My eldest son who is 6 years old tends to get overwhelmed and overstimulated easily. These feelings are then externalised as screaming, hitting and throwing. I’ve had various people tell me to threaten him, bribe him, send him to his room and deprive him of things he loves. All of these are techniques I told myself before I became a parent that I would not do. Why? Well, for two reasons. One, it didn’t sit well with me, and two, because I have read the scientific research which demonstrates these ways are not effective and in the long run can even be harmful to the parent-child relationship. Instead I chose to focus on the works of those who are highly qualified, highly experienced and who offer a more gentler approach which is full of compassion, connection and fun.
First of all, I am no saint. I have used some of those more severe methods of coercion to get my son to not do something like when he wanted to throw his toys in the ceiling fan or when he refused to get into the car next to a busy road. I didn’t like how it felt using threats and bribes, and I can tell my son certainly didn’t either. It just made his behaviour worse. It made him feel powerless and frustrated. In turn it made me feel the same way. So here we were, stuck in an endless and never-ending battle of wills and stubbornness.
Last year, my husband was away for work, for 8 months. He came home on weekends when he could but it was challenging. I was solo parenting for the first time with a 4 year old and an infant. I was exhausted from lack of sleep. Exhausted from lack of support. Exhausted because I didn’t have the resources, nor the time to replenish my completely depleted supply of energy, love and compassion. I found myself yelling back at my son. It was horrible, for both of us. I look back at those times and shudder. At the same time, that yelling still comes up, because after months of reacting this way, it kind of became habitual. I still feel like I’m detoxing the residual effects of all those threats, all that yelling, all that coerciveness.
The good news is that I reached out to a dear friend and mentor of mine; Marion Rose (PhD). She knew exactly what I needed, offered some suggestions, and away I went to work on myself and rebuild the relationship between my son that has melted in the face of yelling matches. Now, what Marion suggested to me was not new to me, in fact they were things I have known about for years. But hey, I’m human, so I needed a re-push in the right direction. Her recommendations were based on the principles of Aware Parenting (something I am so passionate about I became a certified Instructor 2 years ago). Now, the stuff I am about to share with you is unconventional (as in it goes against what most people see as “discipline”) and it seems completely counterintuitive. If you’ll bear with me, I will share with you specific examples of how it helped my son and I so much more than using “carrots and sticks” (i.e. rewards and punishment).
So here is what I did. I re-read Attachment Play by Aletha Solter (PhD), and re-did Marion’s course “Attachment Play.” I also read for the first time Playful Parenting by Lawrence J. Cohen (PhD). Funnily enough, this book had been sitting on my bookshelf, unread, for over a year. I highly recommend both these 2 books and Marion’s course. Lifesavers and life changers. When I was reading Playful Parenting, like most books I read, I took notes, underlined and put sticky notes on pages. I would like to share with you some of the things that I took away from this book so you can understand some of the principles behind the philosophy, and then I will give you specific examples of play I used with my son to solve behavioural upsets.
My Take Aways from Playful Parenting
· For our children to have a Secure Attachment to us as parents (see Bowlby for more on Attachment Theory) our children need cups overflowing with affection, security and attention. When their cups are running low this can lead to behavioural issues.
· Physical play is extremely important to a child’s development and wellbeing
· Contrary to common belief, children do not learn to “self-soothe” by being left on their own to “cry it out” or by being sent to timeout. They learn to self-soothe by being soothed by someone who care about them. Then over time, they take that comfort inside of themselves and are able to soothe themselves. It is all about natural brain development, and when that occurs, not teaching it to them by throwing them in the deep end…by themselves.
· Most experts who study childhood emotions agree that anger covers up other more vulnerable feelings. For example pain, loss and fear.
· When children are GENTLY stopped from lashing out, they will release their vulnerable and painful feelings through tears, trembling and talking (all of which release the stress hormone, cortisol).
· Countless studies (which I have read for my Masters degree) have shown that adults hitting children is likely to make them more aggressive, more antisocial and more likely to end up in prison or with serious emotional problems.
· Instead of getting children to be more obedient, strive for them to have good judgment.
· The way children develop into thoughtful, considerate, kind and honest adults is because of the love and affection, the high moral standards and the close relationship with someone who models those values. Promises, threats, rewards and punishments have been called “the most primitive way of dealing with human beings.” Humans have the advanced capacity to think and reason, and because we NEED close connections, it makes much more sense to use loving and talking as the basis of discipline.
· Laughter is the best medicine. It releases anger, fear, anxiety and all those juicy painful emotions.
· By focusing on the underlying need and feeling instead of reacting to the surface behaviour, we can develop strong and lasting connections with our children, that they will then take into the world with honesty, kindness, cooperation and compassion.
The bottom line is CONNECTION, CONNECTION, CONNECTION. So how do we do this when our child is screaming at us, hitting their sibling or us and throwing things across the room? Here are some examples:
· Hitting (The Love Hit Game) – not long after my husband went away for work my son went through a stage of hitting me whenever he felt overwhelmed, upset and angry. While it would have been easier to send him to time-out or punish him in some other way, I decided to turn it into a game. Whenever he hit me (which I made sure I was a distance where it wouldn’t hurt, safety is always important) I said in a mock angry voice “did you just hit me? I think you just hit me. Do you know what that means? That means I must hug you with lots of love.” I then goofily followed him around the room and hugged him in a silly way that he found hilarious. Now, I get it, it may seem like I was “rewarding” his behaviour. But I chose to see his behaviour as a cry for help, here was this little human that was experiencing all these big painful emotions. So I connected with my son and used love to remedy the behaviour. The result? Well the more I did this, the less he hit out of anger. His behaviour dramatically improved and when he did experience these emotions in the future he was better able to process them on his own.
· Baby bear in a cave – this game I learnt from Marion, through her Attachment Play course. This game is really helpful when it comes to getting our kids to cooperate and they have feelings of powerlessness. For this game I created a cave, which I simply did by making a circle of pillows. I then had my son play the baby bear, and I played the Mama bear going to get honey. I said to my cub “Mama’s going to get honey, no baby bears are allowed out of the cave ok?” Of course my son snuck out, so when I turned around and saw him making a run for it, I got my mock anger on and said “I said no baby bears out of the cave, oh baby bear, you better go back in that cave.” Lots of laughter ensued from this and our connection grew stronger, as did my son’s cooperation.
· Pillow fight – when my son gets really riled up, my husband and I pillow fight with him. We direct the hits and kicks to a pillow. Sometimes we give the pillow a helpless persona “oh don’t hit me I’m a poor little pillow.” Other times we play the weaker role and allow our son to hit us with the pillow. We then fall down and say “oh no you hit me.” When we go to hit him with the pillow, we purposefully miss. This also brings on lots of laughter because children are constantly attempting to deal with their own inadequacies and parents showing their flaws and inability to do things really forms a deep connection that we are all going through similar experiences.
These are just a small number of games we play with my son. We play them either as the need arises. For example any misbehaviour we turn into a game, which then release the emotions in the background and restores harmony. We also set aside time each day (if we can) for “Special Time” where we set a timer and let our kids direct the entire play session.
How are you feeling about bringing more fun, laughter and play into your life?
As adults, it can be quite challenging as most of us left our goofy, awkward selves back in our childhood. I have found though, through personal experience and the research, that this type of “play therapy” is so beneficial for our children, but also for ourselves. I also feel less stressed and anxious after a play session with my son because I laugh as well. I constantly feel out of my comfort zone, and the thought that I’m making a complete fool of myself does make me cringe, but it is so worth it, just to see and feel that deep connection.
If you’ve used play to discipline I would love to hear your experiences. If you are new and willing to throw it all to the wind I would highly recommend Attachment Play course, Attachment Play by Aletha Solter (PhD) or Playful Parenting by Lawrence J. Cohen. Such amazing and life changing resources. If you feel like the whole idea is ludicrous then that is ok too, but just know that this method is always here if you need it.
Love & Gratitude xx