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Play is the Antidote to Fear: How To Help Your Children Deal With Self-Isolation
Self-Isolation Children
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Play is the Antidote to Fear: How To Help Your Children Deal With Self-Isolation

Self-isolation has drastically changed our routines, especially for those who have children. While they may not be entirely aware of the reasons behind the pandemic, they can still feel the stress that this lockdown can incur. And the best solution is very simple: let them play.

The virus game

For the last couple weeks, the most popular game in our home has been something our kids call “the virus game.” In this game, our kids, five and eight, make me an incompetent, bumbling virus who’s on a seek-and-destroy mission to catch them. 

Only, I’m never quite able to accomplish my diabolical objective because they are constantly outrunning and outwitting me.  I chase after them, bearing down on them while they giggle and laugh until, at the last possible second, time and again, they make a daring last-second get-away.  

Most of the time, they also wind up blindfolding me so as I’m pursuing them I’m also stumbling over laundry baskets, bumping into walls, walking into doors and sometimes falling on the floor like a klutz, howling in exaggerated pain while they laugh and giggle. 

Sometimes, when I finally do manage to nab one of them, I cackle like a triumphant super-villain, until I suddenly realize that what I have in my hands is not a child but a teddy-bear or a pillow.  As I shake my fist, cursing them for fooling me once again, they laugh and snicker and snort.  

Other times, I do catch them but they freeze in my arms, bamboozling me into believing they’re teddy bears, so I foolishly let them go and they scamper off giggling at the dumb virus. Indignant, I bolt after them, but because I can’t see, I accidentally run head-long into the closet or the bathroom and they, of course, promptly slam the door behind me. 

I feign fear of the dark, begging and pleading to be let out, but they usually show me no mercy. While I try desperately to escape, bonking head-first into the door over and over again, they howl with laughter outside. Then, clumsy and inept germ that I am, I usually wind up infecting myself somehow and die alone in the closet. 

In this way, our kids seem to gain a sense of power and control over the scariest thing in their world right now.  

Play is the most powerful antidote to fear

Play is the universal language of childhood. It’s spoken in every country of the world. It’s how kids communicate. Asking them to stop playing is like asking an adult to stop talking on the phone or drinking coffee. 

It’s also one of the very best tools we parents have at our disposal to improve cooperation, boost confidence, relieve boredom, soothe sibling rivalries, and provide an outlet for their aggression. Like wipes or a trusty old Swiss Army Knife, it always comes in handy, but it’s especially helpful and important in times of crisis when stress starts to mount in the family or society.  

As Lawrence Cohen explains in his wonderful book Playful Parenting, “Play is where children show us the inner feelings and experiences that they can’t or won’t talk about.” 

How many kids do you know who are sitting down at the dinner table these days and saying, “Mom… dad… I’m really worried about this whole COVID-19 situation. Can we talk about it?”  Probably not too many.  Instead, most kids I know whine, lash out, mope, hang their heads, or just say, “Wanna play?”  

Play is how kids recover from the considerable stresses and strains of their pint-sized lives. When tensions run high, it functions like a pressure-release valve. It lets them discharge fear, lower stored tensions, offload whatever feelings they’ve tucked away, scrub out stress, and shed old hurts. Parenting expert Patty Wipfler puts it better than anyone when she says, “The most powerful antidote to fear is play.” 

Desperate times call for playful measures

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Most of us parents already play with our kids. We horse around with them, roughhouse, act like goofballs, make silly jokes, give them the gears. This is all great stuff. But desperate times call for more playful measures.

In times like these, the play that offers our kids the greatest outlet for their tensions and fears is the kind where they can invent precisely the types of games that will let them work on whatever it is they most need to work on. In the Hand-In-Hand parenting model this particular kind of play is called “Special Time.”

Special Time is as simple as it is effective. You just set aside some time to play whatever your kid(s) want to play and then you give them warm, high-quality attention while they take the lead and you act a fool, looking for the slightest opportunity to make them giggle or laugh.  

It helps to kick off a session of special time by naming it, saying something like, “Okay, it’s special time.  We can play anything you want, as long as it’s safe.” Then you set a timer, starting out with as little as 5-10 minutes a pop a few times a week, and let them take charge and just see where it takes you. 

While you’re playing whatever they want, you just delight in them, offering them extra warmth, extra eye contact, and showing extra interest in their choices. You don't offer advice, try to teach them, or modify their ideas. You just do what they want while remaining on the look-out for opportunities to make them bust a gut. 

Why?  Because giggling and laughing are two of the main ways kids (and adults!) release their lighter tensions. This is why Patty Wipfler calls “play-with-laughter” the “frosting on the cake of play.”  It’s also why she recently emphasized, “You want lots of frosting in times like this.”  

How to make kids crack up

One of the best ways to tickle a kid’s funny bone is not by tickling but by giving them the upper hand and letting them play the more powerful role while you act like a bumbling, inept klutz who gets everything wrong and loses every time. 

Think of the characters who have been making kids of all ages laugh their heads off since celluloid was first invented:  bumbling Charlie Chaplin, clueless Costello, insufferable Sylvester the Puddy-Cat, hair-brained Wile E. Coyote, clumsy Kung-Fu Panda, inept Mr. Bean, bumbling Bernard, the incompetent burglars in Home Alone, any garden-variety birthday clown.

Nothing gets a good chuckle out of a kid like giving them the power-position and letting them watch while the adults around them fumble and fail. It only makes sense.  After being told to keep quiet, sit still and follow the rules all day, they need a bit of relief from being bossed around and made to feel smaller, weaker and less competent than grown-ups. 

Here’s a classic example of how and why it works.  A four year-old comes home from getting a shot at the doctor’s office, and what does she want to play? Doctor, of course. And who does she want to be in this game?  Not the patient, that’s for sure. She wants to be whoever gives the dang shot. 

And who’s she going to give it to? You, of course: her mom or dad or caregiver. In a pinch, she’ll take a toy or a stuffy. How does she want you to react when you get your shot, over and over again? She wants to hear you plead and yelp: “Noooo! Please don’t give me a shot.  I hate shots. Ouch! Ow! Ouch! Ow!”  

It’s a simple game of role reversal – the one who got the shot is now giving the shot – but it does the trick. Your fear lets her be in the more powerful position and recover from her shot because she gets to see you as helpless, while she is in the position of power. 

(For an amazing grab-bag of other ideas to kick-start your play, check out The Art of Roughhousing by Anthony DeBenedet and Lawrence J. Cohen.  For a more thorough break-down of how and why to do Special Time, see Patty Wipfler and Tosha Schore’s fabulous book Listen.  For direct instruction on Special Time from a living master of the art, contact Isaac Romano.)

Fill up your cup, somewhat

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But wait. I know what you’re probably thinking. In addition to providing the kids a good-enough balance of structure, stimulation and connection, in the midst of all this fear and boredom and uncertainty, while trying to hold down a job, play teacher and keep the house in some semblance of order, this jerk is suggesting, to top it all off, that I play more with my kid(s)?  

Yup. That’s exactly what I’m saying. But not until you fill up your cup, somewhat. In other words, to give your kids the kind of warm, relaxed presence they need from you, you need to be as grounded and resourced as possible, under the circumstances. 

A “Listening Partnership” is probably the best tool available to help you replenish your energy for parenting, but it’s also worth bearing in mind what Lawrence Cohen points out: “When we are exhausted, or when we are at the end of our rope, we tend to think that play will just be an energy drain.But when we engage playfully with our children, we find we have more energy, both for fun and for finding creative solutions to thorny problems.” 

Nor can it hurt to know that after Patty Wipfler repeats that “the most powerful antidote to fear is play” she almost always adds, “It’s true for your child. It’s true for you.”

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