How Playful Parenting Helps You Meet 4 Challenges With Your Kids

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Good Inside" by Becky Kennedy. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Do you play enough with your kids? Do you know how to use playful parenting as a tool?

Dr. Becky Kennedy suggests specific approaches for handling parenting challenges so that you can foster behavioral change without jeopardizing your connection to your child. She discusses four ways that playful parenting helps you deal with challenges.

Continue reading to understand how you can use playfulness strategically.

Playful Parenting

Kennedy encourages playful parenting—the use of play and silliness to help your child feel safe. Being playful and making her laugh lets her know that she’s safe and she can be herself around you.

(Shortform note: The authors of The Whole-Brain Child offer tips to tailor your use of playfulness to your child’s age and developmental maturity. For example, with a very young child (ages 0-3), you might join her on the ground to play with her toys, whereas, with an older child (ages 9-12), you might invite her to join you in activities such as sports or cooking.)

Challenge #1: Getting Your Child to Listen

Kennedy argues that if you believe your child doesn’t listen to you, the issue isn’t listening, but cooperating—in other words, your child isn’t complying with your requests. When your kid doesn’t cooperate, it’s likely because they’re feeling disconnected from you or because you’re asking them to do something they don’t want to do. The latter is the nature of parenting, but there are ways to make your requests less confrontational and more engaging. Yelling, for example, only makes your child less likely to cooperate because they’ll be in fight or flight mode.

To make your requests less confrontational, Kennedy recommends using the following tools: 1) validation, 2) connection, and 3) playfulness. Let’s look at how playful parenting, specifically, helps you meet this challenge.

Kennedy suggests sprinkling some silliness onto your asks, especially the less enticing ones. For example, close your eyes and say that if the task is done by the time you open them, you’ll run around the room in a victory lap.

(Shortform note: In The Whole-Brain Child, Siegel and Bryson explain another benefit of playfulness: It helps your child integrate with other people. Showing your child how fun and rewarding it is to be in a relationship with you—her first and primary relationship—will encourage her to build healthy relationships with other people, as well.

Challenge #2: Dealing With Fearful, Anxious, & Crying Kids

Fears, anxiety, and crying—even “fake” crying—are expressions of vulnerability. Kennedy explains that when children perceive a threat, their bodies feel fear or anxiety. When they feel sadness, they cry. When they feel disconnected from their caregivers, they pretend-cry to secure that connection.

Kennedy argues that parents often shut down these expressions of vulnerability because they trigger uncomfortable feelings related to their own vulnerability. You might try to convince your child to stop being sad, anxious, or afraid, or even shame her for feeling that way. But this teaches her that these feelings are wrong and to be avoided, which leaves her unprepared for real life. Instead, support her through those feelings so she develops the tools to work through them in the future.

To help your child learn to work through her vulnerable feelings, Kennedy suggests the following tools: 1) confidence-building, 2) validation and empathy, and 3) playfulness. Let’s look at how playful parenting, specifically, helps you meet this challenge.

Take advantage of your child’s favorite stories and characters to start conversations about emotions. For example, Kennedy recommends pointing out when fictional characters cry and talking about how they must be feeling, or role-playing challenging situations using your child’s stuffed animals.

(Shortform note: The authors of The Whole-Brain Child say that besides helping your kid deal with her own emotions, thinking about how others feel helps develop empathy and compassion.)

Challenge #3: Soothing Separation Anxiety & Bedtime Struggles

As we’ve seen, children are evolutionarily wired to attach to their parents because this ensures their survival. Separation anxiety—which manifests as crying, tantrumming, and other behaviors that happen when you say goodbye to your child—is a result of this wiring. Kennedy explains that when you separate from her, she’ll need to retain the sense of safety your presence gives her without having you with her. At bedtime, separation anxiety is compounded by the fact that your child needs to feel safe to fall asleep.

To deal with separation anxiety, Kennedy suggests using these three tools: 1) connection, 2) confidence-building, and 3) playfulness. Let’s look at how playful parenting, specifically, helps you meet this challenge.

Kennedy suggests that before you separate, you hug your child tight and playfully “check” her to see if her tank’s topped up with enough parental love. Hug her several times until she’s all “topped up” and then give her an extra hug so she has “extra” parental love to tide her over until your next moment together.

(Shortform note: Besides playfulness, Kennedy’s “top-up” game uses the power of touch. In No-Drama Discipline, the authors explain that positive touch releases stress-relieving hormones in the brain, which help children (and adults) calm down.)

Challenge #4: Raising Deeply Feeling Kids

Kennedy warns that some kids—those she calls “deeply feeling” kids—might not respond well to her strategies. Some kids feel their emotions more intensely than others, and as a result have more intense reactions: their tantrums, for example, are more frequent, challenging, and easier to spark than other children’s. This is compounded by the fact that these children also notice the comparative intensity of their feelings and reactions, and they fear that they’re unloveable and that their parents won’t be able to deal with them. This fills them with shame and fear, which only serves to make their reactions harsher and make it harder for parents to find ways to approach them.

Kennedy suggests using the tools of boundaries and playfulness to deal with a child who has very intense emotions and reactions. Let’s look at how playful parenting, specifically, helps you meet this challenge.

Get creative to explore your child’s feelings. Kennedy explains that children with intense emotions easily fall into shame when discussing their feelings because they get overwhelmed by the intensity and by the intrusion of others into their inner world. Instead of trying to get her to talk about her feelings, tell your child that she can close her eyes and even hide while you ask questions. She just needs to show you a thumbs up or down to let you know what her answers are. This will help your child slowly feel more comfortable expressing her feelings.

How Playful Parenting Helps You Meet 4 Challenges With Your Kids

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Becky Kennedy's "Good Inside" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Good Inside summary:

  • A parenting manual to help you build a positive relationship with your child
  • Why time-outs, rewards, and serious conversations don't "fix" kids
  • Strategies to deal with ten common parenting challenges

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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