If you've ever found yourself sweating and on the brink of tears in the back of your car trying to shove your child as gently as possible into their car seat after 30 minutes of struggle and hysteria, you're not alone.
I've been there more times than I care to admit.
Then I read the book Playful Parenting by Lawrence Cohen. I tried a few of his suggestions. Within a few days, it got easier. He didn't struggle as much. It didn't take as long. I wasn't crying.
Cohen is both a play therapist and a dad. I appreciated his perspective as a professional mixed with his personal experiences at home with his own daughter.
Cohen explains that children often feel powerless. They're small people in a big world with little control over what happens. Any chance to be in control, cause a reaction, or test a limit, they will take.
(My note: The only things young children truly control are what they eat, and going to the bathroom. That's why avoiding power struggles in those areas is so important, because when it's a battle, no one wins.)
Children play not only to learn, but also to process what happens in their world. Make believe and fantasy play are extremely important because kids can act out various scenarios and learn empathy by being different characters.
Tantrums and Testing Limits
The transition to toddlerhood can be a challenge for both kids and parents. You've spent the last year or so responding to your child's needs to build a secure attachment and feeding on demand.
Suddenly you're both learning to navigate the difference between needs and wants which may not be as urgent, and the emotions that come with unfulfilled desires.
So. Many. Big. Feelings.
This is also when parents who have been very committed to gentle or attachment parenting can start to feel a bit lost. "Do I need to discipline my toddler for doing bad things? Am I being too lenient? Do I ignore the tantrum so I'm not rewarding the behavior?"
Often children act out as a bid for attention or due to an overload of emotions they can't process alone. When they feel frustrated, can't communicate, and don't have enough control, they melt down because they don't yet have the coping skills to handle it.
Playful Practices to Implement Today
There are two specific techniques suggested in the book, and one inspired by it, that have worked really well for us starting before the age of 2.
My husband was actually doing one of them with our son last night while I made dinner. The hysterical giggles coming from the living room were music to my ears.
There are two versions of these games: one for giving power, and one for testing strength. To give power, we let my son "push" us over. We invite him to try, and even if he barely touches us, we do our best stage fall.
"Ahh! You're so strong! You got me!" we call, limbs flailing as we hit the ground. Then we act like a turtle on its back so he has to "help" us get up. Then he does it again.
The win-win is that he feels in control. He feels strong. He's pushing over big people in positions of authority above him! Yet everyone is safe and he can't actually do any damage with this power.
The other version is testing strength. Make sure to gauge their reactions so you're not making it too hard, but make it hard enough to push you over that they really have to try. The benefit is that they feel strong because they ARE strong, but they can test that strength on you instead of another child.
Some people worry that encouraging kids to push you will lead them to push other kids by implying that it's OK. Cohen advises parents to "follow the giggles." Make sure kids know it's a game and that everyone is having fun. If at any point, either of you isn't having fun, it's time to stop.
In addition to strength, chasing lets kids test their speed. Same concept with two variations: ask if they want to chase you, or if you should chase them.
You can't possibly catch them - they're too fast, or you trip and fall. Alternately, sometimes they need you to challenge them a bit, but not so much that they feel like a failure.
If they want to chase you, same thing - trip and make it easy, or make them work for it a little based on what they need.
Hide and Seek
Playing hide-and-seek with our 3-year-old is another way we incorporate playfulness, and he loves being the director of this game. He hides and we "can't" find him (even when he tells us where he's going to hide, or is in plain sight).
Letting him outsmart us and spending focused time in his world goes miles towards his cooperation with everything from putting on shoes to going to bed.
When he declares it our turn to hide, he often instructs us where to go. We start out easy, then gradually increase the difficulty. If he gets frustrated, we know to back off.
Like I mentioned above, car seat struggles quickly became a thing of the past. I still have to enforce consistent limits. He still pushes boundaries. But those are our jobs.
And when I find myself in power struggles with my son, I make it a point to connect, to incorporate these activities, and buy into his world. Understanding why it happens help me empathize better when I start feeling frustrated. It makes life easier which is always a good thing.