“I’ve tried everything” is the most common phrase shared by parents when they come and see me. Discussing aggression, uncooperative behaviour, tantrums and meltdowns, defiance, school refusals, anxiety, and even sleep issues, and toilet training. As we discuss all the strategies that these families have attempted I nod in understanding, so many have tried: rewards, charts, bribes, chores, ignoring the behaviour, explanations, “lecturing,” begging, punishments, time outs, loss of privileges, incentives, and often resorting to interventions like yelling because they feel like they have no other option.
It most certainly looks and feels like you’ve tried everything. It’s a pretty exhaustive list, let’s face it, but it isn’t quite “everything,” just the “everything” that is most common.
So, what do I offer as an alternative?
A few things, but the one I want to focus on today is my most beloved approach: Play.
Play is a child’s natural state of being in the world. From the first moment that they flap their little arms at you in excitement, a child begins to play; and continues to play for the rest of their lives (yes even as adults we use to play, it just looks different and may not be instantly recognisable as play).
“Time is a game played beautifully by children.” ― Heraclitus, Fragments
It is how they learn, how they make sense of the world and their experiences in it, how they build relationships, how they develop skills, how they communicate, and even how they regulate. Play is unbelievably powerful in the world of children, and the least most utilised tool by parents; because as parents we have often been made to believe, and to feel, like we have to instruct children in how to be in our world, instead of becoming involved in theirs.
If you ever observe your child play, as I am sure many of you have and become curious about what lays behind the play, you will notice intention, need, and processing. A child playing hide and seek, for instance, laughs when discovering you, or is eager to be the one YOU cannot find; while giggling as you “miss” their oh so clever hidey-hole. A seemingly innocent game played in households all over the world, “hides” a hidden need; to makes sense of, understand, and become ok with separation. A game I often recommend, and its variations, to parents whose children struggle with separation anxiety. Played before and after school, this timeless classic, helps children to heal from their experiences through laughter, and connection, via the medium of play. Something no amount of bribes, begging, or explanations can ever hope to achieve.
How To Use Play
Ok, so you may be thinking “that is all well and good, but what am I supposed to do when my child refuses to get dressed or hits when they don’t get their way?” I’m glad you asked. My answer is still to play but to use different TYPES of play.
According to the work of Aletha Solter, PhD, there are nine different kinds of play she has identified as a part of her Attachment Play framework. They are as follows:
A category for almost any challenge you could come across as a parent (there is only one occasion when I would not recommend play, but we will get to that). So, here is how it works.
Firstly, interpret the behaviour, find the need.
Behaviour is a form of communication. It is not something that exists independently from any function, and it is not simply related to “attention” or “manipulation” as it is so often made out to be; actually, behaviour is needs-based. Let’s look at it this way, a child begins to explore the relationship of cause and effect at about eight months of age, it is from this time that your little one may engage in behaviours repeatedly, and some may be very frustrating. For instance, whilst in the highchair, your little tot might begin to throw spoons, food, and bowls on the ground. Despite your admonishes, your repeated phrase of “no throwing,” or attempts to show him what to do with the food, he keeps going, until you feel forced to resort to lifting him out of the said chair where he wails in protest. Some may tell you he is only doing it for “attention,” or maybe something a little more practical such as “he doesn’t like the food” (which is a possibility), but in all reality, it is more likely his NEED to learn and explore, that drives this behaviour.
It is like this for the majority of behaviour, and as parents, it is then left to us to take up the role of “interpreter.” After all, it is highly unlikely that a child will say “mum I am feeling really upset and lonely since the arrival of the new baby, even though you tell me I’m a ‘big girl now’ I still need to feel like I’m your baby too, and when I climb on your lap using baby talk, I am trying to use regressive play to meet this need.” Most adults struggle to communicate this way, identified feeling linked to need, illustrated by behaviour.
Next, meet the need through play
After we understand where the need may be coming from, such as the arrival of a new sibling and needing reassurance, you can use one of the nine types of play to meet the need. In this instance, it would be regressive play, a type of play that allows children to “regress” to a younger age or stage of development to feel reassured and allow confidence to be fostered further. Commonly, children will attempt to engage in this type of play in a few different scenarios, not just the one outlined. For instance, after meeting a big milestone (such as being toilet trained), starting school, after moving rooms/beds, or even moving to a new house. The difference between regressive play and “babying” is that regressive play is done within the moment of play. Once over, the dynamic returns to one that is age appropriate. “Babying” on the other hand is when we inhibit children from developing independence by not allowing them to do things for themselves for fear of how they may feel at failing, or because we have a desire to keep them in babyhood, most of the time; not just in play.
What about a time where your child asks you for something, you set a limit, and then they hit you?
This is a dynamic which speaks to the issue of power and powerlessness. Children, by virtue of being children, don’t experience a great deal of power in their own little lives. This, of course, increases with time, but until they are adults it is always limited. For example, a child does not get to determine whether or not they have to go grocery shopping with you, when to have their clothes changed, what to eat for dinner, who is coming over for a visit, whether or not they need to see a doctor, and so on. Many day to day experiences can be ones where a child can, inevitably, feel powerless.
There isn’t a great deal we can do about a lot of those moments. Attending an appointment for example or needing to take medication. These things need to happen, and yes children will feel powerless about them. This can then lead to disobedient, uncooperative, and even aggressive behaviour. But why? What is the need?
The need a child has in the aftermath of these experiences is the need to be powerful; and yes, they may hit. Not because they are actively thinking “if I hit then I get what I want,” but because they have entered a stressful state (being denied whatever they are wanting/needing at that moment), they do not have the ability to delay gratification (depending on age), they become reactive, and the very minuscule amount of control they have, flies out of the window. The research tells us that to react punitively, particularly with hitting or yelling, will increase incidences of aggression and uncooperative behaviour (among other things) over time. Ignoring the behaviour often does not work and may parents (as indicated at the beginning of the article) explain that all other avenues do not often appear to have any effect. So, what is to be done?
Enter, power-reversal games. A favourite of mine.
This is where you engage in play where your child plays the “authority” figure. They may be faster, stronger, smarter, or in charge; whatever it is, they are “better” than you. The parent takes on the role of the “incompetent” bumbler, clumsy, dumb, slow, and/or weak (remember its play, so overacting is highly recommended). This kind of play allows your child to deal with their frustration through their natural language, deal with powerlessness through laughter and connection, and learn alternatives in an emotionally safe and validating way. For instance, you might engage in “roughhousing” play and let them knock you over (maybe setting a limit on the amount of force used, or where they can “get” you). However, a lot of people may feel uncomfortable with that, which is ok, so you might use another timeless classic: the pillow fight. Again, remember you are playing the “weak” role.
Another alternative is to turn it into a nonsense game.
At this moment you may say something like “oh my goodness, you are just covered in grumbles!!! They are all over you. Quick we have to get them off, and the only way to get rid of grumbles is with…kisses!!!!” And you proceed to cover your beloved child in kisses.
“But won’t that increase the behaviour?” I hear you ask. No, in both my personal and professional experience I have not come across an instance when this intervention has created an increase in the behaviour. What may happen, not that I have seen it but more as a possibility, is a child may be unsure how to “ask” for that specific game once played, and so use that behaviour again to “invite” play. This can be easily addressed by saying “Oh, I see you want to play the grumble game, is that right?” They will probably say yes, internalising the name of the game, and simply ask next time. I also want to pose a rhetorical question if you still feel unsure; you have tried everything else and it hasn’t worked, so what’s to lose?
Lastly, set a loving limit.
When your playtime has ended, it is a simple matter of setting a loving limit. The difference between a standard limit and the “loving” alternative is one that allows for an understanding of the child’s upset. For instance, instead of saying “ ok, mummy is finished I have to do dinner,” then abruptly getting up and leaving, you might say something like “ok sweety, we are going to have three more turns, then mummy has to finish the game.” If your child gets upset, you might respond by saying “I know, you were having so much fun, and now you feel disappointed because you wish we had more time. Me too.” This does four things, firstly it lets your child know you understand them, secondly, it helps them to feel validated that it is ok to feel that way, third, it fosters emotional awareness and increases their emotional vocabulary, and last but most certainly not least, it encourages self-regulation via co-regulation. You might sit with them for five minutes as they express their upset, don’t attempt to “fix it,” but simply allow them to wail their protest as you offer a listening ear. It is this that is the second layer to the power of play. Their upset won’t often show up, many children will happily transition to an independent game with ease, especially when a suggestion may be made; but on the rare occasion, a child may have an emotional outburst. This is normal, healthy, and a great opportunity to support them in the aforementioned ways.
Play can’t be used in every moment
There are a couple of instances when I don’t recommend play to be the “go-to” strategy.
The first is when your child is crying. Play attempted in these moments, when your child is shedding real tears, may be invalidating and send a message that you may not be intending to send. What children, all people in fact, often need in these moments is to feel heard. So simply sitting with and offering empathy can be your best bet in those moments.
The other time I don’t recommend play is when it feels like a chore for you, or when you are feeling reactive. In those moments I mostly recommend some breathing and downtime. I know it isn’t always possible, but if it is manageable it would be the most beneficial thing to do in those moments. It could be a matter of setting a limit as well and simply saying “I know you would really like to play right now, but mummy is just feeling super tired. How about I finish my (insert activity here) and then we play (insert game).”
Play can be used in any number of difficult situations; it just takes a bit of insight and imagination. Socks and shoes may become stinky feet eating monsters for the child who doesn’t want to put them on, getting into their car seat might really be them being strapped down in a rocket ship getting ready to take off into space, cleaning up their bedroom might be a race against the clock, sibling fights over who gets to play with that specific toy might become a war against the daddy who stole it. Play is only limited by our imagination, and our children (thankfully) can be our greatest teachers in this. Just follow their lead and meet the need.
Natalie is a Play Therapist and Parenting Counsellor with Kidspoint Mingara. Having worked with homeless young people, new parents, and in foster care, Natalie has come across a wide range of parenting/carer situations. After becoming a mother herself, Natalie become (if possible) even more passionate about parenting and development. Natalie has a passion and drive focussed on information and intuition, that supports the family as a whole; never prioritising one persons needs over another but all needs together, looking for ways to deepen connection and cohesion.