What to do when play gets scary!
In honour of Halloween, I thought I'd touch on that common occurrence of when play goes a little...well...dark!
I suspect most parents have been in the situation when they're playing seemingly "nicely" with their child and then bam, "Barney's head gets sliced off and rolls into a massive bone crunching machine"! This is then often followed by a sinister little laugh. Creepy!
Perhaps you said "are you sure that's what happens next?" Or maybe you tried to rescue the grim tale "but then McQueen comes and blocks the blade and they all talk it out before becoming best friends,right?" Maybe you said nothing and just let your mouth hang open as you slowly edge away in a mild panic that your son is going to turn into some sort of psychopath!
The good news is that your child is very unlikely to be a psychopath! Despite common belief, play is not all about fun and messing around. Play is children's key language to explore their emotions.
A big big emotion is fear.
Fear is big. Fear is scary and fear is at its most intense when kept in the dark. Don't get me wrong, Fear is a great emotion too. It helps us stay alive and keep safe. Like anything though, too much can be a bad thing. As animals we like to avoid pain and fear. But as human souls, great personal growth and learning comes from braving our fears. As they say "fortune favours the brave".
And then there’s Anger.
They may also be trying to express anger. Anger in children is generally not well received or accepted by adults. We often don't like anger in ourselves. One of the most misunderstood emotions (and my favourite character on inside out!). I may do a post about the virtues of anger another time. But in short, using different characters and actions in play is a safe (and more socially acceptable way) to express pent up frustration and tension. Children may also be exploring anger that they see in others around them and trying to make sense of it.
The need for feeling in control.
Think about it. Most of children's daily lives is out of their control. Depending on age, they don't control their time, their meals, and because they are still growing they often don't fully control their bodies & coordination. Violence and force in play is a way of acting out feelings of control in their mini world. They may finally feel a sense of satisfaction and mastery after a frustrating day of not getting what they want and struggling in their maths lesson.
Hopefully this helps shed a little light on why they may be playing that way and takes the edge off! Now what should you be doing?
What to do when things get a little gory.
1. State your empathy.
"Wow, dinosaur must be really angry" "The soldier must feel scared, that seems very frightening."
What you're doing is helping narrate the story for the child and helping them label and identify feelings. Sometimes naming the emotion can tame the impact. It's better to know what you're dealing with. It allows the child to feel understood, and a bit more in the drivers seat. You're also implicitly saying "these strong emotions don't just happen to you inside your body. You are not alone."
2. Be gently curious & open
"I wonder what happened to make dinosaur so very angry." Notice this is not a question! This kind of statement shows a willingness to learn about the situation. You're not passing judgment but are showing you want to understand your child and their world.
You may be surprised at what your child will share with you using these two techniques. Your acceptance of their fears and willingness to be with them in their fears will be like balm to their souls. So often children are told not to be scared and not to be silly. This sends the message that their feeling of fear is not valid and they are alone. When you're scared do you want to be left on your own? Or do you want someone to be there with you? Having someone with you until you find your own way out of danger really is a blessing.
3. Be with them for the ride.
Whether they explain or resolve what's being played out. Be with them for the ride. Follow their lead and trust that they can process their strong emotions in their own timing that is a perfect pace for them. Shine your unconditional positive regard and believe the best in them.
Happy Halloween x
Help other parents not feel alone in seeing some scary play! Tell me what kind of play scares you? What emotion do you think your child is expressing? What are they telling you about their world? (Or their perception of their world).
Did you try any of the tips in this post? How did your child respond? I'm happy to answer questions in the comments below!