Have you ever watched your child’s play and felt seriously alarmed. Wondered why in the world your child would act out certain things?
Children’s play can sometimes be aggressive and disturbing – but unlock the doors and relax that worried face. Child’s fears are often expressed through playing.
In fact, it is more natural for young children to play through their fears than talk them out.
If you have a fearful child hold on tight – because your child might have some interesting play.
Young children have the amazing ability to immerse themselves into a fantasy world. A skill we sadly lose as we get older. This fantasy world often incorporates fears children are trying to work through.
It is important to note – not all children have significant play themes when they are playing. Sometimes play is just play.
Also –I would caution reading into your child’s play. I was recently disturbed when I saw my four year old throwing her baby doll repeatedly all over the house.
Before I shipped her off for some serious therapy I asked her why she was hurting her baby. Her response, “This isn’t my baby. This is a bad guy mom!”
I cancelled my appointment…for now.
So how does this disturbing play help your child’s fears? Let’s take a look:
HELPS THEM EXPRESS THEIR FEARS
When a child’s fears become overwhelming they often turn to play to work things out. Children may not have the words to express their fears, but they have the play skills to act them out.
Play is a perfect place to work out what is going on in their little minds. It can also give parents a window into their child’s fears.
Try to not interrupt your child’s play, but observe their themes. When they are done playing – ask open-ended questions like, “Who were you hiding from?” or “What was the dragon going to do to you?”
These open-ended questions will help facilitate a conversation and will give you extra insight into your child’s fears. If you ask questions while your child is playing you take the risk of altering or ending their play.
LETS THEM VENT KID-STYLE
As adults when we have fears –we might tell our partner or our best friends. Some of us feel relief just by venting our stress.
Young children are less likely to do this. They get relief by acting their problems out. I call this venting kids-style.
Kids will re-enact certain themes over and over again. This may be an indication that they are working on a problem in their play. Once a child has worked through a particular issue, you may not see them playing out that particular theme anymore.
BUILDS THEIR EMPOWERMENT
Many children will act out their fears – but when children move into beating their fears that is empowerment play.
Empowerment play is the best type of play because the child is working through their fears – not just processing it.
There are two ways children act out empowerment play. They are either the source of the fear – such as:
They are the bad guy
They are the dinosaur
They are the monster
They are the zombie
Or they play the role of the hero by taking down the fear by being things like a:
Police, firefighter or soldier
Either type of play can create empowerment. This can be disturbing for parents who see their child choose to be a bad guy rather than a superhero. But, some children might be too frightened to be at the receiving end of the fear and therefore choose to be the source of the fear itself.
DEVELOPS PROBLEM-SOLVING SKILLS
You and I might figure out how to handle our fears by asking the advice of our loved ones, but young children rarely ask for help.
Children will problem-solve through their play. They play out various scenarios and develop a fantasy world filled with solutions to address their fears.
These solutions may be very unrealistic and fantasy-based – but that is okay. Often young children have fears that blur fantasy and reality – so their solutions do not have to be reality-based either.
How to tell when your child’s play is stuck.
Some children’s fears are so overwhelming that even in play they are not able to face and/or overcome their fears. Here are some indications that your child’s play might be stuck:
They play out the same identical theme over and over again with no change.
Their play typically ends with them losing or being hurt.
They always play the losing character (regardless of whether the character is good or bad).
In a perfect world it is ideal to let your child play and work through their own issues without intervening. If you choose to enter into your child’s fantasy play – it is advisable to play a supportive role – and let your child lead the play.
However, sometimes kids get stuck. They are trying to work through their fears, but the play is unproductive. At this point – you might want to move into directive play. Let’s take a look at what that entails.
HELPING YOUR CHILD WITH DIRECTIVE PLAY
When your child is stuck in a rut you can introduce a way out. Enter your child’s play and help them develop a solution to the fear they are acting out.
Here are some examples:
If your child is continually getting eaten or killed by bad guy/monster:
You suggest superpowers the child can utilize (e.g. Invisibility cape, ability to fly etc.).
Your child is afraid to go potty and they repeatedly act out their baby doll refusing to go potty.
You suggest that your child become the baby doll’s mom and you take on the role as the baby doll. Your child is now in a position to encourage the baby to go potty, while you act out the doll’s fears. The child is more likely to develop solutions for their fears when they play the role of the parent.
Imaginary play is not only fun for children, but as we discussed, it is therapeutic as well.
Stock up your house with dress up clothes and imaginary play props to help encourage and facilitate play. Young children usually have great imaginations and can make a dinosaur costume out of a green shirt, but the more inspiration they are given – the richer their play will become.
If you are concerned with the intensity of your child’s fears seek out the help of a child therapist. There are play therapists that can help guide your child’s play and can give you the tools to help empower your child at home.
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