By Marion Rose
Children play and laugh to connect, understand their world, release uncomfortable feelings from their bodies, and heal from stress and trauma.
Aletha Solter, founder of the Aware Parenting Institute, has written five books for parents. In her most recent book Attachment Play, she shows parents how to help their children heal from past painful experiences, prepare for new events, be freed from fears and phobias, and release painful feelings that cause challenging behaviors, all through play.
As a level two Aware Parenting instructor, I’m grateful that I get to travel around Australia running workshops for parents about Attachment Play. I love standing up in front of parents, advocating things like nonsense play, where we get to be ridiculous as parents, all the while helping our children feel freer and more connected.
You might be surprised when you see that many of the games you are already playing are working on deeper levels than you might have realized.
Play is Healing
Let’s look at how and why play and laughter are healing. From this perspective, a child’s natural state is to want to connect, cooperate, and contribute. If she is acting in ways that don’t seem to do that (such as hitting her little brother), she either has an unmet need (often for connection or choice), a need for information, or a need to express accumulated painful feelings.
There are several ways children express painful feelings. To release feelings like fear, anxiety, frustration, powerlessness, discomfort, uncertainty, and embarrassment, they laugh. To release grief, sadness, overwhelm, and loss, they cry. To release frustration, terror, and overwhelm, they rage and tantrum.
For the releasing to be healing, they need to be feeling connected with someone, preferably a parent or trusted adult, and for that person to be right there with them, making the expression of feelings safe.
Perhaps you remember going to see a comedian. Stand-up comedy is all about things that we might feel uncomfortable about – death, disease, disfigurement, and mothers-in-law! So laughing helps us let out the feelings we have about these kinds of things. Or perhaps you remember hearing shocking news, or being in the midst of a traumatic situation, and finding yourself smiling or laughing, and wondering why on earth you were doing that?
Or perhaps you have noticed your child laughing just before, or just after, he did something that he knows you don’t enjoy? Again, he is likely to be releasing feelings of fear or anxiety.
We can use our knowledge of laughter, and how it releases certain kinds of feelings, and can then utilize play to help our children, both preventatively, and in the moment when things are challenging.
As a preventative, using particular kinds of play will reduce the likelihood of feelings accumulating to a level that leads to things like hitting, biting, throwing things, avoiding connection, avoiding cooperation, difficulties sleeping, and so on.
Yet we can also use particular kinds of play when things are challenging...for example, if we have an appointment and our child is not willing to come with us, or it’s getting dark and we really want to leave the park.
And we can use it strategically, to help our children become free of fears and phobias.
Kinds of Attachment Play
There are nine different categories of attachment play. I will examine briefly a few here.
Power-reversal games help children release feelings around powerlessness and lack of choice. Even if we are aiming to be conscious parents, and give our children lots of choice, most children do experience feelings around not having choice. In these games, we reverse roles, so that we become the one who is less powerful, smaller, and less able. So, for example, perhaps our two-year-old is on a swing, and every time she comes forward, we pretend that she has knocked us over, and make a big exaggerated collapsing backwards motion. And then we might say something like, “You’re not going to do that again, are you?” with a fun smile on our face, and act surprised when it happens again. When she laughs delightedly, we know that she is not only feeling connected and having fun, she is also feeling powerful and releasing feelings around not being powerful in the past.
Nonsense games help children express feelings related to competence. Again, however aware we aim to be, children see us doing things effortlessly which they have yet to master, and this can be frustrating for them. In order to help them release these feelings, we can be silly and nonsensical, particularly around being able to do things.
This might mean, with a small child not yet able to get dressed himself, that when we dress him, we pretend that we think his socks go on his head, or that his t-shirt is our t-shirt and fits us perfectly. Again, when he is laughing, we know he is letting out uncomfortable feelings around being able to do things. It also creates connection and makes things a lot more fun. This can be done with things like teeth brushing, “This is how I brush your teeth, isn’t it?” (and going to brush their hair with the toothbrush). I had a game with my son when he was six where I would pretend that vegetables were poisonous for kids. I would be cutting carrots, and I would say in a mock serious voice, “Whatever you do, don’t eat these carrots; you know vegetables are poisonous for kids,” and I would whistle in a pretend-nonchalant way, and of course he would come and get a carrot and eat it, and I would say, “Noooooo… not a carrot!”
These aren’t the kinds of games that can be used to trick children. The intention behind them is to loosen feelings, to create connection, and to help children return to their natural state of calm, connected, concentrating centeredness.
Separation games help children let out feelings related to separation. This is what peek-a-boo and hide-and-seek do. Even the names tell us things: They are relating separation and connection together, and helping babies and children learn and process being apart and coming back together again.
Once you see the pattern, you will start to see the potential for attachment play all over the place. You will come up with your own games, and what’s more, you will probably notice that children know exactly what they need to connect and heal. They invite connection and healing play over and over again.
A child who went to the dentist often wants to play dentist games afterwards – but being the dentist this time (power-reversal), or playing it with teddy bears (symbolic play). Children can heal from specific fears, such as fears of dogs, spiders, or the dark, when we play with them using power-reversal games, nonsense games, and symbolic play.
Other types of play include contingency games and physical contact games. Non-directed child-centred play is a cornerstone of this approach. Giving children regular one-on-one time where they choose what happens and we give them our undivided, adoring attention, has powerful effects on our children. Regression play and cooperative games are also part of attachment play.
Healing Our Kids, Healing Ourselves
The beauty of this kind of attachment play is that it also helps us heal. Often, being a parent, especially of younger children, can mean that our own needs for choice and autonomy don’t get met. We want to go out the door to do the shopping, but our two-year-old is crying and our five-yearold doesn’t want to leave the house. Remember before you were a parent and you could just pick up your bag and leave the house? Just like with children, our own feelings of frustration and powerlessness can accumulate.
There are three ways we can deal with feelings from this perspective. The first is to express feelings healthily, either through laughing, playing, or crying, with loving support. The second is to repress them, through eating, movement, or distraction. The third is to act them out. In children, acting out looks like throwing things, hitting and biting. In parents, acting out looks like harshness, shouting, and using power-over strategies.
The more we can bring laughter and silliness into our lives as parents, the more we help ourselves release our own feelings of frustration, and the more we also return to our own natural state – of loving beings who love to connect, cooperate with, and contribute to our children.
So, for example, say that your eight-year-old son loves to ask for you to do everything, even the things he can easily do for himself. If you find yourself beginning to feel frustrated, there are a few ways you can go with it. You can bring in nonsense games. Put on an apron and a funny hat and exaggeratedly ask him if you could, along with getting his shoes, pick his nose, go to the toilet for him, and move the hair off his face. Remember that all this is done with the most utmost respect and love. It’s not about having any sense of shaming or ridiculing; it’s all about finding what I call “the sweet spot,” where laughter comes.
If the frustration is a bit more present for you, then another way to go is to use laughter to include the frustration without it being scary for your child. So, you could say something like, “Let’s pretend I’m grumpy mummy and I really don’t like helping you do things,” and then stomp around the room with a funny face, saying, “Gee, I really don’t like getting these shoes, I am so grumpy,” but in a mock-grumpy-silly voice. That way you get to release the frustration, and meanwhile he gets to laugh, which would also help him heal from any other times you have been frustrated.
We can also use attachment play to repair and heal our connection with our child, after we have acted in ways that we regret. Power-reversal games are particularly helpful for this.
Not every game helps bring laughter for every child. If no laughter comes, change tack.
One reason might be that tears are near to the surface for our child. If that is the case, or a child is already crying, I would never recommend laughter games. If tears are there, the most respectful and caring thing to do is to check that there nothing going on in the present that needs to be stopped (eg. get the dog off your son’s leg), and then to listen to the crying. Laughing does not replace crying – it releases different feelings. You will also find that your child brings games to you, and that you experiment more.
Another part of this therapeutic play is understanding that after we play these games, our child might suddenly start crying over a seemingly small thing. What laughter and connection does is help create emotional safety for bigger and deeper feelings to be expressed. I liken it to going out for a meal with your partner and then having a big argument. The same can happen during family holidays – when there are lots of adults around with relaxed attention and play, children will often feel safe enough to cry and rage, to express feelings that they have been holding in.
The same can be true with us as parents. I have found several times after playing rough and tumble games with my son (a form of physical play), that I might accidentally fall off the bed and have a cry. My son is of an age (eight) where I am confident that my crying isn’t scary for him.
So, laughter and play and connection, all combined together, help children heal from stressful events, release old feelings, let go of fears, and connect to their true selves.
This kind of attachment play also helps us lighten up as parents, enjoy parenting more, and release our own uncomfortable feelings. The family becomes a more fun place to be, and we all get healed in the process!
Attachment play is a powerful and transformative way for us to be deeply connected with ourselves and our children, and for them to be deeply connected with themselves and with us. Let’s all play more, laugh more, and have more fun!
Marion Rose, BSC PhD DipCouns DipPsych FCCF FCCC is a Level Two Aware Parenting Instructor. She is also the mother of two children, currently ages eight and twelve. They are a family of natural learners living in Australia. She has been fascinated with learning about babies and children and what helps us flourish in our lives for more than twenty-five years and says that being a mother has taught her more about compassion and humility than she ever thought possible. She enjoys supporting other parents to love their lives as parents and help their children thrive. You can learn more about Marion and read more of her writing at www.marionrose.net.
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