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*
Playing with your child for five minutes today, in a way that gets them laughing, is probably the best way you can spend five minutes with your child. I don't say that lightly. Here's why.
All day, every day, children have to manage an avalanche of complicated feelings:
- Fear (What if there IS something under the bed?)
- Anger (But it was my turn! That's not fair!)
- Jealousy (Maybe you do love their sibling more!)
- Humiliation (The teacher acted like he should already know that, and all the kids on zoom laughed!)
- Panic (What if they don't make it to the bathroom on time? or for older kids, What if they have a pop quiz when they've been spending their time on Minecraft instead of studying?)
- Disappointment (Doesn't anyone care what I want?!)
The normal challenges of every day life for a growing child of any age stimulate all kinds of feelings. In a pandemic, needless to say, there is more fear, more frustration, more getting snapped at by your weary parents.
If the child doesn't have a chance to work through these emotions as they arise, they get stuffed into the emotional backpack, otherwise known as the body. That means that more tension builds up looking for release, and more stress hormones circulate in the bloodstream, making the child cranky, rigid, reactive. Basically, a pain to live with.
Luckily, nature has designed children with a release valve: Play, especially play that triggers laughter. Play is one of the main ways small humans process emotions. And laughter transforms our body chemistry by reducing stress hormones and increasing bonding hormones.
That's why 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. Play releases tension and helps children work through the big emotions that arise as they tackle new challenges.
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. If your child is struggling with a specific issue, from separation anxiety to sibling rivalry to feeling needy or powerless or unloved, you can often help your child work through that issue using play. So below, you'll find games to transform any struggle with your child.
I realize that at the end of the day you're probably exhausted. You might even have an idea that 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 five 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 five minutes of play every evening helped you become a happier parent? Can you think of a better way to spend five minutes?
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, or teasing their sibling.
We say "She just wants attention" as if that's not a legitimate need. But what if every child sometimes NEEDS that reassurance of your love, and this is the only way they know to show you that, and you could fill that need, and transform the entire day? Try this:
"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!"
The Fix Game: 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 one of my favorite games, 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: the NO! Game
"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 overpower 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 her a remote and pretend she can make you stop, start, move forward and backward.
- When she high-fives you, pretend she almost knocked you over.
- Give 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 their clothes. 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 your child 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..."
If you catch this before tempers get too hot, your can transform insults into giggles and completely defuse the tension.
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 this article: The Cure for Whining .)
To help your 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 fully present in her body, which helps her let go of tension and relax.
When your child has stolen something.
Yes, you'll need to have a conversation with your child about how he really wished he could have what he stole, so he took it, but he must never take things that don't belong to him. And now he must return it, and you will go with him to support him. And in the future he can ask you if he wants something.
But your child knew all that. He succumbed to that fierce need that he thought he could fill by taking this thing that didn't even help him feel better. Now he is overcome with shame and anxiety. He needs your help to work that through before he can be brave enough to make amends.
Enter play. Sure, you'll teach, but you also need to help melt away the shame and fear, so your child can actually learn from this experience.
Get your child laughing 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.
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.
At the very least, you'll defuse the tension so you'll see more understanding and cooperation from your child on Monday. Bonus: It's a great window 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.
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.