Playing with Your Child: Games for Connection and Emotional Intelligence

By Dr Laura Markham

Clinical psychologist Dr Laura Markham provides a range of play solutions to help your child deal with big emotions, and which also promote bonding between you.

"Play can be the long-sought bridge back to that deep emotional bond between parent and child. Play, with all its exuberance and delighted togetherness, can ease the stress of parenting. Playful Parenting is a way to enter a child's world, on the child's terms, in order to foster closeness, confidence, and connection." From Playful Parenting by Lawrence Cohen. I know you think you hate playing with your child, but what if I gave you permission to set a timer and forget about your to-do list and just connect with your child for ten minutes? What if I promised that if you do this on a regular basis, your child will become more co-operative, and you will feel more energised? What if it helped you to become a happier parent?

Why do kids want to play so much?
Children need to play. It's their work. All mammals play; it's their way of learning skills they'll need when they're full-grown – from finding food to getting along with others. It's also the way small humans process their emotions.All day, every day, children have to manage complicated feelings: fear (What if there IS something under the bed?), jealousy (Maybe mom does love my brother more!), humiliation (The teacher acted like I should already know that, and all the kids laughed!), panic (What if I don’t make it to the bathroom on time?), anger (It was my turn!), disappointment (Doesn't anyone care what I want?!). The normal challenges of every day for a growing child of any age stimulate all kinds of feelings. Children release these emotions through play. Laughter, specifically, transforms our body chemistry by reducing stress hormones and increasing bonding hormones.Kids are more physical than adults. When they get wound up emotionally, their bodies need to discharge all that energy. That's one of the reasons they have so much more energy than we do, so they wear us out.

Use play to bond
But we can use this to our advantage because when we play physical games with children, they giggle and sweat and scream -- and they release the same pent-up stress hormones that they'd otherwise discharge with a tantrum. Playing is also how kids learn, so when you teach an emotional lesson by playing, your child really gets it. Best of all, playing helps parents and kids feel closer.I realise that at the end of the day you might be exhausted. I personally would much rather snuggle on the couch than initiate an active game. The good news is that these games don't have to last long – maybe 10 minutes at most, or even as little as two minutes long.And believe it or not, most parents find them energising. That's because the tension and irritation we carry around makes us tired. When we play, we discharge stress hormones just like our kids do, giving us a little more energy as we head into the evening.

So when your child asks you to play, make a deal: sure, you'll play dollhouse, or build a train track. But first, will they play a roughhousing game with you for a few minutes? Don't be surprised if your child loves this kind of play so much, he begins begging for these games over and over.
Here are some ideas to get you started

When your child is annoying, or in your face:
"Are you out of hugs again? Let's do something about that!"Grab your child and give him a LONG hug – as long as you can. Don't loosen your grip until he begins to squirm and then don't let go immediately. Hug harder and say,"I LOVE hugging you! I never want to let go. Promise I can hug you again soon?"Then let go and connect with a big, warm smile, and say,"Thank you! I needed that!"

A more intensive version, for when a child has a new sibling, or you've been doing a lot of disciplining:
Convince your child on a very deep level that you LOVE him by chasing him, hugging, kissing, then letting him get away and repeating – again and again:"I need my Michael. You can't get away I have to hug you and cover you with kisses... oh, no, you got away... I'm coming after you... I just have to kiss you more and hug you more! You're too fast for me... But I'll never give up... I love you too much! I got you! Now I'll kiss your toes... Oh, no, you're too strong for me! But I will always want more Michael hugs…"

This is my favourite game, guaranteed to transform your child's doubt about whether he's truly loved (and any child who is "misbehaving" harbours that doubt). I call this the Fix Game because it fixes whatever's wrong. From a parent:"I'm kind of shocked how much my son is loving the Fix Game! I don't think I've ever heard my son say, ‘Let's do it again!’ so many times!"

A stepped-up version involving both parents:
Jokingly fight over your child, vying to see who can snatch her up and hug her. "I want him!”, “No, I want him!", "But I NEED him so much!", “No, I need him! You ALWAYS get him!"

When your child is grumpy:
"You seem to be in a NO mood. I have an idea. I want to hear you say NO as much as you want. I will say YES, and you can answer NO in the same tone of voice. So when I say YES in this low voice, you say NO in a low voice. When I say YES in this squeaky voice, you say NO in this squeaky voice. Okay?"

When your child is super clingy or has been experiencing separation anxiety:
Cling to your child, being super exaggerated and silly. "I know you want me to let go so you can go play, but I NEED you! I only want to be with you. PLEASE be with me now?" Keep holding your child's hand or clinging to his shirt. He will like the feeling that HE is the one in charge of letting go, rather than feeling pushed away. If you act silly enough, he will also giggle and let off some of the tension around goodbyes. When he definitively pushes you away, say, "It's ok. I know you will come back. We always come back to each other."

As long as your child is laughing, that game is working to alleviate anxiety and increase wellbeing. Don't be surprised if your child wants to play these games over and over. They relieve stress, help your child master emotion – and believe it or not, they're fun!

Many more of these games can be found the full article in Milestones. Click here to read it online – go to page 10 of issue 7.