Responsive Parenting and Autism: Addressing Anger with Play

A Guest Post by Emilie Leeks

angry girl growling in post about using play to turn around a child's angerParenting in our pre-Hand in Hand days, we would never have considered going playful in response to ‘rude’ or upset behaviour.

I don’t think we’re alone–it just wasn’t the done thing in most of our childhoods I imagine, and would just have been seen as reinforcing the ‘bad’ behaviours.

What we now know is that bringing some lightheartedness into a challenging exchange can be exactly what’s needed to get us re-connected with our children. Laughter helps them to release some of their tensions and stresses.

We have found this to be particularly effective with our autistic son who is now 8. Sometimes he can get so mired in his challenging feelings, that he can’t get to a useful release of emotion through tears.

By lightening his load through play, he can laugh away some of the struggles and concerns he is carrying.

Continuing our occasional series of posts about parenting in a responsive way with autistic children, here’s an example of how we turned a difficult situation around using physical play with our son and that led to lots of fun and laughter together!

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When he was 7 years old, our oldest child, who is autistic, had been acting angry for a while. We think he was trying to work through something big. One day, at breakfast, he got very angry and upset over some small things. I passed the milk, when apparently I shouldn’t have, for instance. He also appeared to be really panicking over seemingly small things–he felt he couldn’t cut his strawberries right. He was name calling, saying “stupid”, and “stupid idiot” and then started saying to his little sister things like “Don’t look at me,” and “You’re disgusting.”

This all happened in a very short space of time. I guess I was hoping that he would manage a bit of breakfast since he is often, like most of us, grouchy before he eats! But soon it became clear to me that he was looking for a limit to butt up against.

Bringing the Limit and Moving Away

I asked him to stop and when he wasn’t able to, I went with him away from the table. He was name-calling and shouting, and physically battling me. He then fought his way over to a sofa and started hitting me with a cushion.

I thought “Aha! Maybe we have something here!’ and grabbed another cushion.

What followed was a long pillow-fighting session that was very amicable (he wasn’t trying to actually hurt me, unlike some other times, when I felt he was) and our play had lots of laughter. He liked it when I ‘tried’ to hit him but ‘accidentally’ hit myself instead. He laughed and laughed and asked me to do it again.

He also found it hilarious when he hit me and I fell over!

angry boy poking tongue out in post about responding to anger using playAs we played he added more cushions as shields, and then he started to bury me under them. He sneaked in to whack me with a cushion when I was buried, and I got exaggeratedly huffy or surprised when he managed to find me and hit me, which he loved.

Finally, he built a tall (and very wobbly) cushion tower. As a rule he is not the most physically adventurous of children, but he tentatively climbed up, then asked for help to get down. I was there for him, but he didn’t actually use me in the end.

Then he settled on my lap for a long, quiet cuddle.

I often find it difficult to set a limit before breakfast because I’m too hungry myself to deal with the fallout!! But on this particular day, our son had come down later than the rest of us to breakfast. I had already finished mine and was in a good place to listen to whatever he needed to release.

In the future I decided might try to at least grab a mouthful or two before stepping in with a limit on issues like this. I am also trying to get better about setting and bringing the limit–Gently stopping the behavior–as sometimes I set a limit verbally but don’t follow through quickly enough to ‘enforce’ it. Then I start to get irritated myself.

Prior to this, I had been a bit concerned about our son so rarely getting to tears, and felt that I was often trying to steer him (unsuccessfully!!) that way so that he could ‘make the most’ of his Staylistening times, but Kathy Gordon and Patty Wipfler at Hand in Hand Parenting gave some great advice recently that really resonated with me, about not having an agenda.

This was a real lightbulb moment for me!

I think I would have taken this session in a very different direction, potentially, if I hadn’t heard those thoughts, instead of relaxing into following my son’s lead and seeing where it would take me.

I am also getting better about not being so worried about being ‘hurt’ which has been a bit of a thing for me–I’m pretty good at protecting myself but if he does manage to catch me, I am over-reacting a lot less, and am able to genuinely say “I’m ok,” on those occasions, thanks to my Listening Partnerships.

I feel that what’s going on with our oldest child at the moment is an ongoing project. I just get this feeling that it’s like he’s testing us to see if he really can rely on us, no matter what he throws at us.

After a really thorough session, like the pillow fight on that day, he’s always very affectionate towards whoever has been listening to him.

I also feel like he conquered some fear he had by climbing and descending from his tower completely independently.

And only then was he ready for his cuddle!

Read about how physical play and rough-housing helps children shed stuck emotions

meet the instructor

Emilie Leeks lives in Berkshire, UK with her husband and three children. She is a certified Hand in Hand Instructor with additional experience in speech, language and communication issues.

This post was originally published on Emilie’s blog Journeys-in-Parenting. You can also contact Emilie through her Facebook page.

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