‘Play can be the long-sought bridge back to that deep emotional bond between parent and child.’ (Lawrence Cohen)
Ever get those days (or weeks!) when WHATEVER you do you just can’t seem to PROPERLY connect with your child?
Horrible isn’t it.
A little while ago this is exactly what happened to me and my Little Lady.
We were NOT on the same page.
If I said black, she would have a centillion reasons as to why it should be WHITE.
She was only 2 at the time and there was a lot going on. We had just moved, nursery had building works on that were causing absolute chaos and to be honest I think we both felt a bit out of control.
Power struggles ensued.
It was a bit like one of those mash up films like Superman vs The Hulk. But in our our case it was more like Mini Terminator vs She Hulk.
Yes my child is willful. Er, ok, so am I.
Frankly, I felt like a bad mother and My Little Lady didn’t feel like she had any control. Anywhere.
Then one evening it all came to a head over something really stupid, (doesn’t it always!).
I was changing the bed sheet and every corner I tucked in was promptly whisked off again by my increasingly ragey Little Lady (aka Mini Terminator).
She wasn’t laughing or doing it to be funny – i was sheer bloody mindedness.
This went on for what seemed like a millennium (or two).
I should have made it into a game to lighten the atmosphere, but Mummy (as she transformed slowly into She Hulk) was grumpy too now.
I just wanted the bloody sheet on.
Now, my good cop slash peaceful parenting mum knew that this was a call for help from My Little Lady.
She had some big old underlying feelings and emotions going on right now, that she needed help with. She needed to feel safe and right now she didn’t.
And what quite frankly (in her eyes), was I bloody well going to do about it?
Her home had changed, nursery was in disarray and she had spent most of the day trying to sit on smaller children (according to nursery), which was absolutely OUT of character.
But here’s the thing:
In my view, all acting up or ‘bad’ behaviour in children is a call for help.
Children don’t want to annoy us (well not at 2 anyway!), so when they start acting out of sorts, they almost always have feelings and emotions that are making them feel crap and which they don’t know how to handle.
Which is why they need our help processing them. (Time outs and naughty steps are absolutely not the answer in my view, as they are controlling and shaming the child when they are already feeling rubbish).
But the trouble was, I was tired from work, from moving and from the seemingly never ending nursery upheaval.
My cup wasn’t very full either.
So bad cop mum came out.
More power struggles ensued. More sheet corners got whisked off.
Mini Terminator and She Hulk were well and truly going for it.
Then Good Cop Mum threw Bad Cop Mum a left hook – KAPOOWWWWW!!
And reminded me that ‘I’ was the adult here.
So call it divine intervention. Call it motherly intuition. Call it madness if you like…
Here’s what I did:
I opened the closet door, whipped a shirt of a hanger and flung it on the floor.
My Little Lady looked at me stunned (I’m about as big on mess as an OCD Super Nanny).
I whipped a skirt off another hanger and threw it on her head.
She laughed, ran over and pulled a pair of trousers off a hanger and hurled them to the floor.
I followed suit and we started started laughing hysterically as the floor became a jumble of every clothes item you could possibly imagine.
It was like the worst, most disorganised jumble sale. Ever!
We did the WHOLE closet. Not an item remained.
When we’d finished, we looked at each other and laughed. Then my Little Lady gave me a big hug.
Seriously. Not a word of a lie.
And from that moment on, things got better.
Because, we’d both felt horrid being at odds with one another.
We didn’t want to be playing Mini Terminator versus She Hulk every evening – we wanted to be connecting and laughing like we normally did.
By letting go and playing a game which, under usual circumstances, would have been forbidden (we can’t realistically throw all our clothes across the room on a daily basis!), we dissolved a lot of her yucky underlying emotions through the process of laughing and physical exertion.
Want to know the sciencey bit behind all this (I’m not mad I promise)
Kids use play to work through emotional issues all the time.
How many times have you seen your child playing doctors or schools, over and over again?
Every day our children experience being smaller and less powerful than the bigger adults in their life.
That’s us btw – the ones who call ALL the shots and say ‘No’ or ‘Stop it’ about 600 times a day.
But by being the doctor they get to wield this power, by being the teacher, they get to be the ‘boss’.
If only for a short time.
Playing superheroes, princesses or wizards and witches does a similar thing. It allows them to feel powerful and allows them to safely test out being ‘good’ versus ‘bad’. (Why do you think kids love fairytale so much.)
In their imaginations at least, they can get to be the powerful ones. It’s a powerful antidote and why play is SO important.
But did you also know that laughing releases the same pent up emotions and stress hormones as a good cathartic cry in a parent’s arms?
Plus, physical play releases those lovely feel good hormones – the endorphins and the oxytocin.
So, by being physical and throwing the clothes out the closet (we were really going for it – clothes were literally hanging from the lampshade, the blinds and the curtain rail) – we were releasing good hormones.
And by letting go and doing something which She Hulk (who was mercifully returning to her usual peaceful mummy now) would usually never allow, My Little Lady was given a chance to feel powerful – if only for 10 minutes – in a world where, right now, she did not feel very powerful (sitting on kids on nursery was likely her 2 year old way of trying to feel more powerful!) .
We became mercifully re-connected at this point (thanks goodness!!) and whilst things were still a little rocky for a while until nursery’s building works calmed down and we were settled in our new home, this was most definitely the turning point.
I’m of course not saying we should all throw our clothes out the closet on a daily basis (necessarily!), but I am saying that when life happens and things seem to be going a bit tits up, finding a way through it via play can really cut through the tension like a knife (see science bit above again for technical explanation!).
I’ve tried ranting. I’ve tried lecturing. None of them work.
I end up feeling like a 5 foot 9 mummsy dictator and my Little Lady usually covers her ears and says ‘I’m not listening’ (subtle as a brick, but a powerful message from your child if you are big enough to hear it).
Have you ever listened to one of your own rants?
Mine are embarassing. I actually once said “I am NOT a piece of poo stuck to the bottom of your shoe to serve your every need’.
Well at least I said ‘poo’.
The Bottom Line – How To Reconnect With Your Child Through Play
Science has proven that physical play releases all those lovely feel good hormones – the endorphins and the oxytocin – whilst laughing can release the same pent up emotions as a good cry.
Physical play (or roughhousing as some people call it) and releasing pent up emotions through laughter can really work wonders as practical tools to help your children work through their stuff.
In fact, I’ve found that working through issues with your child through play can be transformational.
But it’s sometimes tricky for us as parents to know how to do this, especially if we did not experience much play from our parents as children, or if we get caught up in things like:
- ‘but I don’t know how’
- ‘it’s boring
- or, I don’t have time’.
Play is something that does not come naturally to many of use as adults. It makes us feel self conscious and silly.
My advice would be – make time. And try it. You might feel silly. But who cares. No one’s watching.
Want a free resource for some ideas?
Dr Laura Markham of Aha Parenting has some great advice on Playing With Your Child: Games for Connection and Emotional Intelligence.
Or for more ideas on how to play with your child to build connection and trust, I also recommend with complete gay abandon (yes, I’m a BIG fan!) the book Playful Parenting, by Lawrence Cohen.
Happy playing. And happy connecting.
Have you ever used play to re-connect with your child? How did you get on?