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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Anxiety is a sign that the brain has registered threat and is mobilising the body to get to safety. One of the ways it does this is by organising the body for movement - to fight the danger or flee the danger. 

If there is no need or no opportunity for movement, that fight or flight fuel will still be looking for expression. This can come out as wriggly, fidgety, hyperactive behaviour. This is why any of us might pace or struggle to sit still when we’re anxious. 

If kids or teens are bouncing around, wriggling in their chairs, or having trouble sitting still, it could be anxiety. Remember with anxiety, it’s not about what is actually safe but about what the brain perceives. New or challenging work, doing something unfamiliar, too much going on, a tired or hungry body, anything that comes with any chance of judgement, failure, humiliation can all throw the brain into fight or flight.

When this happens, the body might feel busy, activated, restless. This in itself can drive even more anxiety in kids or teens. Any of us can struggle when we don’t feel comfortable in our own bodies. 

Anxiety is energy with nowhere to go. To move through anxiety, give the energy somewhere to go - a fast walk, a run, a whole-body shake, hula hooping, kicking a ball - any movement that spends the energy will help bring the brain and body back to calm.♥️
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#parenting #anxietyinkids #childanxiety #parenting #parent
This is not bad behaviour. It’s big behaviour a from a brain that has registered threat and is working hard to feel safe again. 

‘Threat’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what the brain perceives. The brain can perceive threat when there is any chance missing out on or messing up something important, anything that feels unfamiliar, hard, or challenging, feeling misunderstood, thinking you might be angry or disappointed with them, being separated from you, being hungry or tired, anything that pushes against their sensory needs - so many things. 

During anxiety, the amygdala in the brain is switched to high volume, so other big feelings will be too. This might look like tears, sadness, or anger. 

Big feelings have a good reason for being there. The amygdala has the very important job of keeping us safe, and it does this beautifully, but not always with grace. One of the ways the amygdala keeps us safe is by calling on big feelings to recruit social support. When big feelings happen, people notice. They might not always notice the way we want to be noticed, but we are noticed. This increases our chances of safety. 

Of course, kids and teens still need our guidance and leadership and the conversations that grow them, but not during the emotional storm. They just won’t hear you anyway because their brain is too busy trying to get back to safety. In that moment, they don’t want to be fixed or ‘grown’. They want to feel seen, safe and heard. 

During the storm, preserve your connection with them as much as you can. You might not always be able to do this, and that’s okay. None of this is about perfection. If you have a rupture, repair it as soon as you can. Then, when their brains and bodies come back to calm, this is the time for the conversations that will grow them. 

Rather than, ‘What consequences do they need to do better?’, shift to, ‘What support do they need to do better?’ The greatest support will come from you in a way they can receive: ‘What happened?’ ‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘You’re the most wonderful kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen. How can you put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
Big behaviour is a sign of a nervous system in distress. Before anything, that vulnerable nervous system needs to be brought back home to felt safety. 

This will happen most powerfully with relationship and connection. Breathe and be with. Let them know you get it. This can happen with words or nonverbals. It’s about feeling what they feel, but staying regulated.

If they want space, give them space but stay in emotional proximity, ‘Ok I’m just going to stay over here. I’m right here if you need.’

If they’re using spicy words to make sure there is no confusion about how they feel about you right now, flag the behaviour, then make your intent clear, ‘I know how upset you are and I want to understand more about what’s happening for you. I’m not going to do this while you’re speaking to me like this. You can still be mad, but you need to be respectful. I’m here for you.’

Think of how you would respond if a friend was telling you about something that upset her. You wouldn’t tell her to calm down, or try to fix her (she’s not broken), or talk to her about her behaviour. You would just be there. You would ‘drop an anchor’ and steady those rough seas around her until she feels okay enough again. Along the way you would be doing things that let her know your intent to support her. You’d do this with you facial expressions, your voice, your body, your posture. You’d feel her feels, and she’d feel you ‘getting her’. It’s about letting her know that you understand what she’s feeling, even if you don’t understand why (or agree with why). 

It’s the same for our children. As their important big people, they also need leadership. The time for this is after the storm has passed, when their brains and bodies feel safe and calm. Because of your relationship, connection and their felt sense of safety, you will have access to their ‘thinking brain’. This is the time for those meaningful conversations: 
- ‘What happened?’
- ‘What did I do that helped/ didn’t help?’
- ‘What can you do differently next time?’
- ‘You’re a great kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen, but here we are. What can you do to put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
As children grow, and especially by adolescence, we have the illusion of control but whether or not we have any real influence will be up to them. The temptation to control our children will always come from a place of love. Fear will likely have a heavy hand in there too. When they fall, we’ll feel it. Sometimes it will feel like an ache in our core. Sometimes it will feel like failure or guilt, or anger. We might wish we could have stopped them, pushed a little harder, warned a little bigger, stood a little closer. We’re parents and we’re human and it’s what this parenting thing does. It makes fear and anxiety billow around us like lost smoke, too easily.

Remember, they want you to be proud of them, and they want to do the right thing. When they feel your curiosity over judgement, and the safety of you over shame, it will be easier for them to open up to you. Nobody will guide them better than you because nobody will care more about where they land. They know this, but the magic happens when they also know that you are safe and that you will hold them, their needs, their opinions and feelings with strong, gentle, loving hands, no matter what.♥️
Anger is the ‘fight’ part of the fight or flight response. It has important work to do. Anger never exists on its own. It exists to hold other more vulnerable emotions in a way that feels safer. It’s sometimes feels easier, safer, more acceptable, stronger to feel the ‘big’ that comes with anger, than the vulnerability that comes with anxiety, sadness, loneliness. This isn’t deliberate. It’s just another way our bodies and brains try to keep us safe. 

The problem isn’t the anger. The problem is the behaviour that can come with the anger. Let there be no limits on thoughts and feelings, only behaviour. When children are angry, as long as they are safe and others are safe, we don’t need to fix their anger. They aren’t broken. Instead, drop the anchor: as much as you can - and this won’t always be easy - be a calm, steadying, loving presence to help bring their nervous systems back home to calm. 

Then, when they are truly calm, and with love and leadership, have the conversations that will grow them - 
- What happened? 
- What can you do differently next time?
- You’re a really great kid. I know you didn’t want this to happen but here we are. How can you make things right. Would you like some ideas? Do you need some help with that?
- What did I do that helped? What did I do that didn’t help? Is there something that might feel more helpful next time?

When their behaviour falls short of ‘adorable’, rather than asking ‘What consequences they need to do better?’ let the question be, ‘What support do they need to do better.’ Often, the biggest support will be a conversation with you, and that will be enough.♥️
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#parenting #positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #anxietyinkids

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