By Britni Joubert, MS, LPC | In-Home Family Therapist | The Village Family Service Center
Have you seen your child incorporate masks or themes of loneliness or germs into their play recently? Are they experiencing an increase in tantrums or whining behaviors? Do you notice other changes in how they play? Parents may think that, due to their child’s young age, the COVID-19 pandemic is not affecting them, but children are extremely receptive to their parents' stress as well as changes within their home or routine. Many children are at home instead of at daycare. Parents may be working from home, and older siblings may be around the house more instead of at school or other activities.
Young children may not be able to express through words how they are feeling, but they can express themselves through play. The best way to think about it is that play is the child’s language and the toys are the words.
So how should you respond as a parent if pandemic play themes are occurring? Your response is important as your child may be attempting to process feelings or is looking for reassurance from you.
There are several tools you can use to assist your child in “playing out” their emotions and experiences:
Imitate your child’s play. This allows them to feel connected to you and promotes cooperation in play.
- Example: If your child is playing in the dollhouse, you play in the dollhouse.
- Example: If your child is building a tower, you build the tower.
Allow your child to have control of the play. Young children have limited control in their daily lives. Play is one aspect where it appropriate for them to have control.
Avoid questions or commands during play. Questions such as “Why are you putting that mask on your doll’s face?” or “What are you going to do next?” increase anxiety in children and take away from the play experience.
Describe what they are doing. This technique can help to slow down an active child and help to maintain their focus on the play.
- Example: “You are putting a mask on your doll.”
- Example: “You are sharing your animals with me.”
Reflect what your child is saying. This allows for the child to lead the conversation and shows them that you understand them.
- Example: If your child says, “The dinosaur is mad because he can’t go to the pool,” you would say, “He is mad because he can’t go to the pool.”
Label feelings during play. This is a great way to normalize emotions! You can do this for the child or within the play.
- Example: “Oh, I can see that the dinosaur feels sad when he can’t see his friends.”
Lastly, it is important to incorporate praise and enthusiasm when playing with your child. While this may be difficult if you are feeling drained as a parent, try to remember that play is so much more than play. It helps your child feel seen, reassured, and can assist them in learning and processing.
Remember that playing about these topics is normal and OK. Keep doing the best you can.
Play skills for parents from www.pcit.org.
Britni Joubert is an In-Home Family Therapist with The Village Family Service Center's Moorhead office. She received her Bachelor of Arts in Psychology from Minnesota State University Moorhead in 2018 and continued her education as a Dragon to receive a Master of Science in Clinical Mental Health Counseling in 2020. She works from a strength-based approach and strives to create a sense of belonging and empowerment within each person she works with. In her free time, she enjoys hiking, reading, yoga, and spending time with my family and dogs.