By Jessica Sinarski, LPCMH
Jessica Sinarski is a clinical supervisor, consultant, author, and educator. Her 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, click here. Her books Riley the Brave and Raily el valiente (Spanish edition) are available here with additional free resources for parents, teachers, and other caring adults. They’re also available on Amazon.
You know how it goes: one minute, the kids are calm and playful. The next minute, you’re thrown into a world of whining, complaining, and flat-out defiance. One particular night, it seemed everyone in my family was primed for full meltdowns, especially when I told my preschooler that he could not eat a granola bar for dinner.
Some nights, this tension would have continued until they were all asleep, with frustrations, consequences, and teeth-gritting for all of us. That night, however, I was able to “keep my lid on.” I scooped the preschooler up, flailing legs and all, and marched him out of the room. “You’re running even though your feet aren’t touching the ground!” I said, with humor in my voice. He looked at his legs and stopped screaming long enough for me to pretend to fly him into his room. At the edge of the bed, 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. The rest of the night felt like magic: He got ready for bed without complaint and fell asleep feeling happy and loved. It changed my night as well—instead of carrying frustration into the evening, I felt a cheery affection for my sweet, strong-willed son.
That night, and in many other high stress situations, I have come to learn that laughter really is the best medicine.
Pausing to Play
Think of the last time you were really frustrated with your child. As you envision that moment, are your thoughts racing to the negative? Do you feel any tension in your jaw or shoulders? Even now, distanced from that incident, your brain and body are producing a stress reaction. Over time, it can be easy to get stuck in this feeling of stress, making power struggles and conflict more likely. Pressing pause on that cycle is what made that evening with the stuffed animals possible.
Try it yourself: Take a deep breath in. Hold it while you let your forehead and jaw relax. Release your breath with a long exhale. 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! Pressing pause during a moment of frustration, or before things get heated—like before transitions or difficult conversations—can help you reverse the cycle of stress and approach the situation from a more playful perspective.
The Science of Playful Parenting
Once you’ve established some sense of calm, you can find new ways to engage the child with play and laughter—which can, in turn, help them escape the fight-or-flight thinking that results in challenging behaviors. In their book The Neurobiology of Attachment-Focused Therapy, psychologists Jon Baylin and Dan Hughes write, “Play appears to engage a cocktail of brain chemistry that helps make it a powerful social process.”
In short, the act of playing can help develop the prefrontal cortex, or the part of the brain associated with social skills, impulse control, creativity, and joy. Playing can also evoke laughter, which stimulates opioids and dopamine, chemicals in your brain that relax the body, reduce pain, and increase positive feelings. By playing and laughing, children and caregivers alike can lower stress, diffuse anger, and enhance cognitive function.
Putting it to the Test
Understanding why playful parenting is effective can make actually implementing such strategies in your day-to-day life a bit easier, but being playful and silly with your child might feel awkward or intimidating at first. In high-stress moments, it can be challenging to overcome your own intense emotions in favor of making a joke or playing a game. You might even feel like you’re letting your child get away with something or rewarding bad behavior. Maybe your own life experiences have made it hard to feel comfortable or confident looking “silly.”
That’s okay! While it may take more energy at first, playful parenting is often more effective and rewarding in the long run. Start small and work your way up. Some ideas to begin incorporating play in your day-to-day are:
- Using rhythm and rhyme to bring the child back to the present in high-stress moments or to remind the child of certain instructions. This can be done by singing or with counting games. If your child is in school, ask them to share some of the songs they might sing with their teachers during various activities.
- Challenging the child to a playful race to accomplish a specific task.
- Establishing a team mentality. As a family, have a team name and use that name when you are trying to get things done. For example, the Smith family might call themselves the “Super-Smiths.” When it’s time for a boring task like cleaning up or getting in the car, the parent can help motivate kids with an enthusiastic, “Go, Team Super-Smiths!”
- Creating a silly code word (think: “Purple Pumpkins”) for challenging behavior. If the child starts engaging in that behavior (like whining, for example), use the silly code word to remind them to stop rather than getting stern or using punishments.
- Talking in a goofy voice or creating a silly character.
- Engaging in sensory play, like bear crawling, crab walking, or hopping to bed.
A sweet way to enter the world of playful parenting is the “love mark.” If your child faces a scary transition, extended time away from you, or fear of separation, 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 day, even when you’re separate.
Play and laughter help to de-stress brains of all ages. For teens, in addition to some of the ideas above, consider:
- Inserting humor into high-stress situations (when appropriate).
- Looking for opportunities to make and share inside jokes.
- Taking the time to play physical games, like sports or other organized activities.
- Remembering to listen to or engage with the music, television, or social life of the child, and seeking opportunities where the child feels comfortable enough to share.
Most of all, develop a sense of humor about yourself and the mistakes you might make. Being playful with ourselves builds better connections in our adult brains, something we all need as we face the challenging task of parenting!
For more ideas on how to incorporate play into parenting, follow @rileythebrave on Facebook and Instagram and check out our #playfulTuesday posts.