“Mom! He's being mean to me.”
“She's weird. I don't want to play with her.”
“They never give me a turn.”
“He won't let us climb the tree.”
“She always gets to go first! Just because she's the oldest…”
You might hear words like these when your child talks about brothers, sisters or friends. All display some kind of power imbalance.
When children show this kind of oneupmanship, it signals a sense of lost power. Having no say.
Trying to create some alpha system to replace feelings of inadequacy through dominance.
Why Giving A Child Power is Important
One way to re-establish some equilibrium is to “give back” a child's sense of power. And one of the best ways to do this is through physical play, which can repair in a number of ways.
Games where you take the lead naturally pitches a group of two or more children against you, reversing the power structure for a while.
Another positive outcome is the chance for children to challenge themselves physically, and to experience their own power when they achieve physical feats. “Children need the chance to run, climb, punch, grab, kick, jump, leap, plow, grunt, and lug. When there's no chance to do stuff like that, they are more inclined to play power games,” says Patty Wipfler, founder of Hand in Hand Parenting and author of Listen, Five Simple Tools to Meet Your Everyday Parenting Challenges.
Laughter is a great way to reduce tension. In these games, laughter comes when kids “survive,” the challenges set to them. “Over time, [children] gain physical confidence, along with strength and co-ordination,” Patty writes in Listen.
Problem-Solving Power Play Games
When you can listen, you'll hear lots of clues from kids about how they need these play sessions to run.
If challenges are too easy, children will tire of them quickly so up the stakes. Ask, “Shall we make this harder?” “Who wants to play the really tough version of this game?”
If games are too difficult, children not used to this type of play, or who have fear issues holding them back, will balk. In this case, you might need to go gently. “Hmmmn. This seems like we might need changes. How would you like this game to look?”
Try acting scared yourself. Bumble and stumble. Or say, “This is too scary for me could we…” This takes the heat off an unwilling child and gets the rest of the kids laughing at you.
Some kids will go full force into play. It's fine to stop and set limits if play veers toward danger or someone getting hurt.
It's also fine to expect tears. Physical challenge can stir up a lot of feelings in children, even triggering places where they lack confidence. Laughter gives them a safety belt they need for those feelings to erupt.
That's why you might see a child fall lightly, but then have a big upset. These light falls are like permission for a child to cry without losing face and getting those feelings unstuck through tears actually helps, so supporting them while they cry is useful. Try sentences like these:
“I see that was hard. I'm here.”
“Join whenever you feel ready.”
For more ideas read the post 20 Things to Say To Your Child Instead of Don't Cry
12 Games That Give Kids Back Their Power
Summer is the perfect season to get physical. Barbecues, beach days and pool parties offer a way to bring children together and play out their power struggles. Or you can invite your squabbling siblings or your child's circle of friends for a special day of play outside.
Look for large spaces and natural surroundings in which to bound, hide and laugh. Bring water, snacks, lots of energy! And bring games that are fun, and a bit out-of-the-box. Elicit a feel of the unexpected, some thrills or a taste of what's usually off-limits, and you'll be well on the way to play that brings out giggles and helps ease power struggles.
Games to Help Solve Power Struggles
1 Rock Climbing – There is nothing like the thrill of looking down and jumping from a wall (even while attached to a safety rope). Adventure playgrounds are also good for this sense of challenge.
2 Dive Show – Take the kids to a pool and challenge them to a dive off while you film them. To boost their sense of power have them film you do some terrible diving!
3 Pillow Bumping – Give each child a pillow to stuff up their shirts and get down on your knees. Their mission, if they choose to accept it, is to knock you down.
4 Mud Play – Find a spot where you can hold mud castle competitions, mud races or even mud wrestling. Have fun playing real dirty.
5 Water Balloon Toss – An oldie but a tried-n-tested goodie. Throw in some buckets, old cartons or bottles for added splash!
6 Water Blasters – Invest in some big blaster water guns where you (and any other adults up for a good, wet time) are the target.
7 Rope Swing – Try setting a rope swing up across a creek and cheering each kid on as they swing over it. Or, if it's safe, let go! Who can make the biggest splash?
8 Pillow Fight – Set this up as a large free-for-all. Scale up the size of the pillow swings according to whatever gets the biggest laughs.
9 Bucking Broncos – Get the help of a few other willing adults and give the kids a chance to play bucking broncos. See how long they can stay on your back while you move and bump around.
10 Obstacles – Set up an obstacle course. Use tires or hoops to jump through, make use of any rubber or indoor tent tunnels. Set up a cardboard wall from stacked boxes that has to be smashed down. “In the end, have them take a plastic rubber sword and “fight” a Darth Vader-type character, all dressed up, and ready to die, die, die a thousand deaths as they stab away,” says Patty.
11 Food Fight – cheap supplies like oatmeal, breakfast cereal, canned corn or peas and applesauce are ingredients for an epic food fight that can still easily be cleaned later. Not much delights kids more than lobbing foods at adults!
12 Snowballs – Use play snowballs, or even balled up socks to throw around at each other. You could even designate bases or bunkers that teams can raid for some extra fun.
More Play Ideas To Solve Power Struggles
Try these posts for more problem-solving play ideas:
- 15 play ideas for the days kids say “no” and won't do what you ask
- Get 11 connection-boosting games to play with mixed age groups – from toddlers to teens
- Hearing “mine, mine, mine?” Read fun games to encourage sharing
- Yes, you can respond to your toddlers challenging behaviors and see huge shifts. Here's how.
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