gets it. Best of all, playing helps parents and kids feel closer.
I realize that at the end of the day you might be exhausted. I personally would much rather snuggle on the couch than initiate an active game. The good news is that these games don't have to last long -- maybe 10 minutes at most, or even as little as 2 minutes.
And believe it or not, most parents find them energizing. That's because the tension and irritation we carry around makes us tired. When we play, we discharge stress hormones just like our kids, giving us a little more energy as we head into the evening.
So when your child asks you to play, make a deal. Sure, you'll play dollhouse, or build a train track. But first, will they play a roughhousing game with you for a few minutes? Don't be surprised if your child loves this kind of play so much, he begins begging for these games over and over.
Here are some ideas to get you started.
When your child is annoying, or in your face.
"Are you out of hugs again? Let's do something about that!" Grab your child and give her a LONG hug -- as long as you can. Don't loosen your grip until she begins to squirm and then don't let go immediately. Hug harder and say "I LOVE hugging you! I never want to let go. Promise I can hug you again soon?" Then let go and connect with a big, warm smile, and say "Thank you! I needed that!"
A more intensive version, for when a child has a new sibling, or you've been doing a lot of disciplining.
Convince your child on a very deep level that you LOVE him by chasing him, hugging, kissing, then letting him get away and repeating -- again and again.
"I need my Michael....You can't get away...I have to hug you and cover you with kisses....oh, no, you got away...I'm coming after you....I just have to kiss you more and hug you more....You're too fast for me....But I'll never give up...I love you too much...I got you....Now I'll kiss your toes....Oh, no, you're too strong for me...But I will always want more Michael hugs...."
This is my favorite game, guaranteed to transform your child's doubt about whether he's truly loved (and any child who is "misbehaving" harbors that doubt). (I call this the Fix game because it Fixes whatever's wrong. From a parent: "I'm kind of shocked how much my son is loving the Fix game!? I don't think I've ever heard my son say, "Let's do it again!" so many times :)"
A stepped-up version involving both parents.
Fight over your child (jokingly), vying to see who can snatch him up and hug him. "I want him!' No, I want him!" "But I NEED him so much!" No, I need him! You ALWAYS get him!"
When your child is grumpy.
"You seem to be in a NO mood. I have an idea. I want to hear you say NO as much as you want. I will say YES, and you can answer NO in the same tone of voice. So when I say YES in this low voice, you say NO in a low voice. When I say YES in this squeaky voice, you say NO in this squeaky voice. Okay?"
To a child who is getting over-excited or too revved up:
"You have so much energy right now. What can we do with all this energy? Do you want to spin around? Come over here (or outside) with me where it's safe to spin around, and I'll spot you."
Find a safe place where no other kids or parents are there to further stimulate him, and let him spin around, or jump up and down, or run in circles around you -- whatever he chooses. When he drops in exhaustion, snuggle him and say
"It's so much fun to be excited. But sometimes you get over-excited and you need a little help to calm down. Now, let's take three deep breaths to relax. In through the nose, out through the mouth. 1.....2......3......Good! Do you feel a little calmer? It's good to know how to calm yourself down. Now, let's go snuggle by ourselves and read a book for a bit."
When you and your child seem to be having a lot of power struggles.
Give your child the chance to be the more powerful one and to outsmart and over power a terrible monster -- You! Swagger and strut and roar at your child about how you will catch him and show him who's boss....but when you chase him, always trip and bumble and let him outsmart you or over-power you and get away. Give him a remote and pretend he can make you stop, start, move forward and backward. When she high-fives you, pretend she almost knocked you over. Another version of this is giving your child a feather, or a pillow, to hit you with. Every time he hits you, fall over! Repeat as long as he's giggling. Acknowledge your child's formidable power: “You are so strong! You pushed me right over!”
When your child is cheating at a game.
Say "Looks like we have new rules now....But how come you always win?!...I hate losing!" Overdo your role as the "sore loser" so that your child gets to laugh at you.
When your child is super-clingy or has been experiencing separation anxiety.
Cling to your child, being super-exaggerated and silly. "I know you want me to let go so you can go play, but I NEED you! I only want to be with you. PLEASE be with me now?" Keep holding your child's hand or clinging to her dress. She will like the feeling that SHE is the one in charge of letting go, rather than feeling pushed away. If you act silly enough, she will also giggle and let off some of the tension around good byes. When she definitively pushes you away, say, "It's ok. I know you will come back. We always come back to each other."
When your child goes through a stage of only wanting Mommy (or Daddy).
Let the preferred parent sit on the couch. Get between your child and that parent, and boast
"You can't get to Mommy! You are all mine! Only I get to be with you! I will keep you from getting to Mommy!"
As he tries to get to Mommy, grab at him, but bumble and be unsuccessful. When he reaches Mommy, she laughs, cheers, hugs him and then lets him go. You lament that he got through, but continue to boast and challenge him and try to grab him. Exaggerate your boasting. "You can't push around me to get to Mommy!" and then bumble and let him push past you. He should giggle and giggle, which means that he is releasing his fears and anxieties.
When your kids are fighting a lot:
When tempers are calm, say "Would you two please fight with each other now?" When they begin to fight, pretend to be a TV commentator. "We're on the scene tonight watching two sisters who can't seem to get along! Will they work things out or not? Stay with us while we observe this behavior live! Notice how big sister is bossy, but little sister is provocative! Both girls want the same piece of salami! Can they work this out? Are they smart enough to realize there's more salami in the fridge? Stay tuned..." Your kids will giggle and let off tension, and get to see how ridiculous they are.
When your child feels like a bottomless pit:
Every day, spend 15 minutes snuggling. Revel in touching your child. Don't structure this time. Just kiss him on the nose, nuzzle her hair, let him sink into the comfort of your lap. Even if your kid is eight, treat him as if he's a baby, just beginning to be verbal. Rock him in your arms. Play the physical games you played when she was tiny. Resist tickling, which can make kids feel invaded and out of control. Mostly, just snuggle and lavish attention. If you want some help getting into the mood, look together at old baby pictures: "You were so adorable, almost as adorable as you are now!"
When your child goes through a stage of whining a lot.
Remember that whining is an expression of powerlessness. Refusing to "hear" until they use a "big kid" voice further invalidates them. But of course you don't want to reward whining by "giving in" to it, either. Instead, express confidence that your child can use her "strong" voice and offer your assistance to help her find it, by making it into a game:
"Hey, where did your strong voice go? It was here a minute ago. I LOVE your strong voice! I'll help you find it. Help me look. Is it under the chair? No...In the toy box? No.... HEY! You found it!! That was your strong voice!! Yay! I love your strong voice! Now, tell me again what you need, in your strong voice."
(If this doesn't work, it's because your child needs more tenderness and maybe a chance to cry. See the article on whining.)
To help a child fall asleep at night.
Say goodnight to each part of your child's body, touching each part in turn gently, with a little massage.
"Good night shoulder...good night arm....good night elbow, good night forearm, good night wrist, good night hand, good night fingers."
Take your time so your child relaxes each part of her body as you "recognize" it. The more you can simply relax and connect with your child, the more you are helping your child be in her own body and be fully present.
When your child has stolen something.
Get him laughing about this by enacting a stuffed animal "stealing" things from all over the room. Meanwhile, the stuffed animal mother is searching for the stolen things-- "I can't find the dog dish anywhere! Wherever did it go?!" Of course, the pile of stolen things is right in front of her. (You'll still need to have a conversation with your child about how he wishes he could keep what he stole, but it must be returned, and that in the future he can ask you if he wants something. But playing a game like this first will take the shame and anxiety out of the situation for both of you, and will help your child be open to making amends.)
When your child has been screeching or complaining:
"Ok, there's been so much complaining (or loud screeching)! This is your last chance to complain (screech) for the rest of the day. I'm setting the timer and putting on my earphones. I want you to complain (screech) as loud as you can for the next three minutes. You only have three minutes so make the most of them. After that, we're all back to normal inside voices. 1, 2, 3, GO!"
To help a child who's coping with a challenging issue, like the start of school, or playground struggles, or being sick:
Have one stuffed animal be the parent, and one be the child, and act out the situation. Using stuffed animals removes it one step from reality so most kids find it more comfortable, but some children like to actually act the situation out themselves (as opposed to using the proxy of dolls or stuffed animals).
"Let's pretend we're in the sandbox and I want your truck but you don't want to share" or "Let's pretend you're the teacher and I'm the student" or "Let's pretend you're the doctor and I'm sick."
Playing out these situations that cause so much stress for kids helps them to feel more in control of their own emotions, and lets them be the powerful one in a situation where they might have felt powerless and humiliated in real life.
To work through a problem that keeps coming up, such as a child who dawdles in the morning or at bedtime.
Sometime on the weekend, grab a mom and baby stuffed animal. Have them act out the morning (or bedtime) routine. Have the little one resist, whine, collapse. Have the mom "lose it" (but don't scare your child by overdoing it. Have the mom be a funny, incompetent bumbler.) Your child will be fascinated. Then, hand your kid the "mom" and play out the scenario again, with you being the kid. Make it funny so you can both giggle and let off tension. Make sure to include scenarios in which the kid goes to school in his pjs, or the mom goes to work in her pjs, or the kid has to yell at the mom to hurry up and get ready, or the mom says
"Who cares about that meeting? Let's tell the boss it's more important to find your toy car!"
Give him in fantasy what he can't have in reality. You may learn something about how to make things work better. Almost certainly, you'll see more understanding and cooperation from your child on Monday. At the very least, you'll defuse the tension get a great chance to see how your kid perceives you!
Start a pillow fight, or a snowball fight, or a wrestling game in which you take each other’s socks off (an excuse for hugs). Or give your child a pillow to hold, and try to steal it from her. Always let your child win. Kids need to rough house. You might even find you like it too!
As long as your child is laughing, that game is working to alleviate anxiety and increase well-being. Don't be surprised if your child wants to play these games over and over. They relieve stress, help your child master emotion -- and believe it or not, they're fun!
*These are games I often recommend to parents, and while I have adapted them over the years, I didn't invent them. Some originated from the rich tradition of play therapy or were invented by my clients; some were inspired by the work of Lawrence Cohen (Playful Parenting), Becky Bailey (I Love You Rituals), Patty Wipfler (Hand in Hand Parenting) and Aletha Solter (Attachment Play.) For more ideas on using play to connect with kids and help them resolve challenges, I highly recommend their books, below.
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