How Play Can Decrease Acting Out Behavior
As a parent to a toddler or pre-schooler, there have likely been many times when you've wondered why and how your child’s mood can change so suddenly. One minute they seem fine - calm, content, engaged in play and then suddenly - bam! - yelling, screaming, throwing, crying. What the heck happened?
These 'tantrums' or acting out behavior can seem out of the blue and difficult to manage. They can be downright frustrating at times; frustrating for you and the child. In previous posts, we've talked about how to react as well as how to try and consider the meaning behind the behavior in order to help your child work through those big feelings. Here, we want to focus on how play can serve as a preventative measure and help children develop the regulatory skills needed to better manage their emotions.
Perhaps it is first important to understand what ‘play’ really means. Play is the work of children. Play is any activity that is self-motivated and self-directed by a child. The goal of this play is just that, to play. No ulterior motives of winning or earning trophies. It is free-flowing in nature with self-imposed rules by the child rather than an instruction book detailing the rules of the game. Research has shown that this self-directed play is very important and significant for the child’s growing cognitive, emotional, social and physical development.
In fact, self-directed play is most helpful in regulating and managing the emotions of a child. Through play, children can act out their feelings - fears, worries, anxieties, frustrations, disappointments and sadness - in a safe and controlled manner. Their repetitious act of playing the same thing again and again or hearing the same story can be a way to process the feelings that they are going through and master them. The idea of self-direction is handy because through their play, children can often control the situations or circumstances that seem out of control in their life and, hence, play out their emotions safely. This helps them to feel in control and they have the capacity to change the outcome through this fantasy play.
So how does this help acting out behavior?
1. Children, especially toddlers and preschoolers, are struggling between autonomy and control and they are learning lots of new skills. Thus, a lot of acting out behavior can stem from the feelings of wanting to be in control and struggling with new things. Play gives children that opportunity to practice skills and be in control.
2. Through play, as a parent you can address their certain behavior if they are playing it out. Many parents get worried when they see their children getting aggressive in their play, for example, hitting a doll or throwing things. However, this can be used as an opportunity to discuss with the child the feelings behind the aggression and the consequences of their actions, which can be helpful for the child to process.
3. Sometimes a child plays out the same theme over and over again (for example, a stuffed animal serving as a mediator between two other toys and trying to solve problems). That tells you something is on their mind. Perhaps the child feels torn between some decisions and is trying to figure out the right course of action or maybe there is tension between the parents and the child is trying to make it stop. Describing what you see to the child in their play and helping attach feelings to words helps them feel understood and opens the door to further communication.
4. By being present with your child when they are playing, watching, commenting, encouraging, and asking questions without directing, they feel connected. This closeness builds attachment and trust and can help reduce power struggles that can happen on a dally basis.
Every child and family is different and there are hundreds of combinations of variables that could bring out challenging behaviors. If your child's behaviors seem out of the ordinary or things they do in play concern you, seeking professional support from an expert child psychotherapist is a great option. Please contact us any time if you would like some support in this area for your child and/or yourself.
Post by: Kratika Choudary, MA