Playful Parenting Builds Better Brains: 10 Tools For Success

“Therefore, to play like a child, bungle. Blunder. Stumble. Be unable to figure out why the square piece won’t fit in the round hole. Risk looking silly, sing, fall over. Exaggerate everything. Lighten up. Try to have fun.” ~ From Playful Parenting by Lawrence J. Cohen, Ph.D.

My son loves these melty beads. He is a busy 4-year-old, but he will work diligently for days to make his masterpieces. This is his “beautiful square.” There’s something precious about hearing your child describe something s/he did as beautiful.

Fast forward from that sweet moment to a tough night of solo parenting my three children. (Let me pause here to honor all the single mamas and papas doing this difficult job every single day!) You all know how this goes: lots of whining, complaining and flat-out defiance. Everyone was primed for full meltdown, especially when I told that same temporarily-not-so-sweet preschooler that he could not, in fact, eat a granola bar for dinner. The “beautiful square” was sitting within eyesight, and my angry little guy grabbed it, ready to break it in half.

Some nights, the tension would have continued until they were all asleep. A series of frustrations, consequences and gritting my teeth to get through snuggle time. That night, however, I was able to “keep my lid on,” as Dan Siegel would say.

I scooped him up, flailing legs and all, and marched him out of the room. With a little silliness in my voice, I said, “You’re running even though your feet aren’t touching the ground!” He looked at his legs and stopped screaming long enough for me to pretend to fly him into his room, where he promptly remembered he was still mad. We were at the edge of his bed, and I started to make his stuffed animals jump around and talk to him. Before long, stuffed animals were flying everywhere, and we were both laughing and having a great time together. It was magical. He got ready for bed without complaint, and he went to bed feeling happy and loved. It changed my night as well. Instead of carrying frustration into the evening, I had a smile on my face and affection in my heart for my strong-willed little one.

Were your parents ever playful like this with you? If not, it can feel awkward or intimidating to try. You might even feel like you’re letting your child get away with something, or rewarding bad behavior. Actually, playful parenting can save your sanity and help build healthy connections in your child’s brain.

How playfulness can build healthy brains.

In their book The Neurobiology of Attachment-Focused Therapy, psychologists Baylin and Hughes write, “Play appears to engage a cocktail of brain chemistry that helps make it a powerful social process.” They further explain that play promotes brain development, especially in the crucial prefrontal cortex or “upstairs brain,” which is the home of executive functioning, healthy social skills, impulse control, creativity and joy. I don’t know about you, but we could use more of all those things in my family!

In many ways, laughter really is the best medicine. Neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp found that laughter stimulates feel-good chemicals in the brain (opioids and dopamine). Laughter relaxes the body, reduces pain, increases positive feelings and improves relationships. Playfulness and laughter help caregivers stay in “upstairs brain” mode by lowering stress and diffusing anger. Play has been shown to enhance cognitive function in adults as well as kids! Therefore, when you choose playful parenting, not only are you nurturing healthy connections in your child’s brain, but your brain will reap the benefit as well.

How to playfully parent. Some ideas …

Parenting is hard work. While it may take more energy at first, playful parenting is often more effective, and rewarding, in the long run. Here are some ideas to get you started:

  • Sing.
  • Use counting games, rhythm and rhyme – watch a good pre-school or elementary teacher to learn from the masters.
  • Be a team.
  • Race each other (playfully) to get things done.
  • Set up a code word for repeat challenges. For example, if your child frequently whines about an activity, set up a silly code word like “purple pumpkins” that you can say when the whining starts instead of trying to reason or getting angry.
  • Talk in a silly or exaggerated voice.
  • Incorporate sensory play. For example, when it’s time to get ready for bed, bear crawl, crab walk or hop like kangaroos toward the bedroom with your child.
  • Don’t take yourself too seriously.

And another idea – the ‘love mark’.

Not everyone feels comfortable or confident in their ability to be a playful parent. Remember, play doesn’t always have to be silly. You can try starting small, like using a little playful tactic called the “love mark.” To do this with your child, offer a marker or two and let your child draw on your hand, wrist, shoulder – wherever you feel comfortable. You can then draw on them with the same marker and remind them that you both have a little piece of each other all day, even when you’re separated. Follow @rileythebrave on Facebook and Instagram for more ideas with our #playfultuesday posts.

Playful parenting with teens.

Remember, playfulness isn’t just for kids! With teens, you might just inject a little humor, like “I know, I’m just so mean! I want you to leave your phone on the counter and deprive you of all the fun in your life. It’s almost like I want you to get enough sleep and not be addicted to electronics. Ugh, just the worst.” This is a more effective method of letting your teens know why you set limits than launching into a lecture, which they won’t hear anyway. Quick caution: be sure your tone is light-hearted and not sarcastic or you won’t get quite the same effect.

When stress gets in the way.

Take a moment to think of the last time you were really frustrated with your child. Are your thoughts racing to the negative? Do you feel any tension in your jaw or shoulders? Your brain and body can get stuck in a cycle of stress that makes power struggles and conflict more likely. Let’s press pause on that cycle!

  1. Take a deep breath in.
  2. Hold it while let your forehead and jaw relax.
  3. Release your breath with a long exhale.
  4. Let your cheeks turn up in a little smile.

What do you notice? In that 10-second exercise, you sent powerful signals to your brain and body that it doesn’t have to be in fight-or-flight mode! Just think how you would feel if you did that every day, or several times a day! Besides pressing pause during a moment of frustration, it’s also helpful before things get heated, like before transitions or difficult conversations, after school and any time you need a little reset for your mind and body. The more you practice, not only will you feel calmer, but you’ll be modeling a powerful self-regulation tool for your child.

Finally …

You’re not always going to feel like being playful. Some nights, neutral is the best you can muster. Take a breath, remind yourself that it’s okay to stumble, and then try again. Maybe you’ll be able to turn meltdown central into a super-fun stuffed animal fight too. If not, at least you can have some fun trying.


About the Author: Jessica Sinarski, LPCMH

Jessica Sinarski, LPCMH is a clinical supervisor, consultant, author and educator. She is a thought-leader in connecting neuroscience with practice in adult-child relationships. Areas of expertise include trauma-informed care, child development and brain-based practices. Jessica has trained thousands of parents and professionals across the country. For more information and a list of recent workshops, visit www.JSinarski.com. Her books Riley the Brave and Raily el valiente (Spanish edition) are available on RileytheBrave.org with additional free resources for parents, teachers and other caring adults. Also available on Amazon.com.

 

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How we are with them, when they are their everyday selves and when they aren’t so adorable, will build their view of three things: the world, its people, and themselves. This will then inform how they respond to the world and how they build their very important space in it. 

Will it be a loving, warm, open-hearted space with lots of doors for them to throw open to the people and experiences that are right for them? Or will it be a space with solid, too high walls that close out too many of the people and experiences that would nourish them.

They will learn from what we do with them and to them, for better or worse. We don’t teach them that the world is safe for them to reach into - we show them. We don’t teach them to be kind, respectful, and compassionate. We show them. We don’t teach them that they matter, and that other people matter, and that their voices and their opinions matter. We show them. We don’t teach them that they are little joy mongers who light up the world. We show them. 

But we have to be radically kind with ourselves too. None of this is about perfection. Parenting is hard, and days will be hard, and on too many of those days we’ll be hard too. That’s okay. We’ll say things we shouldn’t say and do things we shouldn’t do. We’re human too. Let’s not put pressure on our kiddos to be perfect by pretending that we are. As long as we repair the ruptures as soon as we can, and bathe them in love and the warmth of us as much as we can, they will be okay.

This also isn’t about not having boundaries. We need to be the guardians of their world and show them where the edges are. But in the guarding of those boundaries we can be strong and loving, strong and gentle. We can love them, and redirect their behaviour.

It’s when we own our stuff(ups) and when we let them see us fall and rise with strength, integrity, and compassion, and when we hold them gently through the mess of it all, that they learn about humility, and vulnerability, and the importance of holding bruised hearts with tender hands. It’s not about perfection, it’s about consistency, and honesty, and the way we respond to them the most.♥️

#parenting #mindfulparenting
Anxiety and courage always exist together. It can be no other way. Anxiety is a call to courage. It means you're about to do something brave, so when there is one the other will be there too. Their courage might feel so small and be whisper quiet, but it will always be there and always ready to show up when they need it to.
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But courage doesn’t always feel like courage, and it won't always show itself as a readiness. Instead, it might show as a rising - from fear, from uncertainty, from anger. None of these mean an absence of courage. They are the making of space, and the opportunity for courage to rise.
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When the noise from anxiety is loud and obtuse, we’ll have to gently add our voices to usher their courage into the light. We can do this speaking of it and to it, and by shifting the focus from their anxiety to their brave. The one we focus on is ultimately what will become powerful. It will be the one we energise. Anxiety will already have their focus, so we’ll need to make sure their courage has ours.
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But we have to speak to their fear as well, in a way that makes space for it to be held and soothed, with strength. Their fear has an important job to do - to recruit the support of someone who can help them feel safe. Only when their fear has been heard will it rest and make way for their brave.
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What does this look like? Tell them their stories of brave, but acknowledge the fear that made it tough. Stories help them process their emotional experiences in a safe way. It brings word to the feelings and helps those big feelings make sense and find containment. ‘You were really worried about that exam weren’t you. You couldn’t get to sleep the night before. It was tough going to school but you got up, you got dressed, you ... and you did it. Then you ...’
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In the moment, speak to their brave by first acknowledging their need to flee (or fight), then tell them what you know to be true - ‘This feels scary for you doesn’t it. I know you want to run. It makes so much sense that you would want to do that. I also know you can do hard things. My darling, I know it with everything in me.’
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#positiveparenting #parenting #childanxiety #anxietyinchildren #mindfulpare
Separation anxiety has an important job to do - it’s designed to keep children safe by driving them to stay close to their important adults. Gosh it can feel brutal sometimes though.

Whenever there is separation from an attachment person there will be anxiety unless there are two things: attachment with another trusted, loving adult; and a felt sense of you holding on, even when you aren't beside them. Putting these in place will help soften anxiety.

As long as children are are in the loving care of a trusted adult, there's no need to avoid separation. We'll need to remind ourselves of this so we can hold on to ourselves when our own anxiety is rising in response to theirs. 

If separation is the problem, connection has to be the solution. The connection can be with any loving adult, but it's more than an adult being present. It needs an adult who, through their strong, warm, loving presence, shows the child their abundant intention to care for that child, and their joy in doing so. This can be helped along by showing that you trust the adult to love that child big in our absence. 'I know [important adult] loves you and is going to take such good care of you.'

To help your young one feel held on to by you, even in absence, let them know you'll be thinking of them and can't wait to see them. Bolster this by giving them something of yours to hold while you're gone - a scarf, a note - anything that will be felt as 'you'.

They know you are the one who makes sure their world is safe, so they’ll be looking to you for signs of safety: 'Do you think we'll be okay if we aren't together?' First, validate: 'You really want to stay with me, don't you. I wish I could stay with you too! It's hard being away from your special people isn't it.' Then, be their brave. Let it be big enough to wrap around them so they can rest in the safety and strength of it: 'I know you can do this, love. We can do hard things can't we.'

Part of growing up brave is learning that the presence of anxiety doesn't always mean something is wrong. Sometimes it means they are on the edge of brave - and being away from you for a while counts as brave.
Even the most loving, emotionally available adult might feel frustration, anger, helplessness or distress in response to a child’s big feelings. This is how it’s meant to work. 

Their distress (fight/flight) will raise distress in us. The purpose is to move us to protect or support or them, but of course it doesn’t always work this way. When their big feelings recruit ours it can drive us more to fight (anger, blame), or to flee (avoid, ignore, separate them from us) which can steal our capacity to support them. It will happen to all of us from time to time. 

Kids and teens can’t learn to manage big feelings on their own until they’ve done it plenty of times with a calm, loving adult. This is where co-regulation comes in. It helps build the vital neural pathways between big feelings and calm. They can’t build those pathways on their own. 

It’s like driving a car. We can tell them how to drive as much as we like, but ‘talking about’ won’t mean they’re ready to hit the road by themselves. Instead we sit with them in the front seat for hours, driving ‘with’ until they can do it on their own. Feelings are the same. We feel ‘with’, over and over, until they can do it on their own. 

What can help is pausing for a moment to see the behaviour for what it is - a call for support. It’s NOT bad behaviour or bad parenting. It’s not that.

Our own feelings can give us a clue to what our children are feeling. It’s a normal, healthy, adaptive way for them to share an emotional load they weren’t meant to carry on their own. Self-regulation makes space for us to hold those feelings with them until those big feelings ease. 

Self-regulation can happen in micro moments. First, see the feelings or behaviour for what it is - a call for support. Then breathe. This will calm your nervous system, so you can calm theirs. In the same way we will catch their distress, they will also catch ours - but they can also catch our calm. Breathe, validate, and be ‘with’. And you don’t need to do more than that.
When things feel hard or the world feels big, children will be looking to their important adults for signs of safety. They will be asking, ‘Do you think I'm safe?' 'Do you think I can do this?' With everything in us, we have to send the message, ‘Yes! Yes love, this is hard and you are safe. You can do hard things.'

Even if we believe they are up to the challenge, it can be difficult to communicate this with absolute confidence. We love them, and when they're distressed, we're going to feel it. Inadvertently, we can align with their fear and send signals of danger, especially through nonverbals. 

What they need is for us to align with their 'brave' - that part of them that wants to do hard things and has the courage to do them. It might be small but it will be there. Like a muscle, courage strengthens with use - little by little, but the potential is always there.

First, let them feel you inside their world, not outside of it. This lets their anxious brain know that support is here - that you see what they see and you get it. This happens through validation. It doesn't mean you agree. It means that you see what they see, and feel what they feel. Meet the intensity of their emotion, so they can feel you with them. It can come off as insincere if your nonverbals are overly calm in the face of their distress. (Think a zen-like low, monotone voice and neutral face - both can be read as threat by an anxious brain). Try:

'This is big for you isn't it!' 
'It's awful having to do things you haven't done before. What you are feeling makes so much sense. I'd feel the same!

Once they really feel you there with them, then they can trust what comes next, which is your felt belief that they will be safe, and that they can do hard things. 

Even if things don't go to plan, you know they will cope. This can be hard, especially because it is so easy to 'catch' their anxiety. When it feels like anxiety is drawing you both in, take a moment, breathe, and ask, 'Do I believe in them, or their anxiety?' Let your answer guide you, because you know your young one was built for big, beautiful things. It's in them. Anxiety is part of their move towards brave, not the end of it.

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