When I picked up my son from school it was clear to me that he was not his usual affectionate, talkative and playful self. Instead, he was silent, seemed tense and rejected all of my bids for connection. Once we got home, he rushed into his room, closed his door and clearly announced that he wanted to be left by himself.
“No one is allowed to come in!,” he stated, sounding very angry.
I didn't want to cross boundaries, but I was able to recognize, at the same time, that my child, who was clearly struggling, didn’t know how to communicate. I knew that he was having a hard time finding a way to reach out to me.
So I decided to gently reach out to him.
“I’ll be nearby,” I announced in a light voice, “I'll be just behind your door.”
He didn’t answer so I figured I shouldn’t say much either.
I found a piece of paper and a pencil and I drew a heart with a message inside it:
“I love you,” it said.
I slipped the letter under his door and waited. He angrily opened the door, made a ball out my note and threw it at me. I fell dramatically on the floor, making silly noises, and he hurriedly closed his door.
But I wasn't put off. I found another piece of paper, drew another heart, and wrote a message again.
“I love you no matter what.”
The scenario repeated itself: I slipped the letter under the door, waited for the paper ball ‘attack' and fell, with plenty of comedy drama, on the floor.
And just one thing changed: A smile appeared on my son’s face.
That felt encouraging. So I tried one more time. I got my paper, drew a heart, and wrote a message:
“I love you all the time.”
The door opened and, as my son threw a newly scrunched paper ball at me, I said quickly, “Hey! My letters want to go back to your room!”
I threw two other paper balls back into his room.
The mood changed and the game changed.
Now we were paper ball play fighting. He tried to get the balls out of his room, while I attempted to get them inside.
I often missed my target, much to his obvious delight, and smiles and giggles started to fly high along with our handmade paper balls.
Our game worked like magic, transforming anger and disconnection into laughter and connection.
In the book Listen: Five Simple Tools to Meet Your Everyday Parenting Challenges, authors Patty Wipfler and Tosha Schore remind us that “A disconnected child can behave like the most stubborn, picky, whiny, ungrateful, aggressive or overactive child on earth.”
Whining and anger is difficult on parents. We can interpret it as ungrateful, manipulative, even mean, but as Patty and Tosha say, these are visual cues that our child is feeling badly. What they do show us is that the part of the brain responsible for reasoning and communication is in shutdown mode. “What an individual parent can’t see is that children around the world send exact same signals to their parents. The message is: “Emotional emergency! I don’t feel connected!” It’s sent in behaviors, not words.”
If we translated your scrappy, unruly child’s message, the neatly printed note would say:
Dear Mom or Dad:
Thank you for receiving my note. I am trying hard to feel your love, but I just can’t. It scares me to feel so far away. Would you please, at your earliest convenience, sit down and invite me to be with you? Can we have a little fun, or could you at least put your arms around me so I have half a chance of feeling your love? Please stop me nicely so I don’t do nutty things – I really do not want to create problems. Your help will make things so much better.
I love you to infinity!
Your (temporarily) far-away child.”
Read 20 Playful Ways To Heal Aggression for more ideas on using play when your child is acting out, and get this free guide to calmer, more connected parenting: 5 Revolutionary Ideas That Make Parenting Less Stressful