Play More, Plan Less
By Dr Sarah Ford
The parents of an eight-year-old girl I recently assessed were shocked when another therapist recommended a daily dose of 30 minutes play with their daughter to help her resolve emotional problems. They wondered aloud about where they would possibly find the time between work, sport, activities, and running the household.
Many families I see, and read or hear about, report a daily battle against time to fulfill their parenting role. Life feels like a series of rushing from one thing to the next, ticking the boxes along the way and collapsing into bed to do it all over again tomorrow. As adults, it is easy to forget what this might feel like for a child: Stressful, pressured, and lacking space to emotionally connect and unwind.
For parents, the societal pressure to “achieve” in all areas, including parenting, comes from the media, family members, and other parents, and is perhaps a broader reflection of our increasingly consumerist culture. The result is over-stretched parents who lack the time to reflect on what kind of parent they want to be and, in turn, what kind of child they want to bring up.
To thrive emotionally, children need a parent’s love, care and time more than anything else. So much of parenting seems to be about doing things for and to children, rather than meeting their deeper needs, which are to listen to, and simply be with them, at their level. Decades of research on attachment – the bonds developed between a caregiver and child – show the importance of this relationship in creating healthy, well-adjusted children.
Slowing life down and taking more time to be emotionally present for a child can be challenging, but the long term rewards of a deeper connection are worth it. Some ways to get started include:
Prioritise: If you feel like there is no time for relaxing and playing with your child, stop and ask yourself honestly why. For example, does your child really need to do gym class this term, or is it because you feel that others will judge you if you take a break? Try reviewing what tasks/activities you can lessen, delay or stop in order to spend more time together. Even 20 minutes per day of undivided attention makes a difference. You may have already noticed in younger children that a block of your undivided attention often satisfies them enough to happily play alone for a considerable time after.
Be playful: Play is a wonderful way to strengthen your connection with your child. Parents often resist playing for reasons such as finding it boring, or growing up with parents who did not play with them. In his book Playful Parenting, North American clinical psychologist Dr Lawrence Cohen writes about the multiple benefits of play, including allowing parents to enter their child’s world, deepening emotional bonds, building confidence and processing feelings, to name a few.
Cohen sympathises that playing may be the last thing you feel like after a tiring day of work, but an energetic session of rolling around playing rough, exploring imaginary worlds, and infectious laughter can be surprisingly invigorating. When children play, they are fully engaged in the present moment and so entering their world is an opportunity to re-experience the natural mindfulness that slips away with age.
Tend to your own needs too: When you feel overstretched, overwhelmed or over-scheduled, you may be suffering from Sacrificing Yourself on the Altar of Parenthood (aka SAP disorder) according to Dr Laura Markham, a North American clinical psychologist and author of parenting book Peaceful Parents: Happy Kids. She suggests that finding ways to nurture yourself is fundamental because if your tank is empty, then giving to your child can be exhausting, frustrating and full of resentment.
Trying to change the way you parent is hard, takes time and many mistakes will be made along the way. But by beginning with small steps endowed with patience, self-compassion and determination, you can strengthen your connection with your child and help them shine their unique light on the world.
More information can be found at:
Dr Laura Markham’s website ahaparenting.com
Dr Lawrence Cohen’s website playfulparenting.com