Accepting Our Child's Invitation to Play
Just as we have emotional wounds around identity, we can also carry wounds surrounding the freedom and vitality of play. Not necessarily that we got hurt during childhood play, but that we may, in our adult years, have come to associate it with early rejection, isolation, and the resultant fears of unworthiness, loss of love and belonging.
As parents, we may erect walls around play; measure and curb it; feel negative when our child wants us to "play with me, Mom!"
What is behind our feelings and reactions? Could it be that we might have... a fear of play?
If we explore this idea for a moment, we may discover something deeply poignant about our own unmet needs. We can determine whether our reaction to play is seeded in something painful by listening to how we respond to play. This response is transmitted in our words:
- "One more round and we're done."
- "Calm down or we'll have to stop."
- "We don't have time right now."
- "But we just played this game five times..."
- "I'm too tired to play now."
...and in our bodies. How does our child's request for another round of trains affect our internal system? Do we begin feeling tight in our chest? Do we develop a pit in our stomach anticipating his meltdown when we finally deem it time to stop? Do we become mentally foggy? Or feel compelled to reach for our phone, our quiet escape - like sitting in the aisle seat near the exit door?
Some questions to ponder:
- Can we define what it is that we feel we're trying to escape?
- What were our own play experiences of childhood like? How was our childhood spontaneity responded to by our parents and caregivers? Did we play alone? Was play a positive experience? Was play something we were asked to do when adults were preoccupied and busy or was it restricted, withheld as punishment?
- What do we associate with play in adulthood?
- Which of the following resonates with you when you feel "play anxiety" in the face of your child's requests or perceived demands for more play time (with you): a) anxiety due to a feeling of disinterest and "boredom" b) fear of not getting your own needs met c) fear of your child's anger if you set a limit of time or style of play d) fear of being consumed by your child's needs or of feeling vulnerable?
Would it surprise us to know that none of these fears and anxieties are truly about our child? And that our play anxiety is a signal of our own wounds around vitality, connection, trust and joy?
Reframing Demands as Invitations
I'd like to suggest that our child's apparently "unreasonable" request or demand for play is a sign of the imbalance in the relationship that is asking for restored equilibrium. We all get off kilter, personally and therefore interpersonally. Our innocent children are wise in their emotional radar of what feels "off" in themselves and in their parents. When a child angrily or desperately pushes for play, it is an urgent, messy signal in the same way a baby's pressing cry signals "something's not right." True, a baby's need to change a wet diaper is a clear sign and an easy need to decipher and fulfill. It's obvious. It's tangible. And it takes a couple of minutes.
So, what does time have to do with play? Many parents fear that play requires time, that it will usurp their time and put in motion a process that will have a messy, resistant conclusion. "If I play with him and let him really get into it, he won't ever stop or let me go."
This is not reality, but our negative fantasy of what will transpire. And we will often unknowingly bring this about in order to justify our belief. We defend our fears.
Can we defend our right to play too?
If we can acknowledge our fear, anxiety and anger around play, we can explore it with patience and curiosity. We may become aware of how these emotions can feel like an internal constriction for parents who suffered in their own childhood with too much external control from adults who put a lid on their emotions.
When our own joyful urges and experiences were suppressed or met with disdain or anxiety, we adapted by learning how to do the same to ourselves. As parents, our bodies, minds and implicit memories set the tone for play in the same way. We may not be conscious of our internal barometer for deeply connecting practices and processes... like play.
Most often, our child's "demand" for play is an invitation for healing. For him. For us. For the
Lu Hanessian is the author of Let the Baby Drive: Navigating the Road of New Motherhood and Picnic on a Cloud, an award-winning journalist, former NBC television anchor, national speaker, and founder of a unique online parent growth webinar series called Parent2Parent U. Her special areas of extensive study are the neurobiology of attachment and the ways that lost connection can be repaired in parent-child relationships to create optimal health and resilience. She is the grateful mother of two boys. Lu is also the founder of WYSH: Wear Your Spirit for Humanity. Visit her website at luhanessian.com.
Copyright 2009, Lu Hanessian. All rights reserved.