We all need to find joy in our relationships with our families. Laughter is good medicine. It heals our souls, our spirits, and can even help us manage a stressful situation. Just think about how you left the house this morning. Were you all yelling at each other or were you laughing with each other and sad to see the time end?
It will come to no surprise when I say that our children experience more depression and anxiety than any other generation in history. Children are over booked, over scheduled, over worked, and pressured by the demands of everyday life. When they do have "down-time", they often turn to video games and social networking sites as a way to relax. Sure, some video games are ok, but they often lack the imagination, creativity, and the personal connections that our souls need to thrive.
So, why is parent-child play so powerful? When parents play with their children, children learn emotional regulation, empathy, communication and critical thinking skills, safe boundaries and structure. As parents play with their children, a special bond begins to form between the parent and child that shape their relationship in the present moment and helps children develop empathy in peer relationships. During parent-child play, a special language begins to emerge as both parent and child begin to interpret body language and facial ques. Play is the language of children. When parents attempt to communicate with their child in
their language they begin to understand each other more deeply. If you don't believe your child speaks a foreign language, just ask your five year-old to draw a picture. I bet you both come up with different interpretation as to what the picture is actually communicating. Better yet, ask one of your teenagers to read you one of the stories or poetry they are writing and listen without judgment.
Parent-child play can help children learn to regulate themselves emotionally, because play has the ability to excite and frustrate. Parents can set an example during play by helping the children settle down after noticing when their child is experiencing frustration. Simply checking with your child by saying, "I noticed you were feeling frustrated by the look on your face," helps the child connect their feeling to a bodily sensation. Parents can teach their child stress reduction after a particularly excitable game by spending a few minutes lying on the grass looking at the clouds, reading a book, or listening to music. Parent-child play can help children develop socially and increases their ability to communicate thoughts and feelings with their peers, family members, and other adults. They also learn critical thinking skills as they find creative ways to interact with their parents and elaborate on the rules. Lastly, during play, parents are able to set rules and regulations that create safety and structure. Let's take a pillow fight as an example of parent-child play. The parents can state that there is no hitting in the face, no aggressive play, and no name calling. The parents can ask the child to identify other rules to help keep the play safe. A safety word should be developed that allows the parent or child stop play at any time when feeling unsafe. This builds a sense of autonomy and control that can create safety in other relationships.
Play can be as simple as a pillow fight, rough and tumble play in the yard, or imagination games of fighting dragons. They can even involve board games or creating funny plays or stories for a family theater night. Let you imagination run wild with your parent-child play, and soon will begin to feel like a kid again yourself.
Tracy Kristoff, BA, MFT, RPT is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and a Registered Play Therapist who loves to the power of PLAY!!!