How to Deal with an Overly Emotional Child Using Play

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Playing your child is the best thing a parent can do when dealing with an overly emotional child. Here are tips from a positive parent educator and coach on how you can help your child with big emotions.

Play with Child Tickle

Does this sound familiar?

It’s morning, and you are trying to get your child ready for a doctor’s appointment. You ask your child to get dressed and put shoes on, only to get a loud “NO!” in response.

Your heart starts racing, you know you’re about to lose it. “Get over here and get your shoes on now!” And of course, your child shouts back, “NO!”

We’ve all been there. You end up screaming, you’re angry, your child is crying and the whole situation is getting out of control. It’s extremely annoying and frustrating! After things finally calm down, now you have to deal with the mom guilt. If only they would just listen to you, things would go a lot smoother and no one would start crying and screaming.

The joys of parenting am I right?

As a Positive Parent Educator and Coach, I would love to tell you how you can use play in any situation with your child – whether they aren’t listening or they are hitting or being mean to you or a sibling. Play also works with teens who seem to be distant and don’t want anything to do with you.

Also, you can use play to simply connect with your child. I know I can hear the dread right now, “ugh, I don’t want to play with them. I can only play with cars and dolls so many times.”  Believe me, I hear you, but there is a way to make play enjoyable for both you and your child.

How to Use Play Instead of Getting Angry

In the scenario above, playing with your child is probably the last thing on your mind when you are trying not to pull your hair out. After all, you’re trying to leave the house you don’t have time to play. 

Hear me out. To get a child to cooperate, we first need to connect. If we just scream trying to get them to do what we want them to, it’s just going to cause more chaos, frustration, and anger. 

Maybe you struggle with getting your child to brush their teeth? Turn that into a fun game. One mom told me she would pretend to brush her child’s body parts like her arms or nose acting like she didn’t know how to brush her child’s teeth. This would get her daughter cracking up, and finally, she would say, “no, mommy my teeth are right here!” 

With my boys, I pretend that the toothbrush is a laser and the laser is killing all the “bugs” in their mouths. Sometimes there is an explosion because there are so many of them in there! As I move through their mouths, I act like the bugs are running and hiding and say “you can run but you can’t hide.” They LOVE this, they crack up every time.

My older son, 7 years old, and I give him the option of me brushing his teeth for him or him brushing his own teeth. That way he feels in control. If he brushes his teeth by himself, I’ll count to 10 for each section of his mouth. It works great!

If you want your kids to hurry up and get out the door, pretend you are under attack by aliens. Pretend the car is a spaceship and it’s going to take off without them if they don’t get in quickly. After they run into the car, make a big deal about “blasting off” and leaving the aliens behind.

Next time you ask them to do a chore and they refuse, you can make it fun by singing in an opera voice or talking in a weird accent. Or if everyone is quiet you can just break out into a goofy dance, get everyone laughing, and in a better more positive mood. 

Play with Child Eating

Playing with your child is a fun way to get creative, spontaneous, and lighten the mood and tension. They will laugh and they will think, “mom is being really silly right now, this is fun.” And they will completely forget why they didn’t want to go in the first place, or possibly a need was just met and they are more willing to comply. 

Play is the most powerful tool for connection. 

Whenever there’s tension, whether it’s bath time or time to clean the house, do something funny. It will lighten how you are feeling and how they are feeling, and bring that connection and peacefulness back into the moment. 

They will see that mom (or dad) still loves them even when they were having their big emotional moments. 

Without tension, without triggers, without judgment about what your child is or is not doing, go connect with them. Enter their world on their terms. This may be the hardest thing to do and the last thing you want to do. But, once you connect before cooperation you will find that you do have time and energy to play and have fun with your child. All of that energy that would otherwise be going towards getting angry, will now go towards connection with your child. 

It doesn’t have to be extravagant, it can be 1 minute, 3 minutes, or even 5 minutes.

Play with your child instead of getting upset. You’re trying to get your child to put on their pajamas and they just start being silly and running around and not listening to you at all. It’s easy to get frustrated then start yelling, “we are not playing, we need to get dressed and get to bed!”

Instead, noting that your child isn’t in an emotionally upset state right now, just in a playful state, get into their world and play along. Have a contest to see who can get dressed first and pretend you put your pants on your head by accident. Or get dressed in the bathtub… what? Mommy has gone crazy! That is something new, out of the ordinary, fun, and silly. A pattern interrupt. They are caught off guard not expecting the silliness.

What if My Emotional Child is Being Aggressive when Playing?

If a child is often frustrated or isn’t able to use play to explore their world, they often resort to an isolation tower of powerlessness. Sometimes they can seem to not be able to play freely or on the other spectrum, just bouncing off the walls and being aggressive, but really underneath they are feeling powerless. 

Being a playful parent and playfully engaging helps build children’s confidence so they can come out of their “tower.” 

If something exciting or traumatic happened to them, they often need to let those emotions and feelings out. Oftentimes they resort to playing. They use play to make sense of life, what happened to them and express themselves.

Has your child ever gotten a shot at the doctor’s office or gone to the dentist to fix a cavity, then when you get home they practice being a doctor or dentist? But, instead of them playing the patient, they want to be the doctor and have you or a sibling pretend to be the patient. They are replaying this not only just to have fun, but there is an intention behind it. It’s to let the scary feelings out usually through giggling. They are recovering from it but through play. 

Play with Child Pretend Doctor

When children aren’t able to recover emotionally through play or get shut down because we don’t have time to pretend to be the doctor when they are really needing us to be, they tend to resort to physical means. They may search for a more aggressive way to deal with their emotions, like finding a needle-like object and hurting a sibling or you with it. They are locked in the “powerlessness tower” not being able to release their emotions in a playful way. 

If children are unable to recover in a playful way, they will become flooded with emotions (which often is what tantrums result from). They can tend to lash out, shut down, shut their feelings out, or stay in their room all the time. Sometimes they may be sitting in their room quietly and we might think that they are being “good,” but in reality they may be needing to let their feelings out and needing to play.

Aggression in play isn’t always a result of something traumatic or not being able to recover through play. Sometimes it’s just their nature. They are needing some kind of outlet for all their energy. Aggression isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but we need to be cautious so no one gets hurt. Sometimes kids, especially my boys, like to wrestle, jump, and climb on things. Playing roughly is their way of getting their aggression out and not out on each other.

It can be hard when you’re tired and have things to do, but after getting a little play in, everyone feels better. After playing with your kids, you can get back to what you need to do. Surprisingly, you will notice your kids will leave you alone because you just played with them. Plus, you are in a better mood while getting these dreading chores done. 

Play is a way for your children to process their day, whether it’s what they’ve learned, what happened to them, good or bad, or just a way to let their emotions out, feel in control, powerful and confident.

Use Play to Get into Your Child’s World

From the day your baby is born, playing with your child strengthens your connection with him or her. It’s a way your child builds trust in you, feels safe and secure, and grows his or her love for you. 

Play should continue throughout their whole lives. Can you imagine a world where everyone, including adults, played more? Everyone just let their hair down and be silly? It would be such a brighter place.

We can bring that into our homes and make our homes a happy place, somewhere that kids can be kids and the adults are right there having fun being completely silly with them.

When we can’t seem to understand our kids, especially when they are cranky, yelling, and hitting, it can be frustrating and worrisome. Worst of all, we feel helpless. All we want to do is hold them, make them feel better, and try to figure out how we can help them. 

Being a playful parent is the answer. 

When toddlers are having their big emotions “misbehaving” and throwing tantrums in the store or at home, we can either yell at them, tell them to stop, and make the situation worse by letting our anger explode. Or… we can join them in their world! 

Play with Child Stick Tongue Out

This takes major practice, and it isn’t always easy. Just like any new skill, it takes time to learn and master. Oftentimes when we get in our moods, our logical, problem-solving part of the brain seems to shut off, just like a toddler’s brain. But, the thing about their brain is that their logical part of the brain isn’t yet developed. They live mostly in the emotional part of their brain, which explains why they can’t process the logic behind why they can’t do something. 

What they do understand is play. We can take this situation and use this time as an opportunity to connect with them. Get into what interests them, get on the floor and get into their world, let them guide the play, and go along for the ride. This builds confidence, a sense of control, imagination, and most importantly, connection.

Playing with your child works with any age. Contrary to what you might believe, it also works with preteens and teenagers, even though they seem to never want anything to do with their parents. To understand your child, make them feel like they are included and not an outcast (because this time in their life they tend to feel that way), and you can get into their world with play.

If they like to play video games, play with them. You can text back and forth and have fun inside jokes with them. Make fun videos with them that they can put on social media (they will be so proud to have a “cool” parent). Even if you don’t completely understand their world, this is a great way to connect with and understand your child. This creates an amazing trust and bond between you and your teen. They will feel understood and accepted, they will be more willing to open up to you and share with you what is bothering them.

In the difficult moments, here are some questions you can ask yourself:

  1. How can I connect with my child at this moment?
  2. How can I join my child where she is living right now on her terms?
  3. How can I get creative within myself in order to connect with my child?

Remember, establish a connection first, then work on cooperation. If your child isn’t cooperating, then you’re not connecting.

No book ever said that when we are adults we can’t have fun anymore. We should find a healthy balance between being serious and responsible and being playful. 

Benefits of Play

Here are the benefits of play:

  1. Play releases stress by releasing endorphins and temporarily relieves pain.
  2. Play improves brain function.
  3. Play stimulates the mind and improves creativity in both adults and kids. It helps us adapt and problem-solve and improves our memory.
  4. Play improves relationships and connections to others. 
  5. Play keeps you feeling young and energetic.

Playing lightens our hearts, our moods, and our minds. We might feel tired, annoyed, and really dreading to play. Once we actually do it, everyone feels much happier and has positive energy in our body.

So the next time your child is having a big emotional moment or wants to play and all you want to do is sit and do nothing, take this moment to connect with them for 5, 10, 15 minutes – whatever it takes for them to feel satisfied. 

Play isn’t just about being fun, but it’s about being able to connect with your child. This is where they express their feelings, open up to us, and let us know what they are feeling and thinking. If we keep brushing them off, we could be losing out on so much more than fun. 

How can you play with your child today?

Maria Bio Picture

Hi, I’m Maria. I am a certified Positive Parent Educator and Coach and certified Mindfulness and Meditation Coach. I have 4 young boys who keep me on my toes. I know what it’s like to struggle and balance life as a mom. That is why I love to help parents peacefully navigate through all the hardships of parenting. You can find me over at Every Day Mom Squad where you can schedule a call to see if Positive Parent Coaching could be a good fit for you and your family. 

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