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The Most Magical Tool in my Parent Toolkit

Raising Kids Is Challenging!

Raising children is one of the most challenging jobs, and despite that, many people feel utterly underprepared. I want to share with you one of the most magical tools in my personal parenting toolkit with my own three children, and one that is backed by research and KNOWN to improve parent-child relations. PLAYING with your child. I know some of you are thinking “ I have just spent 2 years in my home with my child, and you want me to spend more time with my child?!” I do but differently! Let me explain.

Let’s do an experiment

Before I dive in, let’s do a little experiment. I want you to take a moment to think about people you have worked for in the past. This may be a former supervisor, teacher, employer, or coach. First, close your eyes, and think of the worst person you have had to perform for and then describe five characteristics about this person. (I’ll share mine: cold, absent, critical, little mentorship, and flat). Ok, now I want you to identify the best person you have had to perform for, and again, note five characteristics about this person (I’ll share again- shout out to Ben Hankin my graduate school advisor! – warm, encouraging, celebrated my success, gave feedback with clear instruction for how I could improve, and believed in my ability to do the job well). How do you feel towards each of these people? How did each one affect your motivation to work hard? How likely would you go above and beyond for each of these people? How did this affect the quality of your work? Most importantly, how much did you care about pleasing them?

You know where I am going with this…the foundation of our relationship with a person determines HOW likely we are to want to ‘do well’ by that same person. Parenting is HARD, and in moments we are not proud of, sometimes we can take on the qualities of the above-described worse employer. The tool I am sharing today helps us to recalibrate our approach and get us back on track to being the parent we want to be.

What is child-directed play?

Child-directed play is an undisputed and well-researched tool that helps children with problem-solving skills, self-confidence, and building a better relationship with the adult they are engaging in child-directed play with. We have decades of research that tell us this: child-directed play- a very specific way of interacting with your child- strengthens the bond between parent and child and lays the foundation for the effectiveness of any other parenting strategies.
Essentially this type of play puts children in a leadership position, and parents enter into the imaginary world of the child. The goal of this playtime is to acquire the most amount of positive exchange in the shortest amount of time.

When should I be using child-directed play?

Child-directed play is helpful when… used as a prevention tool and ensures a healthy, safe and trusting relationship between parent and child. Daily play, when possible, helps to create happy kids and sets the stage for effective parenting.

Child-directed play is critical when…

1) When we notice something is up with our kids. It may be that your child is not listening as well as we would like, communicating disrespectfully, or showing signs of anxiety, irritability or withdrawal. It may also be totally unrelated to the parent-child dynamic, and your child is struggling in school or with a peer, and we know in our parents’ gut that they are feeling destabilized in some way.

2) When we notice something is up with us. Tuning in to our own physiology as it relates to interactions with our children can also indicate that you may benefit from some good one-to-one time with your child. When we are feeling tightness in our chest, anxiety, or sheer frustration with our children, it’s a sign that our cup also needs filling up.

How to use child-directed play: 8 tips for success

  1. Set up a “special time” each day with your child. Try to set aside 15 minutes daily to practice this special type of playtime. Mornings are usually best, if possible, as they can fill you both up for the day. Remember that dosing matters; it’s more effective to do 15 minutes of play daily than two hours on the weekend.
  2. No other children can be involved in special time– only you and the child you have identified as needing support.
  3. When special time comes around each day, say something like: “It is now our special time to play together; what would you like to do?” Imaginative or creative tasks are ideal for this type of play. If possible, avoid competitive games.
  4. Relax and immerse yourself mindfully for these 15 minutes with your child. Put all distractions and your phone away. Do not do playtime if you are upset, busy, or preoccupied with something else.
  5. Sportscast! After watching for a bit, begin to describe your child’s play. This is like a running commentary of your child’s play.
  6. Ask no questions and give no commands!! This can be perceived as critical, and you want to avoid anything that will interrupt your child’s play. There are no teachable moments in child-directed play- just a time to relax and be with your child while they play.
  7. Occasionally give positive feedback and praise. Be accurate and honest. “I like it when we play like this” or “Look at how nicely you made that…”
  8. Be affectionate if your child likes that. Find times to rub their back, kiss them forehead or be loving in a way you know would be well received.

Dr. Zia Lakdawalla - Foundations for Emotional Wellness

Dr. Zia Lakdawalla

I am a registered clinical psychologist who specializes in working with children, adolescents, and parents. My goal is to help clients cope with uncomfortable feelings, improve relationships, and increase competency and efficacy in managing the demands of each new stage of development. I am also a strong believer that the environment in which kids are immersed is a critical factor in how they learn to regulate their emotions and build resilience.
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Tags: Behaviour
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