Why is Parental Playfulness Important?
"I might as well play with a porcupine. All I get is a nose full of stinging nettles!” It can seem next to impossible to play with a child who seems to hate you and tries everything possible to keep you away. Much of the time you may not even want to be in the same room with her, much less play! After all, we don’t go out looking for punishment.
Yet finding a way to be playful is critical for attachment. As parents, you cannot allow your child to set the tone for your home. That’s your job. The child will do everything in her power to create an atmosphere that feels normal to her---chaotic and negative. Peace and friendly warmth can feel uncomfortable when you’re not used to it. But you can’t permit her to change that. No child should have that kind of power. Ultimately, it’s frightening for them if they sense there is no adult in control.
Playfulness is the normal and natural way parents and babies and small children interact and explore their social, emotional, and physical worlds. Loving playfulness is how we attach as infants and gain confidence to explore our relationships with important people in our family circle, and build our physical worlds. Play is critical to human development.
A child who was never given the opportunity for loving and interactive play is a deprived child whose development has veered off course. They have been denied their birthright and we must give it back to them. Otherwise, they will not be able to get back to where they should be; secure, curious, and loving. They will not develop affectionate and enduring relationships, but will instead be distrustful and full of fear. Without curiosity their cognitive development will be stunted. They will lack imagination and be unable to solve problems. Trauma, fear, and abuse drive playfulness right out of a child. Life is just something that happens to them and over which they have no control. To be safe, they must withdraw of lash out. But whichever way it happens, adults are the enemy. It’s our job to break through that mindset and convince them that this is no longer the case.
How do we do that? By disarming their anger and fear. How do we disarm them? Through play and playfulness. Playfulness is the foundation stone for attachment. It causes the child to want to be with you. When they want to be with you, you can build a relationship that enables the child to develop theory of mind, the ability to get inside the mind of another and understand that they think and feel differently than you do. That is the foundation of empathy, being able to actually get into someone’s experience and feel with them. These children most often don’t know or understand what they themselves are thinking or feeling! With a solid attachment they develop self-awareness. When a child wants to be with you, their fear is lessened and they learn to trust. That’s nice in theory, but how is it done? By changing yourself first. Getting rid of your own anger is essential. Stop confronting your child and instead learn to get around them. I call this “attachment through the back door.” Your child is so hypervigilant and fearful, you’ll never get in the front way. You’ve got to be more like water, and less like a rock. Shrug off their attempt to get under your skin by refusing to react to their provocations. Instead act silly and use lots of pizazz! Do what’s unexpected and you take away their ability to zing you. Instead, leave them scratching their heads. You’re going to be a bigger drama queen than she is!
You’re daughter has been behaving like a total brat and you know she’s trying to push your buttons by being sassy and disrespectful. She knows that flipping you the finger will get you really angry. It always does! So she flips you the finger and waits for the fireworks. Surprise! No fireworks this time. Instead you act horrified. “Oh Annie! You poor child! You only have one finger! How did that happen, did you lose them? Emergency! Everyone split up and look for Annie’s missing fingers! I’ll check the microwave!”
If your son has his backpack organized and is ready for school, act shocked and clutch your throat. “Your backpack is organized? How did that happen? Excuse me while I stagger over to the couch and faint!”
When my then 7 year old (challenging) adopted daughter came into our bathroom one morning, I said, “Oh! Be careful honey! I just planted those radishes!”
“The radishes you’re standing on!”
She started to giggle and stepped back.
“No! Not there! You just trampled my lettuce!”
She carefully sidestepped.
“What about here, mom?”
“My petunias! Here, grab my hand and come this way”
She took my hand and carefully tiptoed out of the bathroom, laughing.
The next morning she came into my bathroom on her hands and knees. “How are your radishes doing, mom?”
From then on our bathroom floor was a virtual garden. I even gave her a corner to plant! It was our little secret.
Do you see how you took back control in a fun way? Chances are, your child didn’t even notice that you just took the wind out of her sails. As you can see, the attitude of playfulness relaxes a child and builds attachment. While actual play, shooting baskets or playing board games, is important, a warm and fun attitude in the household is worth striving for. Neglected and unattached children have developed a physiological brain template for fear and distrust through countless and repeated frightening experiences at the hands of those who were supposed to love and protect them. Fear and distrust have become their default states as the neural wiring to their emotional brain structures has become efficient and durable. To reverse this, we need to help them develop a new brain template through repeated and frequent positive experiences. We need to be very intentional about doing this often, whether it’s soft eye contact, a smile, ruffling the child’s hair, or just being fun. This is why it’s so important to avoid anger and annoyance of any kind. It strengthens the wrong wires!
There are two critical things to remember. Your playful attitude cannot be faked. It must be genuine. Children from difficult backgrounds are doglike in their capacity to sense fear, danger, and anger. Many of us have learned this from experience, as our children are extremely alert to the slightest nuances in our moods. The other thing is that we must be realistic about time horizons. It will take months, even years, to neutralize old established neural networks and substitute them with new ones. Even then, old templates tend not to go away completely, but can fade to the point where they’re tolerable. New ones can become the default state. For example, in the case of a girl who is terrified of men because of a long history of sexual abuse, she will be able to view males favorably again, after many repeated positive experiences with healthy and attuned men and boys. But this can’t be accidental. Caring adults must make sure she has many such exposures over along period of time for a new template to establish itself.
One final word. It can be hard to be playful when you’re exhausted and angry, but it is certainly worth the effort. Find your own way to lighten up with your child. Start small and celebrate one success at a time. You’ll get there.