Science shows that one of the first ways children show you they feel stressed, tense or anxious is in their behavior. You may see tears or crying, but very often, the signs aren't so obvious.
Often, these feelings show up as what you might call difficult or challenging behaviors. Whining, tattling, or not being able to play well alone or with a sibling. These are all early signs of a children's brains moving towards a flight or fright response.
If we respond harshly to these signals, we add friction. The child's behavior is likely to move further off-track, towards more challenging behavior.
If we can respond playfully, we have a small window to turnaround the behavior. The warmth we use in a playful response can restore a child's sense of connection and safety.
A playful response can be all that's needed to right things, without yelling, bribing or the need for rewards.
Why a playful response can feel hard when a child's behavior is challenging
We know that laughter has the power to break tension, but it can be the last tool we reach for in our parenting toolbox.
We take a while getting to play because often it requires a little creativity. A lightness. That can be hard to access when we're tired and thinking of all the yet-to-be-completed items on our to-do lists.
Responding so warmly, so casually, can feel like encouraging the behavior.
But play is a child's language. With a playful response we meet children where they are. We connect in the best way they know how.
When children are unwilling to co-operate and refuse simple tasks, you can be sure they have some pent up feelings. Laughter can lighten those tensions just as well.
In fact, in our 30 years of responding to children playfully, Hand in Hand Parenting has learned that you can even play around a specific subject to loosen it.
Read on to discover play ideas that will help with many common parenting challenges, including refusals to eat or dress, clinginess, bickering with siblings, even bedtime fears and fear of getting hair washed.
Play Responses for Parenting Challenges
These play ideas will help in challenges that most of us parents face, and most can be adapted to your specific situation. Almost all could be used in the moment to instantly lighten things, while others will work best played when things are calm and you want to play through a sticky issue.
Science says that letting children work through issues or feelings that bother them within the safety of play is one of the best ways we can promote their well-being while at the same time strengthening the parent-child relationship. Play builds confidence, play builds resilience, play builds connections.
Plan on games taking some time.
Kids love them. The more good they are doing, the better children feel and the more they will insist on playing.
15 Playful Responses to Everyday Parenting Challenges
When a child says no, gets very particular about certain routines, refuses to co-operate or acts silly when he attempts a task, he could be telling you he needs to connect. Try these connected play responses to turn things around.
1. Parenting Challenge: Doesn't Want To Share
Playful response: “It's Mine” – Take a toy yourself, wrap your arms around it, and declare, “It's mine.” If your child tackles you for it, give a good fight but ultimately let your child win. Hand in Hand Mom Kate Orson took a cuddly toy outdoors and threw it up in the air when her daughter had trouble sharing. The challenge was to grab the toy first and declare proudly, “It's mine!” before throwing it up again.
2. Parenting Challenge: Refuses to Eat
Playful response: Silly Voice – Put on a funny voice and be the food or drink at your child's setting. Go robot, opera singer or ghost, and beg them to eat, or not to eat the food.
3. Parenting Challenge: Won't Get Dressed
Playful response: Put it on Wrong – A good response is to try and put the clothes on yourself, or offer to ‘help' your child get dressed but do it all wrong. Underpants on heads get a particularly big laugh.
4. Parenting Challenge: Won't Tidy Up:
Playful response: Put it Away Wrong – Say, “I'll have to do it then, that's fine, and go ahead to put everything in the wrong place. Lego in the fridge, coloring pens under the sofa. Playdough stuck under the table. When your child insists you are doing it wrong, play confused? “Wrong?! This isn't wrong.”
5. Parenting Challenge: Won't Brush Teeth
Playful response: Clean Your Body – Pick up the tooth-brush and ask, “What's this? says Roma Norriss of Birthing a Better World, “a foot brush?” and playfully mime using the brush to brush your feet / hair / eyebrows. Children love to show how to brush your teeth for you – letting them brings on peals of laughter. After they get done say, “Your turn!”
6. Parenting Challenge: Won't Be Quiet
Playful response: Who's Loudest? – Play the loud/quiet game. Ask who's loudest and all go a few rounds. Next ask, “Who's quietest?” and have everyone whisper. Other questions include “Who's silliest?” “Who's singiest? “Who's highest or deepest?” Rinse and repeat.
7. Parenting Challenge: Hates Having Hair Washed
Playful response: The Great Hair Washing Machine – Become a hair-washing machine and give him a fun, automated voice. Mime out various instructions as you dictate them: Locate bottle. Twist cap. Pour. Rub shampoo in circles. Blow bubble. Rinse. If your child is giggling and having fun, you can even ‘slip up' and do something extra silly. Rub his back, not his hair, for instance.
8. Parenting Challenge: Constant Bickering and Disagreements with Siblings
Playful response: Here Ye! Family Meeting – Skye Munro of Nurturing Connections puts on her best mayor's voice and calls everyone to a family meeting. She bumbles around looking for something to ‘take notes' with (usually a carrot) and has each feuding sibling plead their case. “After listening to both children I will come up with a ridiculous outcome. If they are arguing over a particular toy I will announce “Whomever can stand on one leg with their eyes closed and finger on their left ear the longest shall be the rightful owner of the toy.” By this time there's almost always plenty of silliness and no surly faces.
9. Parenting Challenge: Acting Clingy
Playful response: Glue Pot – Try some role reversal ahead of time if this is a lasting challenge in your house says The Connected Parent‘s Rachel Schofield. Pretend to stick your child to you and see how they react. “Stick them on your hand or arm and go everywhere they go,” she says. Some children openly love the close contact, others will insist they become unstuck, and then you can be the one that gets upset while they enjoy the flip of power.
10. Parenting Challenge: Doesn't Want You To Leave
Playful response: Silly Mommy – Get ready to leave and then open a cupboard door or closet, and try to walk in. Fumble around trying different doors, as your child offers his or her suggestions to the right way. Keep making mistakes until they are really having fun and then have them help you open the door and bid you goodbye.
Five Playful Responses When Your Child Has Fears
Sometimes a one-time bad experience instills fear, and you'll see a real resistance from your child. These games bring laughter that helps loosen those bad feelings. Often tears help too, and you'll need to listen to them after the giggles. This is how a child's body works through emotions. If you can stay supportive and listen empathetically, resistance can all but disappear.
11. Parenting Challenge: Fear of Bedtime
Playful Response: Get To Bed – Children can get really unsettled by the dark and knowing they'll be parted from you until morning. A good dose of the giggles actually helps them settle down. Claire Rosina plays the Get To Bed game where she shuttles her three boys off to bed early and acts like a guard on duty at the door. “I brag that no one will get past me!” she says. “Then, after they’ve all escaped, I turn around and pretend to be very surprised that they’ve all gotten out again!” A chase through the house ensues until exhaustion sets in and the real going to bed routine takes over.
12. Parenting Challenge: Fear of Bugs
Playful Response: It's a Bug's Life – If a child is scared of bugs or bees, try impersonating one yourself. Gently crawl or buzz up, and then act scared of your child and move away again. Keep at it, until your child begins to laugh. You can tempt chase by saying playfully, “I hope no-one catches me or swats me.”
13. Parenting Challenge: Fear of Injections
Playful Response: Magic Shots – If you have shots coming up try injecting some fun into your play around the subject ahead of time. Muftiah Martin became a kind of “super mom” character when she and her child were playing shots with a doctor's sets. These “magic injections,” can make you fly, turn somersaults, go floppy – whatever brings out the laughter.
14. Parenting Challenge: Fear of Water
Playful Response: Cough, Cough, Splutter – Getting into the pool and “messing up” ahead of your child can really take the pressure off them. If they are slow to show-off their swimming technique for fear of ‘doing it wrong' you could fall in backwards and then yelp, cough and splutter – even better if they push you in.
15. Parenting Challenge: Fear of Change and Life's Big Questions
Playful Response: Powerful Playfights – Big changes or questions of life and death can leave children feeling powerless. Restore a sense of bravery and triumph with roughhousing games or play wrestling where your child overpowers you. Take on roles where you pretend to be an all powerful teacher or alien or whatever you think your child would like and proclaim your greatness, and then fumble around, trip or miss when you a within grasp of your child. Giving them power in play bolsters them during other times when they feel fear.
Adding in another play tool, Special Time, on a daily basis, where you appoint five or 10 minutes a day for play that they want to do, will serve to keep connections running high. This kind of play helps build strong trust into your relationship, keeping your child more secure in general and less prone to moving off-track.
Read A Free Chapter on Special Time from our book, Listen: Five Simple Tools to Meet Your Everyday Parenting Challenges