Monday, October 31, 2011

The Examined Life

by Alyssa Hasson, MAMFT

It was Socrates who said, “The unexamined life is not worth living,” and indeed, reflection is an important part of both life and parenting. Reflection is step five of the parenting with play steps that were laid at the beginning of the month.

5 Steps for Parenting with Play
  1.  Learn when it’s appropriate
  2.  Prepare yourself
  3.  Establish some routine
  4. Get some tools in your belt
  5. Reflect, reflect, reflect 

Here are some questions to prompt reflection:
  • What ways have you successfully used play in parenting?
  • Think of a recent parenting situation (using play) that went well. What did you like about it? How did you feel about your child when it was over?
  • Think of a recent parenting situation that did not go well. What parts of it were you unhappy with? How did you feel about your child when it was over? How did you feel about yourself?
  • What stands in the way of you using more play in your parenting?

Monday, October 24, 2011

Building a Tool Belt

by Alyssa Hasson, MAMFT

Routine play, the focus of last week’s blog, is an important building block for establishing a strong parent-child relationship. But the benefits and uses of play extend far outside of routine play. As mentioned in week 1, play is appropriate not only for building relationship, but also for encouraging cooperation, reconnecting when you’ve taken the low road in parenting, and helping your child when he is emotionally stuck. This week will be devoted to helping you build your play tool belt, so to speak, in order that you may be prepared to use play in daily (non-routine) parenting.

Below is a list of playful ways to tackle some typical parenting challenges, like whining, hitting or kicking, and using unkind words. These ideas are most appropriate for preschoolers or young grade school children, but you can adapt them to be more age appropriate if your child is older. As you read the list below and think about ways in which to make your own parenting more playful, consider the strengths you identified in your child; you will want to harness those strengths.

You can use these steps as a guide for making sure your tools are implemented as effectively as possible.
  1. Validate your child’s desire and/or feelings (‘You’re angry that we can’t play longer” or “You really want juice and we don’t have any.”)
  2. Set a limit, which basically means noting that his current actions are not okay (“It’s not okay to hit.”
  3. Pull out a tool from your belt (see below).

  • The magic wand. The magic wand is great for kids who like pretend, imaginative play. When your child wants something he cannot have, use your magic wand to grant it to him in fantasy. In my home, both my daughter and I have magic wands, which we keep in our pretend pockets. Occasionally my daughter asks for things that I cannot give her; for example, she may request juice, but we are out. Sometimes this reality of no juice is harder for her to accept than others. During those difficult times, we get out our magic wands, say a little rhyme in which she states what she wants, and then tap her cup to “turn” water into the juice of her choice. We then continue our pretending by talking about what her juice tastes like.
    • The benefit: The magic wand, which allows you to grant in fantasy what you can’t in reality, gives your child the experience of being heard and helps him learn that he can manage disappointments in his life.
  • Put it in my pocket. Your pocket can be the perfect place for holding energetic activity that is not appropriate for your current location. For example, if you’re in the library and your child is running around or playfully screaming with other kids, have him pour or spit out (whichever you deem appropriate) all of his screams into his hands and put them in your pocket. Make a big production of it, so that he is able to do something that (appropriately) releases some of his energy. Hold them safely in your pocket and release them outside when you’re in a more appropriate environment. Sometimes you may even have some of your own energetic screams to release while your child is releasing his!
    • The benefit: Put it in my pocket helps establish and develop self-control.
  • Jump out your angrys (or your unkind words). When you see your child beginning to hit, kick, or use unkind words, it’s tempting to focus on stopping the behavior instead of understanding what’s going on. Instead, lean into his emotions and encourage him to jump them out or release them in another physical way. Be creative, and encourage movement that your child enjoys, like jumping, running, or even shouting.
    • The benefit: It’s inevitable that your child will experience feelings of anger or upset in his life. Jumping out your angrys provides a safe, physical release for his strong feelings.
  • Use music. Let’s face it: life is full of things that are not fun. If your child balks at daily chores, like brushing teeth or hair and getting dressed, make them more enjoyable by adding music. Create your own silly songs; to make it easier, use melodies from well-known kids’ songs like Row, Row, Row Your Boat.
    • The benefit: Music engages a different part of the brain than spoken language. Pre-empt power struggles by changing the way you attack mundane, daily chores.
  • Find your strong voice. Dr. Laura Markham of Aha! Parenting suggests dealing with whining by asking your child to find his strong voice. You can do this by pretending that your child’s strong voice is hiding or lost, and physically looking around the room for it. In my home this has evolved into a game in which both my daughter and I shout for her strong voice to come back (because it is lost). Once the strong voice hears us and gets close enough, she gobbles it up into her mouth and tries her original request using her new voice.
    • The benefit: No child is exempt from whining. Find your strong voice helps your child realize he has the power to verbalize his request in a new, more acceptable way. It also focuses on empowering your child rather than on what he should stop doing. Plus it’s way more fun than simply saying, “Stop whining.”

Implementing these tools may take some practice on the parts of both you and your child, and it’s okay if it doesn’t work the first time. Don’t be discouraged if it takes a couple of tries (on separate occasions) for your child to engage with you in this new way. Remember that to be successful, you must be in control of your own emotions and your actions – you are the model for your child!

Monday, October 17, 2011

Routine Play?

by Alyssa Hasson, MAMFT

Over the past two weeks, we’ve detailed the beginning steps to using play in parenting. Remember that using play in parenting is a great way, perhaps even the best way, to improve your relationship with your child. A strong parent-child relationship means less struggles and more fun and enjoyment. Establish some routine, step three, is the focus for today.

What in the world is routine play? Don’t worry, it’s not as boring as it sounds! Routine play is something that happens routinely; ideally daily, for approximately 15 minutes each day. Fifteen minutes of your day equates to approximately 1/56 of your waking time each day, yet this small amount of time can have a significant impact on your relationship with your child. This intentional daily play is the building block for a great relationship because it means that you are taking the time to speak your child’s language every day.

Here are some guidelines for establishing routine play in your home.
  • Set aside distractions. Turn off the computer and tv, and set aside your iphone. Don’t answer calls or allow interruptions during these 15 minutes. Your child is the priority!
  • Give each child a turn. Allot 15 minutes/day per child so that each child has gets to experience a share of your undivided attention.
  • Consider your child’s age. Babies and young toddlers may not have the attention span for 15 uninterrupted minutes of play. Break up this time into smaller segments and spread them throughout the day or afternoon.
  • Keep the commitment. Never make routine play contingent on behavior. It can be tempting to withhold your play time because your child has behaved poorly on a given day, but this is not wise. Routine play times are special because they demonstrate your desire to know and relate to your child, something that should not fluctuate due to behavior. Handle poor behavior through other means (natural consequences, time in, etc), but always keep the commitment to routine play.
  • Play early. Don’t use the last 15 minutes of your child’s day, when he is tired and not in peak shape, for routine play. When possible, schedule your routine play early in the day. Playing early in the day is like eating a healthy breakfast: it sets the tone for your day.
  • Let your child lead the play and give you direction. Your role during routine play is to tune into your child. Let your child know that you are tuned in by getting on his level, positioning your body toward him, verbalizing his actions and reflecting his words.
  • Get the whole family involved. Think about routine play on a bigger scale. Consider establishing a weekly family game night, art night, or dance party night. Be creative! Your child will look forward to such nights with anticipation! 

Take some time this week to think about and begin establishing routine play in your home.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Preparing Yourself for Play

by Alyssa Hasson, MAMFT

Last week I provided these Five Steps for Parenting with Play:
  1.  Learn when it’s appropriate
  2. Prepare yourself
  3. Establish some routine
  4. Get some tools in your belt
  5.  Reflect, reflect, reflect

This week we’re going to focus on preparing yourself, a step that might be tempting to overlook, but is key to the process. Someone once noted, “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.” Using play in parenting is no exception.

There are two main considerations that fall under the category of preparation: 1) knowing your child, and 2) knowing yourself. It’s important to evaluate your child’s strengths, because you want to harness those strengths when playing with your child. Does she have a great imagination? Is he brave? Strong? Determined? Understanding your child’s strengths and putting them to work for you ensures that you’re not working harder than you have to. In addition to knowing your child’s strengths, it’s important to identify his triggers as well. Identifying your child’s triggers gives you a better understanding of the challenges your child faces, as well as gives you the opportunity to see how they could potentially pair together with his strengths.

It’s not enough to know your child’s strengths and triggers, you need to know your own as well. The variables that you bring to the table affect the relationship as well. First, be aware of how you tend to play. Do you tend to prefer neat ways of play in order to avoid the stress and tension of disorder? Perhaps you tend to structure your child’s play through suggestions? Maybe you tend to stay on the sidelines while your child is playing, such that interaction is limited? After identifying your tendencies, consider conducting an experiment by stepping outside of your typical role while engaging with your child in a different way (we’ll talk more about this next week). If you find that you’re resistant to changing your role, ask yourself, “what’s holding me back?”

In order to be fully attuned with your child, you need to make sure that your own needs are being met. You are responsible for meeting your child’s needs but you are also responsible for meeting your own. Self-care looks different for each person: some need alone time, some need social time; some need sleep and better meals; all need exercise. Identify your needs and work to fulfill them prescriptively. Parents whose own needs are met have more energy, patience, and love to give their children.

All parents have times when they experience emotional upset as a result of something that their child is doing. As a parent, it is critically important that you understand your own triggers, relating to both your child and otherwise. It is not uncommon for wounds from our own childhoods to surface as we face parenting challenges. Your ability to effectively manage these reactions will affect your relationship with your child. If you find yourself being triggered by your child’s actions such that old wounds are constantly coming up, seek the help of a therapist to work through these issues. Parenting from the Inside Out, by Daniel Siegel, is an excellent resource for these challenges.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Making Parenting WORK

by Alyssa Hasson, MAMFT

It’s no secret that discipline is on the minds of many parents. From the number of children who enter our practice due to behavior problems to the number of books and websites that abound on the topic, it’s clear that discipline is a common challenge for parents. This month we’re going to address discipline indirectly by talking about discipline’s partner: relationship. So whether you’re looking to better your relationship, decrease struggles, or simply have more fun with your child, this series is for you.

The Benefits of Using Play in Parenting
Parenting is a two-step. Essentially this means that parenting is comprised of two things that are different, yet intimately related. One is discipline. The other is relationship. In parenting, discipline and relationship go hand-in-hand; both must be present for an effective relationship. So if you find yourself constantly seeking tools to combat bad behavior, it’s important to take a step back and evaluate your relationship with your child. A strong relationship with your child will make discipline easier. Why is this so? Children who have strong relationships with their parents want to please them, and act (more often) accordingly. Here’s an example of how this works… Imagine for a moment that your spouse has a complaint to bring to your attention. Your ability to receive the complaint is affected by the current status of your relationship. If your relationship is in a state of stress and you haven’t spent much time together due to family, work, or other concerns, chances are you would be less likely to accommodate your spouse’s request willingly or perhaps even at all. But if your relationship is strong, you are more likely to want to please your spouse and accommodate the request. The state of the relationship is the key, and it’s important not only between spouses, but also between parents and children.

Incorporating play into your parenting is an excellent way to build relationship with your child. What makes play an effective relationship builder? First and foremost, play is a child’s natural language. When you incorporate play into your relationship with your child, you have the opportunity to connect on a different, deeper level because you’re speaking your child’s language. But there are other benefits to play as well. Play is a source of stress relief for children, and children who feel better behave better. Play is also the avenue through which children master skills, regulate emotions, and interact socially. Play is an essential part of childhood!

Using play in parenting requires some planning and forethought, but it doesn’t have to be complicated. The following five steps are designed to help you bring more play into your parenting. We’ll be focusing on one step each week.

5 Steps for Parenting with Play
  1.  Learn when it’s appropriate
  2. Prepare yourself
  3. Establish some routine
  4. Get some tools in your belt
  5. Reflect, reflect, reflect

Step 1: Learn when it’s Appropriate
When is it appropriate to use play in parenting?  Perhaps a more easily answered question is: When is it not appropriate to use play? Play should not be used in dangerous situations, such as if your child runs into the street or is playing with matches. Play should also not be used as the initial response to your child’s emotions, meaning if your child is upset, scared, etc, you shouldn’t use play as an attempt to talk him out of his feelings (in these situations, you should validate his feelings so he learns that his big feelings are natural and manageable).

Play is appropriate in many situations, and is great for 1) building relationship, 2) encouraging cooperation, 3) reconnecting when you’ve taken the low road in parenting (i.e. done something you didn’t want to do), and 4) helping your child when he is emotionally stuck. If you’ve made a low road parenting decision, make sure you authentically apologize to your child and listen to his thoughts about the situation before reconnecting through play. The same authenticity is necessary for helping a child who is emotionally stuck. When you have validated a child’s feelings several times and he cannot move past the emotion in a reasonable amount of time, play becomes an appropriate avenue to help your child move forward. This week, try to identify some situations in your parenting that you could change by adding play.