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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The temptation to fix their big feelings can be seismic. Often this is connected to needing to ease our own discomfort at their discomfort, which is so very normal.

Big feelings in them are meant to raise (sometimes big) feelings in us. This is all a healthy part of the attachment system. It happens to mobilise us to respond to their distress, or to protect them if their distress is in response to danger.

Emotion is energy in motion. We don’t want to bury it, stop it, smother it, and we don’t need to fix it. What we need to do is make a safe passage for it to move through them. 

Think of emotion like a river. Our job is to hold the ground strong and steady at the banks so the river can move safely, without bursting the banks.

However hard that river is racing, they need to know we can be with the river (the emotion), be with them, and handle it. This might feel or look like you aren’t doing anything, but actually it’s everything.

The safety that comes from you being the strong, steady presence that can lovingly contain their big feelings will let the emotional energy move through them and bring the brain back to calm.

Eventually, when they have lots of experience of us doing this with them, they will learn to do it for themselves, but that will take time and experience. The experience happens every time you hold them steady through their feelings. 

This doesn’t mean ignoring big behaviour. For them, this can feel too much like bursting through the banks, which won’t feel safe. Sometimes you might need to recall the boundary and let them know where the edges are, while at the same time letting them see that you can handle the big of the feeling. Its about loving and leading all at once. ‘It’s okay to be angry. It’s not okay to use those words at me.’

Ultimately, big feelings are a call for support. Sometimes support looks like breathing and being with. Sometimes it looks like showing them you can hold the boundary, even when they feel like they’re about to burst through it. And if they’re using spicy words to get us to back off, it might look like respecting their need for space but staying in reaching distance, ‘Ok, I’m right here whenever you need.’♥️
We all need certain things to feel safe enough to put ourselves into the world. Kids with anxiety have magic in them, every one of them, but until they have a felt sense of safety, it will often stay hidden.

‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what they feel. At school, they might have the safest, most loving teacher in the safest, most loving school. This doesn’t mean they will feel enough relational safety straight away that will make it easier for them to do hard things. They can still do those hard things, but those things are going to feel bigger for a while. This is where they’ll need us and their other anchor adult to be patient, gentle, and persistent.

Children aren’t meant to feel safe with and take the lead from every adult. It’s not the adult’s role that makes the difference, but their relationship with the child.

Children are no different to us. Just because an adult tells them they’ll be okay, it doesn’t mean they’ll feel it or believe it. What they need is to be given time to actually experience the person as being safe, supportive and ready to catch them.

Relationship is key. The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains in our way. When we feel someone really caring about us, we’re more likely to open up to their influence
and learn from them.

But we have to be patient. Even for teachers with big hearts and who undertand the importance of attachment relationships, it can take time.

Any adult at school can play an important part in helping a child feel safe – as long as that adult is loving, warm, and willing to do the work to connect with that child. It might be the librarian, the counsellor, the office person, a teacher aide. It doesn’t matter who, as long as it is someone who can be available for that child at dropoff or when feelings get big during the day and do little check-ins along the way.

A teacher, or any important adult can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
There is a beautiful ‘everythingness’ in all of us. The key to living well is being able to live flexibly and more deliberately between our edges.

So often though, the ‘shoulds’ and ‘should nots’ we inhale in childhood and as we grow, lead us to abandon some of those precious, needed parts of us. ‘Don’t be angry/ selfish/ shy/ rude. She’s not a maths person.’ ‘Don’t argue.’ Ugh.

Let’s make sure our children don’t cancel parts of themselves. They are everything, but not always all at once. They can be anxious and brave. Strong and soft. Angry and calm. Big and small. Generous and self-ish. Some things they will find hard, and they can do hard things. None of these are wrong ways to be. What trips us up is rigidity, and only ever responding from one side of who we can be.

We all have extremes or parts we favour. This is what makes up the beautiful, complex, individuality of us. We don’t need to change this, but the more we can open our children to the possibility in them, the more options they will have in responding to challenges, the everyday, people, and the world. 

We can do this by validating their ‘is’ without needing them to be different for a while in the moment, and also speaking to the other parts of them when we can. 

‘Yes maths is hard, and I know you can do hard things. How can I help?’

‘I can see how anxious you feel. That’s so okay. I also know you have brave in you.’

‘I love your ‘big’ and the way you make us laugh. You light up the room.’ And then at other times: ‘It can be hard being in a room with new people can’t it. It’s okay to be quiet. I could see you taking it all in.’

‘It’s okay to want space from people. Sometimes you just want your things and yourself for yourself, hey. I feel like that sometimes too. I love the way you know when you need this.’ And then at other times, ‘You looked like you loved being with your friends today. I loved watching you share.’

The are everything, but not all at once. Our job is to help them live flexibly and more deliberately between the full range of who they are and who they can be: anxious/brave; kind/self-ish; focussed inward/outward; angry/calm. This will take time, and there is no hurry.♥️
For our kids and teens, the new year will bring new adults into their orbit. With this, comes new opportunities to be brave and grow their courage - but it will also bring anxiety. For some kiddos, this anxiety will feel so big, but we can help them feel bigger.

The antidote to a felt sense of threat is a felt sense of safety. As long as they are actually safe, we can facilitate this by nurturing their relationship with the important adults who will be caring for them, whether that’s a co-parent, a stepparent, a teacher, a coach. 

There are a number of ways we can facilitate this:

- Use the name of their other adult (such as a teacher) regularly, and let it sound loving and playful on your voice.
- Let them see that you have an open, willing heart in relation to the other adult.
- Show them you trust the other adult to care for them (‘I know Mrs Smith is going to take such good care of you.’)
- Facilitate familiarity. As much as you can, hand your child to the same person when you drop them off.

It’s about helping expand their village of loving adults. The wider this village, the bigger their world in which they can feel brave enough. 

For centuries before us, it was the village that raised children. Parenting was never meant to be done by one or two adults on their own, yet our modern world means that this is how it is for so many of us. 

We can bring the village back though - and we must - by helping our kiddos feel safe, known, and held by the adults around them. We need this for each other too.

The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains that block our way.♥️

That power of felt safety matters for all relationships - parent and child; other adult and child; parent and other adult. It all matters. 

A teacher, or any important adult in the life of a child, can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child (and their parent) so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, I care about you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
Approval, independence, autonomy, are valid needs for all of us. When a need is hungry enough we will be driven to meet it however we can. For our children, this might look like turning away from us and towards others who might be more ready to meet the need, or just taking.

If they don’t feel they can rest in our love, leadership, approval, they will seek this more from peers. There is no problem with this, but we don’t want them solely reliant on peers for these. It can make them vulnerable to making bad decisions, so as not to lose the approval or ‘everythingness’ of those peers.

If we don’t give enough freedom, they might take that freedom through defiance, secrecy, the forbidden. If we control them, they might seek more to control others, or to let others make the decisions that should be theirs.

All kids will mess up, take risks, keep secrets, and do things that baffle us sometimes. What’s important is, ‘Do they turn to us when they need to, enough?’ The ‘turning to’ starts with trusting that we are interested in supporting all their needs, not just the ones that suit us. Of course this doesn’t mean we will meet every need. It means we’ve shown them that their needs are important to us too, even though sometimes ours will be bigger (such as our need to keep them safe).

They will learn safe and healthy ways to meet their needs, by first having them met by us. This doesn’t mean granting full independence, full freedom, and full approval. What it means is holding them safely while also letting them feel enough of our approval, our willingness to support their independence, freedom, autonomy, and be heard on things that matter to them.

There’s no clear line with this. Some days they’ll want independence. Some days they won’t. Some days they’ll seek our approval. Some days they won’t care for it at all, especially if it means compromising the approval of peers. The challenge for us is knowing when to hold them closer and when to give space, when to hold the boundary and when to release it a little, when to collide and when to step out of the way. If we watch and listen, they will show us. And just like them, we won’t need to get it right all the time.♥️

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